Azealia Banks‘ raunchy party-rap cut “212” seems like a pretty obvious star-making moment. On the stuttering, reggae-flecked track—and accompanying video, which is currently absent from YouTube—the 20-year-old Harlem rapper is so at ease lyrically, so devastating with her taunts, and so downright sassy that she basically announces herself the next big thing. A former child actor and graduate of LaGuardia Arts, Banks is similarly confident in real life. But whether she can blow up on a large scale may depend on how much she can distance herself from hero (and fellow LaGuardia alum) Nicki Minaj, with whom she shares a street-savvy, pop-minded aesthetic and flair for the dramatic. We caught up with Banks to chat about her sexually forward lyrics, the inevitable Minaj comparisons, and what she is (and isn’t) willing to do to become famous.
You’ve been involved with theater and acting since you were young. When did you start rapping?
I’ve been rapping for maybe four years now. I started when I was 16. I kind of started doing it for fun, but I was also halfway serious. Because, you know, I went to LaGuardia, I did the whole musical theater thing for a while and by the time I was 16 I had linked up with an acting agent and I started freelancing with this agency. But things weren’t really working out. And in my mind at that point, I just wanted to be famous so badly that I was kind of, like, “I’m going to make this shit happen for me, whichever way I can.” I mostly started writing R&B songs but I never recorded any of them, and then I started writing rap lyrics and recording them. I guess I was a little insecure about my singing skills—I felt like I had kind of fallen off a little a bit. So I was like, “Whatever, I’ll rap and see where this can take me.” But really, my plan was to rap, get noticed, and quit altogether to start acting. But the rap thing got a little bigger than I thought I would get.
So would you still prefer to act instead of rap?
For now I’m going to stick to the rapping thing and try to solidify myself as an entertainer, and then I’ll start considering other options. Because you don’t want to do too much all at once—then it can look a little attention whore-ish.
Was it hard to stand out at LaGuardia, with so many talented kids there?
I guess it could be hard for some people; it wasn’t really hard for me. I’m not even trying to be funny or anything like that. I don’t know, just my whole life I’ve been a person that’s stood out. Even when I was little, my sister would always be like, “Oh my god, you have really intense eyes!” Maybe it has a lot to do with whatever soul that’s inside me that’s coming out. Some people are that in tune with themselves, I feel like to a certain extent I’m that in tune with myself. Yeah, yeah—I feel like I’m sounding too cocky and too, like, in love with myself. I don’t know.
I imagine it’s got to be pretty competitive, though? Lots of kinds trying to dance, rap, become stars?
No, I feel like it’s mostly competitive within your respective department. Like, if you’re a dance major then you guys are all competing amongst each other to be the best dancer. It’s more departmental. But with the musical—they do a big production every year—anyone can audition for it and a lot of times some random art major with a great voice gets the lead role and you’re like “Oh, fuck”. That’s really where the competition is. Everyone in the school pretty much competes to get into the musical and have a lead in it.
Nicki Minaj also went to school there. Do you see any similarity between you two?
I see 100 similarities. It’s really weird, not even to be on some shit. Especially earlier in my rap career, when she started blowing up, it kind of made me a little jealous. Because I kind of felt like she had stolen all my ideas. A part of me was convinced that was like, “Yo, she’s got someone on the internet stealing all my ideas. It has to be!” Then I kind of just had to look at it, like maybe we might just be on the same level consciously or artistically. Maybe we just have similar ideas. Once I started to think about it like that, I really forced myself to change my ideas. Because I felt like a lot of those ideas were kind of contrived in a sense? And then I was like, if I’m gonna get up here and do this and I can’t do what I orignally planned to do because, for whatever reason, this woman is already doing it, I need to go back to the drawing board and reconfigure what I was going to do. That was around the same time that I did the “Slow Hands” cover and all that other good stuff.
What do you think separates you from her at this point?
I mean, it’s not to insult her at all, because she works hard and has worked hard for everything she has, and just as a former student of LaGuardia, I’m very proud of her. Because so many people graduate from the school and don’t do shit with anything they’ve learned. Like, nothing at all. So I feel like the difference between she and I is that I may—maybe just by luck or by chance or fate, who knows?—I have a little more time to experiment with my sound and have fun. Not to say that she’s not having fun doing what she’s doing, but a lot of what she’s doing seems a little, I don’t know, satirical.
I feel like when she was first doing the mixtape thing it was kind of like this raw girl from the streets. But then when she started to get a little bit of attention, she kind of decided that she wanted to be accepted by pop media, the white world, if you will, and a lot of that original stuff—that original rawness— just really went away. It kind of just became a big cartoon.
Even with that said, having been an actress, even if i don’t like something or not, i can always understand something and I feel like that’s why i love her so much and i support her. Like, I have three copies of Pink Friday. I bought it twice digitally and once physically. I’m interested in knowing what she’s doing because she’s a pop star now. It’s weird, sometimes I kind of look at it and I’m like, “What? How did this become so big?” But it is big so there’s something she’s doing right and I guess I’m just trying to figure that out [laughs].
The “212” lyrics are pretty sexually forward. Are you that bold in your day-to-day life?
Yeah, I mean, what am I scared of? I feel like there’s a time and place for everything, but no I’m not afraid to talk about it.
Do you think it shouldn’t even be a factor? Like, if a guy were raunchy, it would probably go unmentioned.
I feel like what a lot of men don’t realize is just the power we have as women. And I feel a lot of women don’t realize the power they have. If every woman decided tomorrow that she never wanted to have sex again, what the fuck would men do? Women don’t have that same kind of sexual urgency that men have, you know? We’re more into romance and being proteced and stuff like that. We just have different impulses. But I think it’s like psychological warfare between men and women. Sometimes women don’t know they’re in control because they’ve just been tricked by men for centuries and centuries and fucking thousands of years. Since the beginning of time, we’ve been tricked by men to feel like we aren’t the ones in power but really we are.
I’d agree with that! So what are your plans going forward? Will there be an album soon?
I’m in the studio a lot. Right now I’m in negotiation with labels and I just switched management. Once I sign a deal and get shit in place it’s gonna be like nonstop, just fucking drilling on music for like, the next five years. I don’t really have any other plans aside from making money [laughs] If I can say that.
With that said, I’m not going to do anything stupid to make money or get attention. I’m not gonna, like, I don’t know, wear a fucking fried chicken necklace or any stupid shit like that, you know what I mean? I’m just going to try to keep everything as authentic as possible and make good music, make good art.