Azealia Banks showed up for her big break a few years early. It’s 2008, and the Harlem-born rap rookie is dilly-dallying on the music video set for Juelz Santana’s ’hood carol “Jingle Bellz,” red peacoat beaming, knapsack bulging, lip gloss poppin’. She thumbs her Blackberry while awaiting an impromptu audition for her around-the-way heroes, only to be brushed off before uttering a single syllable. “I was prepared to spit for Dame Dash, but he kind of just went ‘Nah!’ and walked away. Womp,” recalls the now-20-year-old cocoa-toned rascal, choking with laughter. “Juelz looked at me like, ‘Whose little sister is here? Please get her the fuck out.’”
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Today the petite eccentric phones from her North London flat, conjuring recent memories of the December date when Kanye West picked her brain over breakfast, lunch and dinner. Harlem block stars are in the rear view; these days the singing rapper is focused on performing at style god Karl Lagerfeld’s Paris estate and nailing a sold-out string of U.K. tour stops. The kindler behind Azealia’s across-the-pond fame and fortune is her irresistible breakout “212,” a grizzly, electro-hop number ironically named for her hometown area code. “American culture is mad programmed and excessive with that quantity-over-quality mentality bullshit,” explains Banks, whose provocative, brilliantly simple “212” video has racked up 14 million views, even earning Twitter approval from unlikely stan Gwenyth Paltrow. “In Europe, your art is looked at on merit and how you hold up your integrity. The people here are just deeper thinkers, ya know?” Banks is on an expedition to mum stupid hoe shenanigans and import a higher level of creative sonics for America’s team estrogen. That is, once she readjusts her British iPhone’s bloody autocorrect.
There are a few facts you should know about the artist Kanye reportedly dubbed “the future of music.” The bisexual Gemini has a thing for fairy tale aliases (Yung Rapunxel), hatching Martian tunes and a four-letter word that rhymes with punt. Her Universal Music debut album Broke With Expensive Taste promises a cocktail of Uptown girl autonomy and Euro mischief that’s more M.I.A. than Lil Mama (her words: “crazy fucking digital princess, rave chick, alien elf, like fucking dot-in-the-middle-of-my-forehead it’s gonna be dope”). But can it stand tall on the annoyingly inevitable Nicki Minaj measuring stick? “I don’t remember Nicki having the level of ambition Azealia manifested to me,” says drama teacher Harry Shifman, mentor to both co-alums several years apart at Manhattan’s famed Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School. “Azealia is a pretty extraordinary talent.” Producer Diplo, who first collaborated with the artist formally known as Miss Bank$ via MySpace in 2009, agrees: “Azealia wasn’t built in a marketing meeting. She doesn’t conform at all,” he says. “She really [gained momentum] all by herself, so that’s going to give her the confidence to become a star.”
The gateway from Harlem World to the real world cracked open at Banks’ aforementioned artsy academy, where the spitfire broadened her Destiny’s Child and Da Brat playlists with classmates’ Mp3s of Interpol and The Strokes. The quirky ex-theatre geek channeled that musical diversity into bars and hooks, just for the hell of it. Post-graduation, she scored a petty $5,000 deal with British indie XL Records off the self-released song “Seventeen,” only to find three years of neglect, ignored calls and leftover Santigold beats awaiting in London town.
Then came “212,” both a sunken ship and lifeboat. Sedating the stress of an eviction and shattered heart, Azealia immersed herself in the Lazy Jay instrumental for two weeks with hopes of jolting her label standing. The resulting track, steeped in saucy expletives and dramatic character segues, did the opposite, as unconvinced XL owner Richard Russells dropped her last summer after listening. The tune resurrected in September once the stark black-and-white visual hit the web, catapulting her into a surging crop of young and reckless raptresses like Kreayshawn and Iggy Azalea. “Not to shade anyone, but what I’m doing is so progressive and so many years ahead of my peers,” announces Banks, who’s working with Brit producer Paul Epworth (Adele, Cee-Lo) and soulful hipster Lana Del Ray for her first LP. “I do whatever the fuck I want… even if someone did it before I’m gonna do it better.”
Now the wunderkind just needs to connect the dots. Before heading off to meet with her tour manager, Azealia muses on the mission awaiting her Westward. “Everyone thinks I’m this arrogant little twat, but I’m actually very levelheaded and real,” she says, unnerved by her unfolding homecoming. “Whether you’re from the States or London, my music will make you feel me.”