As the internet shakes with the anticipation of a Spice Girls reunion, I’m personally far more engaged by the prospect of an even more remarkable comeback. That of rap super-villain, Azealia Banks.
“I’m now officially signed to E1 Entertainment!!” the divisive artist announced on Instagram. “I HAVE A HOME AGAIN... I’m crying. The industry left me out on the street like a stray dog and now I have shelter again.”
Azealia Banks’ rise, fall, merciless nosedive to rock bottom and, now, potential rise again is a resurrection story of biblical proportions. After what was largely perceived as a kamikaze-like commitment to ruining her own career over six years, even her staunchest fans wondered if she had entirely obliterated any chance of a comeback. And yet, against big odds and even bigger pushback, she has managed to secure a lucrative recording deal with a multinational label.
Though pop culture loves a prodigal son, Banks’ underdog story is thoroughly complicated by her character. She was an underdog who not only repeatedly bit the hands that fed her, but at times mauled them. I was, and still am, a constant but conflicted fan of her music, through both her pre- and post-problematic iterations. As someone who so desperately wants her to win, I felt every attempt at self-sabotage keenly. While her discography stood the test of time, her actions became increasingly hard to defend. Lots of them could not be defended at all.
But I have always defended her. For several reasons, including her undeniable talent and a clear lack of support from the music industry. An industry that was quick to ostracise her, but is notoriously slow to police the similarly bad behaviour of other musicians. Within rap, specifically, Banks’ male contemporaries continue to be successful, despite, at times, comparable or even worse actions. I continue to wonder why my appreciation for her as an artist elicits more tuts of disapproval than those who listen to Kodak Black; even at her most controversial, Banks has never been accused of sexual assault. If we held male rappers to the same standards we held Azealia Banks to, the truth is we’d have very few left. Azealia Banks exists as a walking, trash-talking embodiment of the double standards that come with being a dark-skinned, mentally ill black woman. And, furthermore, the penalties that only they seem to be expected to pay.
In a game of bigoted bingo, Banks would score full marks: she’s been racist. She’s been homophobic. She’s made threats of violence. She’s defended Bill Cosby, verbally attacked tween actress Skai Jackson and has told a host of other celebrities to kill themselves. The Controversies section on her Wikipedia page is double the length of her Artistry segment.
Many of the instances that have made her infamous (lots of which she has since apologised for) are inexcusable. But it was impossible for me to miss the irony of seeing Banks’ career nearly end over the language used by male rappers with wild abandon. I struggle to think of a single male rapper whose use of homophobic slurs has caused lasting damage to their careers. Just last month, Migos’ Offset was only very briefly “cancelled” for his lyric, “I do not vibe with queers”, in Boss Life. Then there is the bevy of still-successful rappers whose misdeeds go far beyond the borders of offensiveness into downright subhuman territory. Take XXXTentacion, who was last year charged with aggravated battery of his pregnant girlfriend, domestic battery by strangulation and false imprisonment. Or Kodak Black, who was indicted on charges of first-degree sexual assault on a teenage girl in the same year. Calls for both their outstings were dwarfed by those for Banks’.
Banks is aware of the discrepancy between how she and male rappers are treated, referring to it in an interview with XXL: “I guess the source of my disappointment comes from just watching lots of other men in hip-hop, just like male rappers, have their career setbacks and go through things. Or even when a black male rapper misspeaks something... just seeing black men go through the motions, seeing the black mass just kind of seemingly accepting it as just an attribute of their artistry.
“So they'll be like, ‘Kanye West is saying all that because he's crazy’ or ‘Okay, yeah, R Kelly raped a girl but damn, he makes some good music.’ I don't feel like I ever got that kind of empathy. I never got those kinds of privileges, I never got those kinds of allowances.”
And, even in cases where Banks isn’t the aggressor, she doesn’t get that kind of empathy. In 2016, she accused Hollywood actor Russell Crowe of choking her, spitting on her and calling her a racial slur as he threw her out of his hotel suite after an altercation. Hip-hop legend RZA, who'd invited her to Crowe’s – and had signed her to a record deal – went on to publicly defend the actor’s version of events in which he denied any wrongdoing. The record deal (viewed by many as her last chance at commercial success) fell through and Banks filed a battery report against Crowe, which she eventually dropped. Almost exactly a year later, after the belief Banks was a craven, crazed attention seeker and liar appeared validated, RZA admitted that Crowe had in fact spat at Banks. He even went as far as saying that had he known of her battle with mental illness, he would have “tried to keep a father type of eye on her at the party”.
If we held male rappers to the same standards we held Azealia Banks to, the truth is we’d have very few left
Like several others, I have over the years compared Banks to Kanye West. Their artistry appears entwined with their instability, almost as though one fuels the other. Banks has been explicit about her troubles, describing them in a characteristically frank Facebook post last year. And though West hasn’t been vocal about his mental health, his hospitalisation in 2016 essentially confirmed in the minds of many what we had suspected for years. Both he and Banks are irrefutable tastemakers and game changers, musically light years ahead of their time, which makes their misdeeds all the more frustrating. They are both prone to public rants and meltdowns. Both have continually shuttled between “woke-ness” and wilful ignorance – Banks calling out cultural appropriation and in the same breath endorsing Donald Trump; West stating “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” before also going on to endorse Trump.
“Kanye and I are like the same person but boy and girl,” Banks said, before their relationship soured, in an interview with Elle. “We’re pulling from the same cloud, the same inspiration. We’re both Geminis, we’re the two premier avant gardists in hip-hop music. It’s just me and him.”
Despite the obvious parallels, the treatment of the two couldn’t be more different. West remains at the misunderstood-genius side of the psychosis spectrum; Banks is cornered at the “crazy black bitch” extreme end. His erraticness is laced with intent; hers, read as the rabid actions of a woman out of her right mind.
“I’ll say something on Twitter and my head gets ripped off,” she has said. “And then Kanye West will say some other fucking meaningless, senseless dumb shit. And then it’s like oh well, you know… he’s just an artsy man. He’s just fucking cool. It’s frustrating.”
After an incident in 2015 which saw her verbally attack and bite a bouncer, Banks pleaded guilty to third-degree assault in exchange for a deferred no-jail sentence. It was ordered that she attend anger management classes, avoid future collisions with the law and, most notably, seek mental-health treatment. But Azealia Banks’ mental health is only ever acknowledged by the masses as a punchline, and never as a serious condition. Sure, she’s mentally ill, but not in the sense that she is deserving of the compassion reserved for those with mental illness.
Many saw Banks’ fall from grace as a sort of karmic reckoning and will no doubt see her return as a miscarriage of justice. Just desserts are lavishly served in generous helpings to black women, but when it comes to redemption, our portion remains scarce. Banks forces us to look at who we allow to restart after a “cancellation” and, more importantly, why. Women like her are supposed to suffer a lifelong sentence for their transgressions. But, for me, hers is a comeback I welcome with open arms and much optimism – Azealia Banks has suffered enough, and more than paid her dues