My summer was unpredictable and tumultuous, but I managed to establish a few small habits that served as anchors: I made two cups of coffee with milk and sweetener every weekday morning before work and drank them at my desk while reading Toronto’s local news. I made a point of crawling to the beach at least once a weekend to sprawl out on a thick, spectacularly tacky towel and sip Diet Coke, watching children splash around in Lake Ontario’s algae-choked surf. And almost every Saturday between midnight and 2:00 a.m., I heard a handful of Azealia Banks songs in the midst of a few dozen glistening, mostly tank-topped, well-coiffed young men at a club in Toronto’s gay village.
I usually greeted the familiar skittering drum patterns and glossy synth pulses with a loud “WOO!” and dual-wielded finger guns, pointing at either my group of friends or, if I had become isolated while trekking to the bathroom or bar, straight towards the ceiling. I wasn’t hearing the songs for the first time that evening, either; Banks was usually an integral component of any pre-club soundtrack, deployed with abandon no matter the laptop DJ directing the evening’s get-psyched music. As I begin schlepping back to class with fallen leaves crunching underfoot, the heat and haze of summer 2012 in the rear view mirror, it’s become clear that the music of Azealia Banks and my first forays into social excursions defined by sexuality are inextricably linked, with Banks herself serving as some sort of matron saint, granting me serenity while paying every hefty cover charge and resilience on the evening I broke my only pair of flip-flops.
I associate all of Banks’ songs with my exploration of gay cultural events over the past few months, so it’s hard to isolate a single definitive track. There’s “212,” her most famous song to date, which puts a spotlight on Banks’ deft lyrical maneuvers and sassy braggadocio:
There’s also “Liquorice,” in which Banks spits intimidatingly hot fire over a hyper beat, pausing only to coo “I could be the right girl”:
The Montell Jordan-sampling “Esta Noche,” from her Fantasea mixtape, has a riot-inciting chorus in which Banks morphs into a siren and pilfers everyone’s man, including yours:
Each single uses different sonic means to achieve the same effect, an instant shot of confidence that feels like chugging a Red Bull while catching someone gorgeous giving you the once-over. It’s obvious that Banks understands this feeling well, and she evokes it with ease when appropriate; when she sings “I could be the right girl,” she doesn’t leave any room for doubt. She’s the right girl.
Of course, Banks sums this sensation up in one word that titles a banger midway through Fantasea, saving me the trouble. “Fierce” borrows a lengthy a cappella intro by prominent New York queer figure Franklin Fuentes from the 1992 single “Work It Girlfriend/Fierce Talk” by Jack & Jill. It’s full of allusions to the drag scene of late-’80s/early-’90s NYC and its ball culture, which chronicled in the brilliant 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning.
Layer upon layer of rhythm builds and leaves Banks on uneasy footing; there isn’t much melody to speak of here. “Fierce” gets over almost entirely on the strength of Banks’ charisma, and she’s a terror, informing the listener she’s “better than them all / never been a flaw.” At one point the beat drops away and she begins to cackle with malice, her funny bone having been tickled by her dominance. Banks’ swagger and devil-may-care attitude filter from my ears into my morning commute and into my strut through the doors of the club. Her fierceness becomes my own.
But “Fierce” isn’t just sonically suitable for nights in the gay village and associated self-realization — it’s indicative of a connection to the gay community that transcends a flashy synth or a thumping four-on-the-floor beat. Banks goes further than the hat-tips to proud sexuality offered by the likes of Katy Perry in “Firework” and Ke$ha in “We R Who We R” by referencing seminal movements and moments in the history of queer culture. The courage of this decision is only amplified by her chosen art form, given the hip-hop community’s current status as one of America’s final remaining bastions of homophobia in pop culture. In a personal sense, I appreciate Banks’ contribution because of my own experience with the distancing effect that can result from encounters with homophobic lyric.
I was in the middle of my teens when Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” became one of the defining rap singles of its generation, and I loved it like everyone else, falling for the otherworldly fluidity and hilarity of prime Wayne. But a price of self-discovery is loss of the bliss that accompanies ignorance, and eventually the day came when the line “On some faggot bullshit / call me Dennis Rodman” no longer slipped by unnoticed. I used to rap along to “A Milli” at my desk without a care in the world; if I were to do that now, it would feel like I was compromising myself, trivializing in a tiny way every moment I struggled with being attracted to men. Azealia Banks isn’t dropping casual slurs that stop me in my tracks. Instead, it’s feasible that songs like “Fierce” could serve as entry points for young men like myself to discover the history of gay community and culture. This is radically different and very important.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are many other artists exploring the fraught terrain of sexuality in hip-hop in a fearless and engaging fashion. Carrie Battan’s brilliant and extensive Pitchfork feature on NYC queer rap, “We Invented Swag,” is an excellent starting point for investigating this sub-sphere.
But Azealia Banks will forever be the sound of my summer 2012, the summer where I made my first trip to a gay club and kissed boys at the bus stop without looking in both directions first. I emerged a little smarter, a little stronger, and a little more comfortable with myself, and I can’t help but associate that growth with the brash, grinning young woman from the 212.
Jamieson Cox is an engineering student at the University of Waterloo, a writer with an eponymous Tumblr, and a noted burrito enthusiast.