John Meagher: Is it fair to demonise Azealia Banks?
The New York artist arrived in Dublin amid a flurry of controversy on Tuesday, but is she a talented musician, arch-provocateur, troubled soul or perhaps all three?
She may have dedicated her Dublin show on Tuesday night to “all the beautiful Irish women”, but Azealia Banks will forever be remembered in this part of the world for her robust views on Ireland’s female population.
“Ugly” and “Oompa Loompa-looking” were two of the more printable put-downs, seemingly provoked after an altercation with Aer Lingus cabin crew which led to her exiting a flight to Dublin on Monday morning.
For the sold-out crowd who attended her concert at the intimate confines of the Academy, Banks will need little introduction. But for countless others, who only heard her name for the first time this week, the 27-year-old New York native will have intrigued if only because she deviated so spectacularly from the ‘Aren’t the Irish great’ narrative we have become so accustomed to from visiting musicians.
So, just who is the self-styled Queen of Ireland? Born in 1991 and raised in Harlem, Banks has been making music since her late teens and she first came to the attention of New York’s hip-hop community in 2012 when she released a mixtape album - rap-speak for a home-made compilation of lo-if recordings.
But it was her 2014 debut album proper, Broke With Expensive Taste, that got Banks known globally. One of the most arresting hip-hop releases that year, it was packed with sure-fire radio-baiting bangers and songs that were provocative, confrontational and not easily forgotten.
It remains Banks’s only album to date. Since then, she has released another mixtape and a handful of EPs but her star has waned somewhat, especially when one considers that rival female rap artist, Cardi B, released one of last year’s biggest selling albums globally.
Impressive as much of her music is, she has become better known for her willingness to provoke rows with everyone and anyone. Few who have followed her career to date will have been surprised about her tirade this week, even if she usually tends to have individual hip-hop musicians and pop stars - rather than an entire gender - in her sights.
It would almost be easier to list those celebrities she has not fallen out with than those she has, but - deep breath now - she has had beef with Beyoncé, Eminem, Kanye West, Busta Rhymes, Rita Ora, Kendrick Lamar and the aforementioned Cardi B. And just as she did this week, Banks usually takes to Instagram to post a foul-mouthed video castigating the individual who has irritated her.
It’s fair to say she is easily annoyed - and, much like Conor McGregor, whom she mentioned favourably this week - she seems to enjoy being the arch-provocateur. She has a propensity to get involved in rows that don’t involve her, such as the moment last year when she picked a fight with Lana del Rey after the singer had lambasted Kanye West for his support of Donald Trump.
“Don’t use Kanye for your own vapid attempts to seem politically aware,” she chided, “when there is so much more bootleg witchcraft you could be doing to try to take down 45 [ie, Trump, 45th President of the United States].”
Del Rey - no shrinking violet either - responded acidly on social media: “U coulda been the greatest female rapper alive but you blew it... I’ll send you my surgeon’s number and a good psychiatrist I know in LA - your psych meds aren’t working.”
While it is easy to see Banks as something of a cartoonish character who is hardwired to seek controversy at every opportunity, it’s worth considering that she has had her fair share of heartache too.
In 2016, she opened up about the pain she experienced in the wake of a miscarriage. In a Facebook post, she talked about experiencing confusion, depression and guilt. In the immediate aftermath of losing the baby, she wrote that she felt “like a failure and very ashamed.”
With seemingly nowhere to turn, she reached out to her fans. “Has anyone else had this same experience who cares to share some words of wisdom or words of anything regarding this topic? The self-loathing bit is a real struggle for me at the moment so share any words here.”
She has also expressed frustration that her discussion about mental health has been ridiculed. “They joke and prod at you and say you need a doctor yet have no idea about the type of uncontrollable chaos that goes on inside your head. On top of arrogantly suggesting you need to be medicated, these people have no idea how gnarly psych drugs are... no idea about the sleepless nights, the persistent paranoia, the loss of appetite, the dull, delayed orgasms, the cystic acne, the skin discolourations, the weight loss, the inability to emote, the hair loss... it’s already in the music.”
And those who listen to her songs can certainly discern many of the troubles of which she speaks. She may have been maddeningly inconsistent, creatively, but the good songs really are special and a number of them, including ‘212’ and ‘Liquorice’, are as emblematic of this tumultuous decade as any.