Azealia Banks Opens Up About Her Journey from Stripping to Rap Stardom

The belligerent rapper blasts Eminem and discusses her time in hip-hop “purgatory,” as well as the surprise release of her long-gestating debut album Broke with Expensive Taste.

In the two years since her kinetic hip-house track “212” exploded into the public consciousness, the name “Azealia Banks” had become more closely associated with hair-trigger tweets than breakneck flow. BET recently cooked up a photo gallery of the femcee’s stew of beefs that’s 19 slides long, ranging from Lady Gaga (thief) to the similarly-named Iggy Azalea (racist).

The genuine source of consternation, however, was her label Interscope. Banks was supposed to release her debut album, Broke with Expensive Taste, in January 2013, but the Universal Music Group shingle vacillated. “I’m really in hell here,” Banks tweeted on January 26 of this year. “I've been gratefully riding off of mixtape fumes for the past two years…[But] my fans really need some new music…Universal needs to just hand me over to another label who knows what to do with me…I'm tired of having to consult a group of old white guys about my black girl craft.”

The 23-year-old rapper was released from her Interscope contract in July, and quickly signed with Jeff Kwatinetz’s music management firm Prospect Park. And then, on November 6, Banks pulled a Beyoncé and dropped the album on iTunes by surprise. The idea was Kwatinetz’s. In late October, he vaguely hinted at the covert release, telling Banks, “Yeah, it’s going to come out in two weeks,” but the rapper’s hopes had been dashed so many times she didn’t believe him. Then, on Sunday, November 2, he said, “Your album’s coming out on Friday.”

“That was his idea,” says Banks, pointing across the room to Kwatinetz. “I’ve had my hopes dashed so many times, and he’d vaguely say, ‘Yeah, it’s going to come in two weeks,’ and I’d go, ‘Yeah, whatever,’ and then one day he said, ‘Your album’s coming out on Friday.’”

Due to a leaked Spotify tracklist (Murphy’s law, this album), they pushed it out a day early. And Broke with Expensive Taste more than makes good on the promise of the rapper’s EP 1991; a tessellation of trap, garage, and house-rap coupled with Banks’s Uzi-spray delivery. The Guardian called it a “contender for album of the year.”

“It’s almost like an elephant’s pregnancy,” says Banks of her debut album. “You’re pregnant for fucking ever, it’s swelling and swelling, and everyone was waiting for me to give birth to this ugly kid. They were saying, ‘This kid is going to be so fucking ugly.’ But then you finally give birth and the baby is beautiful.”

It’s November 14, and Banks is in decidedly good spirits. We’re lounging in the sprawling East Village apartment of Kwatinetz, and the rapper is balancing a glass of whiskey and coke whilst clad in a body-hugging blue print dress. A tiny gold cross necklace hangs from it. Banks feels relieved that the Interscope drama is in her rearview.

“I’d have people from Urban Outfitters or MAC Cosmetics asking, ‘When’s your album coming out?’ They purposely held my music back from radio. It was really fucked up,” says Banks. “It was discouraging because then you start to doubt your own musical taste. You think, ‘Am I stupid?’ ‘Is this wack?’ But I’m really happy that it’s out now and people are getting it. That’s all that matters now. I’m still young!”

Speaking with Banks is like navigating a minefield. She refuses to discuss her feud with Perez Hilton, or her liberal use of the word “faggot.” Her collaboration with Kanye West on his Cruel Summer album is also seemingly beneath her (“I’ve transcended all that cameo shit. I’m my own thing.”) One area of major interest to Banks is butts, given the cultural moment the booty is having between Kim Kardashian’s magazine cover, Nicki Minaj’s song “Anaconda,” and J. Lo’s “Booty.” Her face lights up when I ask her whether or not we’re experiencing tuchus overload.

“It’s cool,” says Banks. “I like butts. But I like the real butts. With the fake butts, you can always see the ‘shelf.’ I can see the implant in there, and see where the muscle is snatching that implant up. Butt technology needs to come a little bit further. They’re nice with the titties, but 15 years from now, all these bitches are going to be saying, ‘I got the old ass!’”

She has, it seems, done her fair share of research. “You can get implants, or shots. These girls buy these kits on the black market, go to some crazy lady in a fuckin’ hotel room, they give them a little anesthesia, then they take these huge syringes and shove it under your butt muscle and pump you full of silicone. You get your butt massaged for two weeks, and then you have a big, juicy butt.”

Another area of interest—or lack thereof—is Eminem. Recently, Banks called out the Detroit native for his verse on “Shady CXVpher” where he rapped the line, “I’ll punch Lana Del Rey right in the face twice like Ray Rice.” And she’s not done with him just yet.

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“This is a dude who raps about killing his mother,” Banks says of Eminem’s casual misogyny. “And I think it’s casually OK that you eat Hot Pockets and suck on your sister’s titty. That’s casual in the trailer park, right? What’s up? I really don’t care. I’m not trying to fuck Eminem, and I don’t need anything from Eminem. Didn’t he also have a song where a black girl broke his heart and he was calling her a ‘nigger’ and all that shit? OK, Eminem.”

Banks grew up far from the trailer park—up on 152nd St. and Amsterdam in Harlem. Her father died of pancreatic cancer when she was two, so her mother raised her and her two sisters. But she was very abusive to the girls, with punishments ranging from being called ugly to getting beaten with a baseball bat.

“It got bad… Real bad. Like Mommie Dearest bad,” recalls Banks. “My mom was stressed. She was a single mom with three black daughters in New York City. My mom was a hard worker so we had a good upbringing and were never poor, but my mother was just crazy.”

At 14, her oldest sister stepped in and took custody of Banks to save her from further violence and help foster her talent. “She said, ‘You can live with me. You’ll have to sleep on the couch and have less money, but at least I won’t be beatin’ your ass all the time. At least you’ll have peace of mind,’” says Banks.

She began performing in off-Broadway musicals and attended LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts. When she was 16, an agent signed her and sent her off on a bunch of acting auditions.

“Oh God, I auditioned for Zoom, Reading Rainbow, fuckin’ all this Nickelodeon shit like iCarly, and all the Disney Channel shows,” says Banks. “You know how when you just start smokin’ weed and swear nobody can tell you’re smokin’ weed? I used to be in those auditions so fuckin’ blasted out of my mind. SO high, lips black and everything. My lips are black now because I’ve been smokin’ weed forever.”

Banks adds, “I only started smoking weed before my auditions because it was six months of auditions where I wasn’t getting anything.”

When she turned 17, she recorded her first rap song, “Gimme A Chance,” under the moniker Miss Bank$, soon realizing that this was her chosen path. She uploaded it to MySpace, and “messaged Diplo every day for two months through MySpace.” He finally answered and wanted to sign her, but accidentally let it slip to Richard Russell, who then signed her to the indie label XL Recordings. “Diplo didn’t like that,” Banks giggles. Russell, it turns out, didn’t like it either. The two fell out after less than a year, with Banks describing “seven to eight months” of radio silence and a lack of mentorship and artist develpoment, and Russell labeling her an “amateur.”

Following the XL breakup, Miss Bank$ became Azealia Banks, with the artist dropping several songs on YouTube. During what she describes as a “low point,” Banks worked at a strip club in Queens to make ends meet.

“Strippers make way more fuckin’ money than a lot of people working desk jobs. They’re walking out of there with $1,200 a night,” says Banks. “Now me, with my little butt and my little A-cups, it wasn’t happening like that. I worked at this little strip club and it was a low point, but I wanted some fast money. I was such a chicken in the strip club. It was not my thing at all. I was there for just two weekends, and then I quit because ‘212’ blew up.”

The first major profile of Banks came courtesy of The New York Times in February 2012. Strangely enough, the piece seemed to center around the young rapper’s sexuality, framing it around her saying she’s bisexual.

“It was so weird, and silly,” says Banks. “They framed it that way because it’s easy for people who don’t listen to rap music to grasp it that way. That’s just an easy sell: cunt getting eaten, bisexuality, buy this."

She’s come a long way since those early days. Not only has Broke with Expensive Taste finally seen the light of day, but she’s also almost finished with her next mixtape, Fantasea II: The Second Wave, and is in the midst of planning a big national tour to support her debut LP. When I ask her about Spotify, and her thoughts towards Taylor Swift pulling all her music from the streaming service because she felt it doesn’t adequately compensate artists, Banks shrugs.

“I’m from a time where we never got paid for music,” she says. “I don’t remember what it was like to sell a million fuckin’ records. I don’t care. My attitude is, ‘Just play it, please!’ These days, you’re just lucky to be heard.”