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Live: Azealia Banks Enchants Under The Mermaid Ball's Sea Of Balloons And Tickertape

Live: Azealia Banks Enchants Under The Mermaid Ball's Sea Of Balloons And Tickertape
bprep/Instagram

Azealia Banks's Mermaid Ball w/Maluca, Wckids, Tigga Calore, House of Ladosha & Jack Mizrahi Bowery Ballroom Sunday, June 3

Better than: Summer Jam.

Azealia Banks has become one of many New York musicians flavoring their music with borrowed vogue culture—particularly from her birth year, 1991—so it made sense that her hometown debutante soirée would take on the accoutrements of an actual vogue ball. And while it might be de rigueur (on Twitter, she LOL'd at the idea that she'd aped Gaga), the lineup was packed with the banjee new school, as well as commentator (and vogue-ball staple) Jack Mizrahi. Still, the concept of having a ball at the Bowery, likely for Banks fans who might not be the most knowledgeable about the still-underground ball culture—primarily the dominion of gay and transgendered blacks and Latinos—had the potential to get seriously little awkward. Besides, there were logistical concerns. Where would people vogue? The stage? Or would the magic of Jack Mizrahi part a sold-out Bowery crowd, Red Sea-style? Factor in the proto-seapunk Little Mermaid theme and the whole concept had me a little nervous, as much as I love the lineup.

Turns out, Banks knows her audience. The Bowery was remarkably decked out by Banks's sister in very serious balloon sculptures of crimson red coral and lime green octopuses, and the fans took the mermaid theme seriously, dressed across the spectrum from elaborate fins to the best back-of-the-closet Forever 21 sequins. Banks's set time was 1 a.m., and after what felt like 13 hours of DJs hawking Baltimore breaks, Jack Mizrahi, the night's ad hoc music critic, welcomed rap crew House of Ladosha to the "Legendary Bowery Ballroom" stage, dubbing them "the reincarnation of what it means to be a Party Monster." Supported by crop-topped back-up dancer Juliana Huxtable Ladosha, Dosha Devastation and Cunty Crawford Ladosha tore through lyrics and body rolls, officially signalling the night was on. Calling them performance artists (or, alternately, sticking them in the "gay rapper" corner) diminishes what they do, though—leader Dosha Devastation is formidable on the mic, powered through hits like "I'm Carrying" and their "BMF" freestyle, whose namedropping ("I think I'm Kate Moss/Naomi Campbell") is secondary to a reasoning as hard as anything Rawse might imagine: "Cocaine Kate never caught a case!" After several songs and some sweat, Dosha Devastation, in a long wig and Versace blouse, quipped, "I know y'all were like, 'Azealia Banks looks different in person!" Wckids, the rising young Brooklyn DJ duo, dropped Danny Brown's Darq E Freaker collaboration, "Blueberry (Pills & Cocaine)."

Tigga Calore's set was the other end of the spectrum: sleek, avant-garde and banjee, propped up by a pair of voguing back-up dancers, she incorporated traditional vogue commentator rhythms—like Jack Mizrahi's staccato—into hulking rap beats and a house track produced by Kim Ann Foxman, and introduced the concept of vogue commentating as a viable contemporary rap form. Just after introducing a new song, "The Bitches Throw Shade Cause They Just Can't Take," mermaid Azealia made a star's entrance, carried in like an Ariel cake by two burly dudes and an Ursula. It was a weird scene—at one point I was flanked by the only two people in the audience actually voguing and a LARPy dude wearing a pinstripe suit and a sheriff's badge—but it still felt like a thousand-person birthday party. Maluca's new steez, looking like a DIY Beyoncé in a Mad Max fantasy, is all about pop star automaton, as she previewed new songs from her next EP, out September. Her toasting/singing style was amped up by robot moves and four backup dancers (shout to her choreographer), before Mizrahi announced the mermaid parade/contest. Despite the presence of some heavy competitors in elaborate make-up and iridescent fishtails, the winner, a dude Mizrahi called "Bubbleesha," was the only person on the stage who could properly vogue. Let it never be said that New York City doesn't ride for realness.

 

This was at 12:30. At the 1:15 set time—a baby hour for those accustomed to arriving at the ball at 3—the head mermaid rolled out in a blast of electricity. For all the Mermaid Ball's feminine conventions, its hot-pink flyer and princess aspirations, Azealia Banks came out like Lil Kim and spit next-level streetwise, with Harlem fight and minimal house beats. Ditching the mermaid suit for a dancehall queen-worthy fishnet bodystocking and pasties, she opened with the subdued fight track "Grand Scam," and proceeded to show off her dexterity on quick cadences. Banks has been dismissed by some for not having a repertoire, which is untrue, or for being so quickly accepted into the fashion world, which is totally true. But when the proof is staring you in the face, you can't front. She's always been a ferocious rapper—if anything, she could use a few slow bars to mix it up—and beyond one or two bouts with breath control here and there, she ripped "Barbie Shit," "Runnin," "Jumanji," "Liquorice," and the title track from her forthcoming Fantasea mixtape, out July 4. She was pretty and gracious, thanking the audience and repping New York here and there, but mostly Banks was focused on her rapping, no bells or whistles but for two vogue-inflected dancers behind her. (Everyone has backup dancers now. Where can I get some backup dancers?)

The crowd knew a bulk of the lyrics, even to "1991" and "Van Vogue" off her recently released EP, and it was clear that this was the beginning of a cult—her rapping is there, it's just a matter of whether she can sustain herself past the fickle '90s vibe, or when the (tiny) masses lose interest in ball culture. Nonetheless, it was a short set. She naturally ended on "212," the track that made her an internet hero, and an already-hype crowd went buck, pogo'ing in unison in a weird expression of joy to a song about stomping out a foe. This is 2012! When she screamed out the refrain, "Bitch, the end of your lives are near," a ceiling full of balloons cascaded on the crowd. The second time, it was a blizzard of tickertape (which got stuck in my glasses and blinded me for a bit, so if I missed anything salacious, I apologize). The only other show I've ever seen that ended in this much tickertape was R. Kelly, on the Double Up tour, in an arena. Suffice to say if Miss Banks ends up being a flash in the pan, gone with the internet wind 2012, at the very least she knows how to throw a party.

Critical bias: I employed Azealia Banks to perform at my birthday party in 2009.

Overheard: [Nonplussed] "I went to high school with her."

Random notebook dump: Straight white nerdboy wearing a cap that read "Ima Read" in Olde English, referencing the Zebra Katz song: 2012 is truly the year of the gay, thank god.

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