Azealia Banks finally came home. Less than nine months after unleashing the adrenalized clip for her breakout single “212,” the Harlemite descended on her native digs for her first post-hype solo gig at Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom, the second show of the day following a parking lot performance at Hot 97’s Summer Jam festival that afternoon.
Expectations ran high. The freshly legal rapstress has ridden the fame rocket to heights normally unimaginable by new emcees, let alone female ones. She’s dazzled cool-for-school crowds in Paris at Karl Lagerfeld’s home; signed a hands-off record deal with Interscope/Polydor to release her debut album Broke with Expensive Taste in the fall and, last week, her debut EP 1991; and managed to chump old guard rap fixtures like T.I. and Lil’ Kim simply by throwing out a few one-two-punch tweets.
In a relatively brief amount of time, the self-stamped Yung Rapunxel earned the right to let eccentricities fly at her first NYC show, themed as a “Mermaid Ball.” Fans were encouraged to don their best aquatic attire in hopes of landing a $1,000 prize, given to the best merman or mermaid in attendance. Looming tufts of aqua hair and seaweed-inspired DIY fashion dotted the sold-out crowd, where seapunk attire abounded and heels were unisex. Opening sets from Maluca, Roxy Cottontail, WcKids, Tigga Calore and House of Ladosha greased patrons, who nibbled gratis cones of blue cotton candy and wielded balloons before the mistress of ceremonies emerged at one AM.
Descending the stairs to a tinkering instrumental, Banks warmly greeted her adoring fans with few words. “Yo, this is my first official New York show,” she said. “Shout out to everybody who came out.” She was dressed for the occasion, rocking a see-through body suit divided between red and blue hues, exposing breasts adorned with heart-shaped pasties over her nipples. Banter was minimal throughout: she prefaced most songs with a hometown shout-out and thanked her openers. Otherwise, it was a full-on rap attack.
Or, at least a moderately valiant attempt. For a penwoman who folds over words with lyrical ease, Banks hasn’t entirely hit her stride. Fans in the front row pumped fists to “Grand Scam (Lyrical Exercise)” and “Barbie Shit,” but enthusiasm trickled to the back. A pair of dancers kept the spectacle alive on stage, but Banks merely thrusted her hips and swished her feet-long hair, her energy seemingly set to medium. Songs like “Bambi” rang a few bells, but most seemed unschooled on her pre-“212” material.
That disconnect boiled down the set to the 1991 EP, which was performed in full at the end of the show. It made the personality seem bigger than the music, a cocky one at that. She strutted across the stage like she owned the place—it was her ball, after all—but her satisfactory live chops underlined how far she’s yet to go, and perhaps how short she’s come.
But judging by the clamorous response to the CeCe Peniston-inspired cuts from 1991, she’s on the right track. Launching into the EP’s title anthem, Banks Franglished her way through the lounge-ready anthem, cranking the heat to full blast with the bloopy “Van Vogue.” It was when she launched into “Liquorice” that the venue broached full throttle. The audience shouted back her lyrics, filling in the gaps when she paused mid-rap to let the instrumental take hold. It’s a synth-zapped ode that deads any doubt of her being a one-hit wonder, a vestige of versatility she’s continued to prove.
At that, Banks wrapped the 30-minute set with the jam that dropped her into plain sight. As the Lazy Jay instrumental revved up, the venue was filled with unison chants to “212”: “I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten,” “I’mma ruin you cunt.” She didn’t sing the bridge—in fact, most singing was relinquished to the backing track—but the effect was still strong. Concertgoers vigorously danced as lyrics tumbled from the sound system. Balloons showered from the ceiling and confetti burst through the air. At the show’s end, Banks bid her seafolk adieu, retreating from the stage with a wide grin. She was confident in her performance. The crowd was on her side, and she knew why.
Photo by Lorenna Gomez-Sanchez