What Do We Do With Azealia Banks? Some Thoughts On 'Slay-Z'

"May the bridges we burn light the way."

By Eric Shorey

Yesterday, Azealia Banks dropped a mixtape she had hinted at for months. Slay-Z features two previously released tracks alongside 6 other new songs. With Banks herself continuing to be a divisive cultural figure in both the mainstream and the underground, reviews of the new songs are sure to be polarized. How does one even think about the work of someone so easy to deplore?

Firstly, does the quality of Banks' music really matter in the face of her increasingly toxic public persona? It would be an exercise in futility to attempt to list all of her (sometimes inexcusable) transgressions: comparing gays to the KKK, her pro-Trump policies, her unabashedly anti-American sentiments, her transphobic language, her history of assault, her bad habit of walking out on shows, her public battles with her record labels, her predilection towards picking fights with other rappers and personalities on Twitter. As a writer, I'm in a particularly precarious position here: I'm a white, queer, cisgender male and thus a member of group she feels particularly vilifies her – a population she has repeatedly and unapologetically attacked.

Self-righteous social justice minded Internet commenters are quick to dismiss her simply on the basis of her truculent and regressive positions. This is a dangerous and often reactionary game of identity politics, in which it becomes impossible to unbiasedly evaluate the work of an artist in the face of their often repugnant statements. Bad people sometimes make good art, but in the age of buzzwordy social outrage we might miss the good art if we can only look at artists' history of progressivism (or lack thereof).

Focusing on her politics also ignores her personal narrative: that of an artist who gained massive fame and notoriety at such a young age. Should we even be surprised at her attitude considering the amount of wealth she had accrued before the age of 20? This doesn't excuse her vitriol, but it perhaps explains it.

And besides, even some of Banks' most hateful statements have bits of truth to them. The white, gay, male community definitely deserves to be called out for its racism and misogyny, but comparisons to hate groups are inexcusable. Nor is she incorrect in calling out, as she does in her interview on Broadly (below), genderized double standards when saying that male artists with similarly outlandish opinions are celebrated for their artistry (see: Kanye West) while she is attacked for hers. Nor is she wrong for pointing to the incredibly pernicious ways that American politics have robbed black people of their culture, their dignity, and their civil rights. 

Can we take Azealia's trolling at face value? Will she actually vote for Trump when the time comes? Can we see her noxious Twitter feed as a complex performance piece commenting on the most objectionable aspects of America? And if we can – does that excuse the foulness of the sentiments themselves? Ultimately, these questions will have to be answered on a case by case basis and responses will vary depending on the person asked.

And yet! The divisive quality of Banks manifests strangely amongst her audiences: despite her attacks on gays and trans people, her fanbase continues to be largely queer – she continues to perform in queer spaces and at queer events. Parsing out the semiotics of irony here is close to impossible. Are these fans ignorantly ignoring her hatred, choosing to look past it because the music is good, or sarcastically consuming her works to spite her? There's no real way to tell; yet a good remix of “212” still gets gay bars bouncing faster than almost any other contemporary rap track (save a few Nicki Minaj jams, maybe). Despite herself, Banks has become a camp icon for those she proclaims to dislike the most.

But what about Slay-Z? It's certainly uneven. The production and engineering are inconsistent at worst (it isn't hard to imagine some songs were rushed as Banks inevitably argued with her management about when to release the mix) but Banks' rapping continues to be some of the strongest of any male or female in the game. Her tongue twisters and lyrical wit are both outstanding; some may criticize her for caring more about the sounds of words than their poeticism. “Queen of Clubs” feels weirdly pandering to EDM audiences, despite the sonic palette it uses being at least a year and a half out of date. “Big Talk” features a sloppy verse from Rick Ross, who Banks outshines easily – did she feel the need to include a big, mainstream name to raise her own profile as a legitimate artist?

There are some truly amazing standouts: the controversial Iggy Azealia diss track, “Used To Being Alone,” remains both an impeccable pop song and a devastating insult to her rival – the Slay-Z version adds a nasty guitar riff and a few extra layers of gorgeous synthesizers. “Riot” is an accessible and delightful bubblegum pop song, unexpectedly light.

So, what do we do with her? Do we just flat out ignore her (until she goes away)? Do we celebrate her talent, full stop? How can anyone put forth a review of her music without dragging her personality or politics into the commentary? Can we, as listeners or critics, resolve our conflicts with her statements and our disdain for her toxicity with the very apparent and impressive quality of the art itself?

For now, at least, it seems like Banks will have to remain a problem rather than a solution.

You can download Slay-Z for free over here.

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