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Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone Greatest 500 Songs: Azealia Banks, ‘212’ (#485)

We’ve seen how the internet and various social media platforms have empowered DIY distribution for homegrown works of music, but the exact same tools have been utilized at least as effectively for memes, videos, and the written word.

Facebook was founded in 2004.  Twitter in 2006.  Instragram in 2010.  Tik Tok in 2016.  The first generation iPhone was released in 2007.

The result of those seismic innovations means that we now live in a time in which it’s possible that every stupid or ill-advised thing a person says and does will be a matter of public record, electronically preserved for eternity or until the fiery collapse of civilization, whichever comes first.  That in turn means that most of us by now have had some first-hand practical experience with separating a given artist from their art.

The process is more easily applied to some artists than to others.  Richard Wagner may have been an anti-semitic asshole, but you only know that if you’ve done your reading; there’s nothing in Wagner’s musical output that would lead you to that conclusion.  Same with Eric Clapton, say; whatever his recent anti-vaxxer inclinations, it’s not as if he’s spent the last several decades promoting those views with his music.  Clapton appears to be undergoing some late career descent into weirdness — hell, maybe he was always weird — but there’s nothing in or about his artistic output that would specifically tell you that.

Azealia Banks and her breakout hit, the mercurial ‘212’, on the other hand…?

Whole different story.

This is a case where art and artist go together like conjoined twins.  There’s no sense whatsoever that Banks is employing some distancing narrative device (and while we’re at it, let’s note that Azealia Banks is one of the relatively rare hip hop performers who uses her real name in a professional context).

Named for her native Harlem’s area code, ‘212’ (pronounced two-one-two) exists at the funky nexus between electronic dance music and hip hop.  A tongue-twisting, dirty-talking rat-at-tat rap poured over an original track by producer Lazy Jay, it’s explicit, aggressive — even threatening — and all Azealia.

Listening to ‘212’ is like taking the uptown A train and finding yourself seated next to the horniest, brattiest, and most indiscriminately hostile alien in the galaxy, fresh off the Rick James Mothership.  By the time the last verse rolls around, Banks sounds like she’s speaking in tongues.  It’s riveting and unsettling in equal measure.  You’re not sure whether to be aroused or alarmed, and maybe that’s what Banks was after.  She’s a relentless provocateur, and the enticements offered in ‘212’ seem less about desire, pleasure, or gratification than about establishing (or demolishing) patterns of power, control, and dominance.

As of this writing, Banks is probably more (in)famous for her long list of petty, vitriolic internet and media feuds with damn near everyone on the planet than for her music, but that’s entirely in keeping with what we hear in ‘212’. 

Say what you will, but one thing no one ever has or ever will claim about Azealia Amanda Banks is that she’s afraid to speak her mind.

Michael Strum: “Ms. Banks reminds me of Pablo Picasso: the undeniable talent, the value in their voice and perspective, the at times repulsiveness of their treatment of others. This comparison must be qualified, of course, by the circumstances of their demographics. As an uninformed outside, I would hazard the guess that A. Banks has faced more discrimination and overcome more trauma as a black non-heterosexual woman than did P. Picasso as a heterosexual white man. The greater sympathy/empathy for A. Banks notwithstanding, I found this treatment of art vs. artist written about Picasso to be revealing for the creator of ‘212’. Regarding the track at hand: the lyrics are provocative and powerful, and the delivery is unique, artistic, and crisp. The skill is manifest. As is the rest.

Rolling Stone: In 2011, Azealia Banks was a teenage rapper-singer whose clear talent yielded a development deal with XL Recordings but little else. “She had been working on a collection of tracks and there was one Dutch house-sounding one that was just absolutely insane,” producer Jacques Greene recalled. Banks freestyled ferociously about her New York hometown and, uh, cunnilingus over the jittery beats of Belgian house duo’s Lazy Jay’s “Float My Boat.” Initially released in 2011 as a viral track, “212” was a hip-house banger that earned Banks a deal with Interscope and served notice that this uninhibited provocateur would not be constrained.