If there is one artist that perfectly encapsulates music in 2012, it’s Azealia Banks. It remains to be seen whether or not that will put her in good stead for a long-lasting, illustrious career, but right now the horrifyingly young, foul-mouthed rap starlight is the name on everyone’s lips. She is just about the most vitally exciting presence in hip-hop right now.
The assembled crowd at the O2 Academy Oxford for Banks’ first ever Oxford tour date, is a remarkably mixed one, reflecting Banks’ very ‘2012’ magpie approach to music making; though ostensibly rap, Banks’ music encompasses house, disco, dancehall, techno, rave, and one of her earliest recordings was a beautifully sung electronic cover of ‘Slow Hands’ by Interpol.
Opening act Zebra Katz has been making waves in his native Brooklyn as part of an emerging queer rap scene. He raps nonchalantly in a rich baritone over minimalist electronic backing tracks, throwing staggeringly smart metaphors around effortlessly. In many ways he is the perfect support act, the deep voiced male counterpoint to Banks; the ying to her yang. Both combine elements of early 80s gay culture, skittering beats, deep, dark basslines, and phenomenally foul mouths.
After, DJ Cosmo warms up the crowd by seemingly playing every good pop song ever written (there is a lot of Prince, and a LOT of Michael Jackson). Banks takes to the stage in a flashing bra and immediately bombards the crowd with ferociously fast rapping. From then on, the pace doesn’t let up for a second. For a relatively new artist, Banks’ has a wealth of material at her disposal and attempts to cram most of it into her brief, blistering set. She plays all of the highlights from her hugely enjoyable, if slightly unfocused mixtape Fantasea, including the Dilpo-produced monster track ‘Fuck Up The Fun’, the percussive ‘Jumanji’ and the smooth, shiny house jam ‘Luxury’.
Banks’ keeps her between-song banter to a minimum and leaves only the briefest of gaps between songs, instead pummeling the crowd with her relentless, rapid-fire spitting. Her only real break is a brief costume change, in which her two spectacular dancers each get a respective moment in the spotlight. My only real complaint is that Banks’ set is all too brief; it all seems over in a flash. Towards the end of the set, she throws a few bones to fans of her earlier material, including the fantastic, filthy minute and a half that is ‘L8R’.
The set ends, inevitably, with arguably the defining song of the year: ‘212’. Banks proclaims: “This is the one you’ve been waiting for” and crowd goes absolutely wild. ‘212’ is a powerful, thrilling, dirty, disgusting thrill ride of a song, at once danceable and scary. It is a song that perfectly announces the emergence of a serious new talent, a ballsy female rapper not in the thrall of repetitive chart producers and not afraid to base the refrain in her most famous song around the most offensive word in the English language. Banks is destined to be a giant in the hip-hop world, the opportunity to see her right at the start of it all is not something I will forget for a long, long time.