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Azealia Amanda Banks (/əˈziːliə/ born May 31, 1991) is an American rapper, singer and songwriter. Raised in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, Banks began releasing music through MySpace in 2008, eventually being signed to XL Recordings at age 17. After releasing her debut single "212" to commercial success, she secured a recording contract with Interscope and Polydor Records, and later released her first extended play 1991 (2012) to minor chart success. Banks' debut studio album Broke with Expensive Taste (2014) experienced several delays since its initial announcement before being unexpectedly released to online music stores. In 2016, she released the mixtape Slay-Z. In addition to her music, Banks' outspoken views have been the subject of media controversies throughout her career.
Life and career
Early life and career beginnings
Azealia Amanda Banks was born on May 31, 1991 in Manhattan. Her mother raised her and two older sisters in Harlem, after their father died of pancreatic cancer when she was two years old. Following her father's death, Banks says that her mother "became really abusive—physically and verbally. Like she would hit me and my sisters with baseball bats, bang our heads up against walls, and she would always tell me I was ugly. I remember once she threw out all the food in the fridge, just so we wouldn't have anything to eat." Due to escalating violence, Banks moved out of her mother's home at age 14 to live with her older sister.
At a young age Banks became interested in musical theater, dancing, acting and singing. Aged ten, she began performing in off-Broadway musicals with the Tada! Youth Theater in Lower Manhattan. She had lead roles in three productions (Rabbit Sense, Sleepover, and Heroes) in addition to performing as a soloist. Banks attended Catholic school in Harlem in her childhood, and danced with the National Dance Institute. As a teenager she trained in the performing arts at the LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan. At the age of sixteen, Banks starred in a production of the comedy-noir musical City of Angels, where she was found by an agent and sent on auditions for TBS, Nickelodeon, and Law & Order, all without success. It was at this point that Banks decided to end her pursuit of an acting career, citing the large amount of competition and overall sense of unfulfillment as reasons for her retirement. Because of this, Banks began writing rap and R&B songs as a creative outlet. She never finished high school, instead choosing to follow her dream of becoming a recording artist.
Under the moniker 'Miss Bank$', she released her debut recording "Gimme a Chance" on to the internet on November 9, 2008. The recording was accompanied by the self-produced track "Seventeen", which sampled the Ladytron song of the same name. Banks sent both tracks to American DJ Diplo. Later that year, Banks signed a development deal with record label XL Recordings and began working with producer Richard Russell in London, leaving the label later that year due to conflicting ideas.
2011–12: 1991 and Fantasea
Following her departure from XL Recordings, Banks left behind the 'Miss Bank$' moniker and formally became Azealia Banks, which preceded a move to Montreal. Using YouTube as a portal, Banks uploaded several demo tracks—including "L8R" and a cover of "Slow Hands" by Interpol. After her Canadian visa expired, Banks returned to New York, where she sold key chains at a Manhattan jazz club and danced at a Queens strip club to make ends meet. "That's when I was really depressed", Banks says, "I don't have a manager, I don't have a boyfriend, I don't have any friends, I don't have any money. Here I am working at the strip club, trying not to say the wrong thing and get into fights with these girls who don't give a shit."
In September 2011, Banks released her debut single "212" as a free digital download from her website, which was subsequently released officially on December 6, 2011, as the lead single from her EP 1991. The track attained European moderate chart success, peaking at number fourteen in the Netherlands, number twelve in the United Kingdom and at number seven in Ireland.
Though unsigned at the time, Banks began working with British producer Paul Epworth on a debut studio album. It was announced in December 2011 that Banks would feature on "Shady Love", a track from American band Scissor Sisters' fourth studio album Magic Hour, though the feature would remain uncredited. An accompanying music video was released in January 2012 following its radio première from Annie Mac (BBC Radio 1) on January 4, though the release of the single was cancelled for unconfirmed reasons. Banks released the track "NEEDSUMLUV (SXLND)" on the Internet on January 16, 2012, coinciding with what would have been the thirty-third birthday of the late singer Aaliyah, who is sampled on the track. A week later saw the emergence of a second track titled "Bambi", which having been produced by Paul Epworth, had been selected as the soundtrack for a Mugler fashion show in Paris.
In May 2012, Banks announced plans to release a mixtape—originally titled Fantastic—titled Fantasea. Preceding its release the tracks "Jumanji", "Aquababe", and "Nathan" (featuring rapper Styles P) were made available online. Fantasea was released via Banks' Twitter account on July 11, and was succeeded by the unveiling of Banks' online radio project, Kunt.FM the following week.
Banks' first extended play, 1991, was released in the United Kingdom on May 28 and in the United States the following day. The four-track play, of which "212" featured, was not eligible for the UK Albums Chart, but the title track charted at number seventy nine on the UK Singles Chart. It also reached 133 on the US Billboard 200, while reaching number seventeen on the R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, number twelve on the Rap Albums chart, and number one on the Heatseekers Albums chart. In 2013, 1991 was certified gold by the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA).
Banks was scheduled to release her second single "Esta Noche", from the Fantasea mixtape, on September 25, 2012, but the track was pulled the day of its release due to sampling disputes between Banks and the track's producer Munchi. The next month, it was confirmed that Banks had worked with Lady Gaga on two tracks, titled "Ratchet" and "Red Flame" for Gaga's third studio album, Artpop (2013), however they did not make the final album cut, and have since not been released. Banks also revealed that she collaborated with Kanye West on G.O.O.D. Music's compilation album, Cruel Summer, but further clarified that ultimately, her contributions did not make the final cut of the album. On December 31, 2012, Banks released a track titled "BBD", which ultimately appeared on her debut album Broke with Expensive Taste.
2013–present: Broke with Expensive Taste, Coco and Slay-Z
Early in 2012, Banks revealed that her debut album would be called Broke with Expensive Taste, and said that the album would include contributions from various musicians including Toko Yasuda, Theophilus London, Kevin Hussein, and Ariel Pink. Banks initially announced that the album's lead single would be a track titled "Miss Amor," and that it would be accompanied by a B-side, "Miss Camaraderie," both produced by Lone. However, these plans changed when she later announced in January 2013 that the first official single from the album would be a song called "Yung Rapunxel," which was released in March 2013 through SoundCloud.
In May 2013, Banks announced that the second single from Broke with Expensive Taste would be "ATM Jam", featuring Pharrell. The next month, on June 29, Banks debuted the song in a performance at the 2013 Glastonbury Festival, with New York City radio station Hot 97 premiering a clean, shortened version of the studio recording three days later on July 2. On July 11, 2013, the full studio version of "ATM Jam" was released on BBC Radio 1, and was released for digital download on August 30, 2013. Banks later confirmed in November 2013 that "ATM Jam" would not be appearing on Broke with Expensive Taste due to poor sales.
Banks announced in mid-July that after a long battle, she had parted ways with Universal Music Group. Banks reportedly has possession and the rights to the work she released with Interscope. On July 28, 2014, Banks released the official second single from Broke with Expensive Taste, titled "Heavy Metal and Reflective", on her own label, Azealia Banks Records. This was followed by "Chasing Time", the third single from the project, on September 22.
Banks surprise-released her debut studio album, Broke with Expensive Taste on to iTunes, on November 7, 2014, while the album got its physical release on March 3, 2015. In February 2015, Banks posed nude for the April issue of Playboy, shot by Ellen von Unwerth. In May 2015, it was announced that Banks would be making her acting debut as the main character in the RZA-directed musical drama film Coco. Months later, Banks revealed that she was unable to release new music until March 2016, however, as of February 2016 she is officially cleared of her contract and able to release new music. In February 2016, Banks released a new single, "The Big Big Beat," with its official video uploaded to Vevo in April. Her mixtape, Slay-Z, was released March 24, 2016.
Banks identifies as bisexual. During the few instances where she has discussed her sexuality with the press, Banks has expressed dissatisfaction with society's labeling of others based on sexual orientation. In an interview with The New York Times, Banks stated, "I'm not trying to be, like, the bisexual, lesbian rapper. I don't live on other people's terms."
Banks is known for publicly speaking out on African-American civil rights issues, with a commentator at Splice Today describing Banks as having "that hot New York temper where she will pop off if you cross her the wrong way". In December 2014 she called for over $100 trillion to be paid to African-Americans as financial reparations for the enslavement of their ancestors, citing U.S. reparations to Native American communities and the German reparations to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust as a precedent. Using Twitter, she urged young African-Americans to take an interest in such issues, adding that "We are the children of the people who perished in the name of modern capitalism and we deserve a piece of that fucking pie." She added that reparations could be used to improve educational prospects for black Americans.
In 2016, Banks took to Twitter to express her endorsement of Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, clarifying that "I have no hope for America...I think Donald Trump is evil like America is evil and in order for America to keep up with itself it needs him...politicians are inherently evil, I trust the one who is most transparent."
Banks is close friends with singer Lana Del Rey.
Banks has said she admires American recording artists Beyoncé and Aaliyah stating the former "[is] the queen of everything. She's the most remarkable performer and musician. And this is just my humble opinion, but I just think she's better than everyone else making music right now." Banks also cites Bajan pop singer, Rihanna and house singer, Crystal Waters as influences. Banks is inspired by, and has drawn directly upon, black gay culture, such as the film Paris is Burning, in her music.
AllMusic characterizes Banks as "a stylish vocalist who combines hardcore hip-hop, indie pop, and dance music." Meanwhile, The Guardian's John Robinson considered Banks' style "an appealing blend of Missy Elliott and dance-pop." In regards to her musical style, Banks has frequently been noted for the use of profanity in many of her songs, particularly her reclamation of the word "cunt", examples including her debut single "212", in which she uses the word more than ten times, or other songs such as "Fierce", in which she refers to herself as the "cunt queen". Banks attributes this to her upbringing in Harlem, saying, "...I'm from Harlem. I went to art school; I grew up with the cunts. And that term doesn't come from me! People think I invented it, but I didn't. To be cunty is to be feminine and to be, like, aware of yourself. Nobody's fucking with that inner strength and delicateness. The cunts, the gay men, adore that. My friends would say, 'Oh you need to cunt it up! You're being too banjee.' Banjee means unrefined and rough. You need your cunts: they fix your hair for you and do your makeup. They give you confidence and give you life." She is also known for her often fast-paced rapping, or "flow". In a review of Banks' debut EP 1991, Chris Dart of Exclaim! found Banks' rapping speed "remarkable", commenting that she "manages a feat that takes most rappers the better part of a career to master: the perfect marriage of bangin', club-friendly beats and smart, crisply delivered lyrics".
Since writing "212", Banks has adopted an alter-ego named "Yung Rapunxel". This alter-ego was adapted from Banks referring to herself as Rapunzel, due to a long weave she wore while working at Starbucks as a teenager. Banks discussed this with Rolling Stone saying, "Yung Rapunxel is that girl who pisses people off but doesn't really mean to. She's actually a sweetheart! But people are so taken aback that she's so herself; she's not even trying to be unique or different. She literally just lives in her head; she does what she wants to do. So, the lipstick is here for someone who is happy to be themself."
Banks has developed a reputation for disputes with public figures on social media, particularly Twitter, with Complex noting that "she gets more attention for her public feuds than she does for her music".
In response to the Bill Cosby sexual assault allegations, she tweeted "them bitches frontin' like they wasn't trying to get some of that pudding pop!!!!" Judd Apatow strongly criticized her in response. "No longer could we laugh off her behavior," Vulture observed later.
Later that month Banks tweeted that the descendants of prominent slave-trading families "should all have their houses burned and their finances seized." She also sent direct messages to James DeWolf Perry, a descendant of James DeWolf, who was an eighteenth-century politician, and slave-owner, demanding details about his finances, adding "I think white men all need to be locked away in a psych ward... Considering the atrocities committed by white men ON THE WORLD" and "someone should kick your ass, and punch you right in your stupid smiling cracker face."
In February 2015, Vice associate editor Mitchell Sunderland wrote a piece titled "My Bizarre Twitter Beef with Azealia Banks and Her Homophobia" about an exchange the two had. In response to the piece, Banks tweeted at Sunderland, "do you know that your mother pushed you out of a pussy?" The two argued over a period of days, with Banks stating, "and even if i am a homophobe... so wat? i still make more $ than you.. still have an extra hole.. and still own everything."
On September 22, 2015, Banks became involved in a confrontation with a fellow passenger and the flight crew while attempting to exit a Delta Air Lines flight that had just landed in Los Angeles. According to witnesses, Banks was attempting to squeeze past other passengers to disembark the plane more quickly, when a French man blocked her path. Banks reacted by spitting in the man's face, punching him, and clawing at his shirt. Subsequently, a flight attendant stepped in and demanded that Banks calm down. This resulted in Banks forcefully arguing with the flight attendant, in which she at one point called the Delta employee a "fucking faggot".
After the airliner incident the following September, Banks posted to her Instagram feed that she had "never felt the pain of not being white the way I've felt it since I've been a public figure." That in itself was not controversial, but then a younger fan reminded her that "the vile things you say" about gays caused them just as much pain. Her response was a series of comments beginning with "imagine how I wanna spray a gay man in the face with pepper spray every time he calls me a bitch a slut or a hoe" and culminating in a suggestion that the original commenter would eventually end up "murdered and stuffed under a truck somewhere" after a Grindr date. Later she deleted the comments and apologized, but Vulture, pointing to recent artistic and commercial setbacks, saw it as "the increasingly desperate behavior of an artist who recognizes that her career is listing, badly ... She's falling fast, and no longer is anything about her spectacle entertaining."
On November 10, 2015, it was reported Banks was under investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department following an altercation involving the rapper and a security guard at L.A. club Break Room 86. Later that year, Banks was arrested in New York after attacking a female security guard.
In March 2016, Sarah Palin threatened a lawsuit against Banks in response to a series of tweets where she attacked the politician. Banks later apologized and said that her outburst was a result of her mistaking a fictional interview with Palin as a real event. In the satirical article, Palin is quoted as saying "Negroes loved being slaves."
Two months later, after Banks' tweeted claims that Zayn Malik borrowed ideas from some of her music videos in his own for "Like I Would", her tweets referred to the British Pakistani singer with racial and homophobic slurs, along with derogatory comments about the British hip hop scene. Her comments also led to a short online feud with 14-year-old actress Skai Jackson, during which Banks told her to "grow some hips and start ur menses". These led to an online petition that got her Twitter account suspended, and she was banned from a London music festival she had been scheduled to headline; the organizers said her appearance after her recent remarks was counter to their "ethos of equality."