We can stare at our screens and wonder all day whether Azealia Banks is torpedoing her young career, or we can go to a show and watch her work.
On Thursday, Nov. 19, the 24-year-old Harlemite headlined Terminal 5 in New York City. The week before, it was reported she's under investigation for assaulting a security guard. She also nixed her nine-stop American tour, aside from the evening in NY, vaguely writing that she's "very busy at work." There's been a depressing dearth of concerts since she surprise-dropped her three-years-in-the-making debut album, Broke with Expensive Taste, in November 2014. Staying committed to the New York date kinda read as a halfhearted gesture to just give the fans something.
Instead, Terminal 5 was Azealia Banks' full-throated display of giving her fans, and herself, everything. We could talk a long while about how celebratory and juiced apparently every member of the crowd was—the house-flavored beats turned Banks' show into a nobody's-not-dancing party rather than a watch-the-artist-closely exhibition. But charming diehard fans is easy. Doing what Yung Rapunxel did last night isn't.
Even the biggest rappers stumble into weird, unsatisfying live productions, with star-swallowing hype men and overzealous backing tracks; confused, confusing live bands; and smashes sliced in half. Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, J. Cole, Meek Mill: They've all faltered on major stages, and they're not alone.
Azealia, though, hit every note and spat every bar crisply, clearly and as cold as ice. In a shimmering genie-mermaid outfit, she swiveled between focused and fun-loving, always natural, never performative. Her squad was made up of four Beyoncé-ready dancers and two subtle backing vocalists—a 50/50 male/female split in both departments—as well as an ill Montreal DJ and a drummer capable of boosting the throbbing backbones of bangers like "1991," "Heavy Metal and Reflective" and "Ice Princess."
The woman with the Mickey Mouse sweater wasn't putting on a show, she was taking part in one. The vibe was cemented by the fact that, in what feels like a world of finger-wagging haters, this was friends and family only.
What was that stuff about Azealia screwing herself out of a career, though? Twitter beef? Offstage antics blasted on TMZ? Duels where "f----t" is her finishing move? That assault investigation?
Look, some of those barbs and incidents were messy and hurtful. But how about we try spending time considering how bored, frustrated and pissed Azealia Banks might be, waiting and clawing for the music industry and the commentariat to recognize her unique gifts, fully evident from the minute "212" hit YouTube four whole years ago? (Status update: 102.4 million views.) We super-glue labels like "difficult" and "troll" on Banks, without looking up from the magnifying glass to notice we're letting often problematic male artists like Future, Eminem, Travi$ Scott and more sail past their indefensible moments. There's a disturbing amount of effort spent talking about every part of this woman that's not her art.
The chorus of critics asks for this deeply talented musician—one who's being boxed out of a business run by white male olds happily coasting on the fact that Nicki Minaj checks their sole Successful Black Female Rapper box—to behave better? Azealia and fellow diamond-in-the-rough Angel Haze have faced similar, well-documented feuds and separations from labels, which begs the question: Who wouldn't lash out at a world that treats artists this good this badly?
Online, Azealia Banks is screwing herself out of fame, fortune, respect and whatever else they're saying. IRL, she's unfuckwithable, a musician who delivers records and mixtapes without expiration dates, performances that keep you awake for the rest of the night, electrified and inspired. Hopefully folks who weren't at Terminal 5 yesterday start figuring this out soon.