Yet for all the cool-kid swagger that "212" exudes, Banks saysshe wrote it in response to feeling left out. "Nobody was listeningto my music," she recalls. "I had been dropped from [the Englishrecord label] XL. My manager dropped me. My boyfriend left me.I was starting to accept that my career was never gonna happen."She shrugs her tiny shoulders. "So the song was just me, like, 'Fucky'all. Y'all not gonna help me? I'm gonna get it myself.'"
Get it Banks most certainly has: Since last fall the powerfulblack-and-white video for "212" -- the one where she's memorablyrocking pigtails, cutoffs and a Mickey Mouse sweater -- has rackedup over 17 million views on YouTube and been shouted out by everyone from Kanye West to Gwyneth Paltrow. NME put her at thetop of its 2011 Cool List; Karl Lagerfeld asked her to perform at hishome in Paris. And now, following six months of SoundCloud jamsand scattered live gigs, she's in Los Angeles finishing up her debutalbum for Interscope Records, tentatively titled Broke with ExpensiveTaste and due out this fall. Banks is cagey about its sound, its subjectmatter, even who she's working with on it. But she promises quality."The music is the music," she says over lunch at a Brazilian joint inL.A. "And it'll be good."
Shirt by Alexander Wang, belt by Diesel Black Gold, shorts and hat by Joyrich, shoes by Pedro Garcia, earrings by Glynneth B and bag by Todd Pearce for Love Bailey.
There's no doubting the role Banks's tunes have played inbuilding such a deafening buzz: Beyond "212," tracks like "Fuck Upthe Fun" and the timpani-powered "Jumanji" reflect her firecrackerflow and her exquisite taste in beats from around the globe. Butit's also the rapper's unique style -- think rough-and-tumble streetkid meets leather-clad glamazon -- that adds to the whole package.The designer Alexander Wang, who always has his eyes peeled formusic's next It Girl, took Banks as his guest to this year's Met Ball. Before she was prematurely staring down quarter-life crises,Banks was a New York City kid with big dreams. She grew up on 152nd Street with her mom and two sisters, complementing classesat LaGuardia Arts High School (aka the Fame school, and fellowMC Nicki Minaj's alma mater) with a gig at Starbucks she remembers not terribly fondly. A stint doing musical theater taught herabout being onstage, she says, though she's quick to add that herexperiences online were no less formative.
"My generation, that's just what we're into," she says. "Whenwe got home from school, that's how we kept up with each other:AOL, Zynga, Angelfire, Napster, shit like that." Banks says her family got its first Internet connection when she was 9 or 10. "You'd beon there and you'd go to, like, sex.com!" She laughs. "You're madobvious with it when you're a kid. You know how many times theyprobably sold sex.com? It's like the go-to URL."
Jacket by Diesel Black Gold, shorts by Ashton Michael, collar by Louis Vuitton, belt by Versace, glasses by Diesel, necklace, earrings and ring by Mishka Piaf, and earring by Glynneth B.
At 17, she switched from musicals to rapping, saving up herStarbucks money to record rambunctious rap cuts like "Gimmea Chance" under the name Miss Bank$. Those tracks caught theattention of super-producer Diplo, which in 2009 led to a development deal with XL, home to Adele and the xx; the relationshipsoured, though, and soon Banks sought safe haven with friends inMontreal, where she continued to work on her music, including thesong that would become "212." Did she know immediately that thesong was a hit? "Kind of, yeah," she replies between bites of blackbeans and rice. "Because of that house beat."
"I was knocked out right away," says Interscope executive vicepresident Larry Jackson, who signed Banks to the label after a friendhipped him to the "212" video. "In the '90s it was all about howmuch money people could spend on their videos, right?" he says."I remember hearing about the Busta Rhymes and Janet Jacksonvideo for 'What's It Gonna Be?!' It cost a million dollars! Now, withthe Internet, it's more about the creativity to execute a great ideaeven if it costs one dollar. What attracted me to Azealia is the wayher personality shined through in a really compelling way -- hercharisma and her skills as an MC. I felt like I was getting a realglimpse into her world."
Right now Banks' world is moving at a remarkable clip. Atlunch she's friendly and talkative, but occasionally distracted, too,as though she's subconsciously contemplating the half-dozen appointments she has lined up following ours. And this is the relativecalm she moved to L.A. to take advantage of. "For me there's three options of where to live: L.A., London and New York," she says."London's too expensive and New York's too exciting: too manyparties, too many of my friends. If I wanna make this my life, I haveto live somewhere I can work, somewhere I can focus." She laughs."My album will not come out in September if I live in New York."
Top by Acne, pants by Diesel Black Gold, necklace by Glynneth B and cuff by Juju Gold.
Though she admits that her busy schedule has impacted hermind in some alarming ways -- even a once-pleasurable manicuretakes too long now, for example -- Banks is surprisingly cool-headedabout the demands being placed on her: not just the recording sessions and the concerts, but the calls and the meetings and the endlessschmoozing with Very Important People.
"The music industry is like a machine," she says. "It's alwaysgoing, and this new generation of artists -- me, A$AP Rocky, RitaOra -- we're the fuel that's keeping it going. And once you get in thatmachine you've gotta run with it. There's a crazy inertia that's beengoing for years and years and years, and it's not gonna stop for you,so you've gotta keep fucking working. The minute you stop working,that's when you get stuck in the gears. And that's when it grinds youup and spits you out." But doesn't that constant work leave zero timefor normal-person stuff? "That's what you give up when you signthat contract," Banks replies. "This hustle and bustle becomes yournormal-person shit."
Moving from the cool-musician zone into the famous-personzone -- in which her Twitter beefs with the likes of T.I. and Lil'Kim have made news -- has been a bit of a trip, she acknowledges."When celebrities have kids, their children are famous," she marvels."People want pictures of your children. People wanna see you eatingat the restaurant, putting gas in your car. But they only wanna knowabout your life because you created something they can relate to."
That's wisdom she says she received from legendary Interscopechief Jimmy Iovine, who's also shepherded the careers of Eminemand Lady Gaga. "Jimmy tells you to keep the wind behind you,"Banks says. "The music is what's important. These people are notgonna wanna talk to you if you don't have music; they're not gonnabe interested. And your star is not always gonna be as bright. Soyou really have to seize the day."
Top by Alexander Wang, earrings and cuff by Juju Gold and ring by Mishka Piaf.
Travis Stewart, who under the name Machinedrum has produced several Banks tunes (including two from her recent 1991EP), is confident that her music will speak for itself. In their owncollaborations, the two have worked together in the studio buthave also done the "I-send-her-a-beat-and-she-writes-to-it thing,"Stewart says. "I typically don't like to work that way, but [withAzealia], fuck it -- she kills it every time!"
As we finish lunch I ask Banks how the songs on her albumwill compare to "212" now that she can no longer lay claim to theleft-out feeling that spawned her first hit -- less than a year after itsrelease, Banks is fashion's latest darling, an insider's insider withloads of famous friends (including Nicola Formichetti and M.I.A.).How will she re-access the scrappy intensity that spoke to so manypeople? She pauses for a while, chewing her steak, then says, "Idon't know. I don't think you re-access it. I think it happens, themusic gets made and it's like a moment in history." Chew, chew, chew."Then you move on to the next one."
Shot at Smashbox Studios Culver City
Hair by Brianna Shehee for Lush Hair Imports and Salons
Makeup by Samuel Paul at Jed Root using NARS Cosmetics
Manicure by Barbara Warner for NARS / CelestineAgency.com
FOR A GOOD TIME CALL .... OUR AZEALIA BANKS HOTLINE! DETAILS HERE.