It makes sense that the cover art for “Escapades,” the single released this week by the singer and rapper Azealia Banks, so closely resembles the ’90s house records that have emerged as aesthetic and cultural influences on trendy club kids and on the celebrities who emulate them. In a different world, 26-year-old Banks could very well have been the standard-bearer for house and techno’s resurgence in pop culture. Over the past few years, she has made the case for herself as both an inimitable musical talent and an unpredictable provocateur, releasing a number of bona fide club jams while courting controversies ranging from name-calling a 14-year-old, to threatening to stab Russell Crowe, to defending the practice of skin bleaching. Unfortunately for her, and for her legion of loyal fans, the latter has often overshadowed the former.
“Escapades” is the latest in a string of tracks Banks has dispatched via various labels and imprints since her 2014 album Broke With Expensive Taste. In fact, the song has origins in one of the many quarrels that have somewhat stalled her career. “Escapades” was intended to be released as a collaboration with the electronic pop duo Disclosure, she tweeted. “I'm definitely coming to prove my exec production skills on ha,” she wrote. Banks famously, and publicly, axed the collaboration in 2013, telling the Australian publication The AU Review that, “I did something with Disclosure but they were, like, really rude in an interview, so I canned it.” Instead produced by Owwwls, the track mines the queer black legacy of house music that has been her calling card.
Banks’s vocals shine over a supremely infectious 808 pattern, and there are shimmering synths that, midway through, turn dark and gloomy. Acts like Crystal Waters, whose 1991 hit “Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)" became a signifier of the era, are often forgotten forebearers of the type of dance music gaining in popularity among pop and hip-hop artists. Vince Staples’s recent album Big Fish Theory, for example, explores dance-centric influences that have been cropping up on releases of all genres over the past couple of years. Disclosure’s pop-house schtick itself is indebted to a generation of black women who defined the sound of house in the ’90s. Banks is a natural fit for this revivalist sound.“Escapades is also inspired by single black moms of the 1990’s. This is totally 100% my mothers [sic] tastes and influence showing here,” she tweeted.
It has been nearly three years since Banks burst into tears during an interview on New York radio station Hot 97, in which she discussed the unique challenges that black women face in the music industry. White artists like Iggy Azalea, with whom Banks has feuded with in the past, are often lauded in the place of the numerous black women working in the same genre. (It’s admittedly a dated reference; Iggy’s career has all but evaporated in the years since.) Similarly, the controversies that have ostensibly cratered Banks’ career — allegations of homophobia (she has publicly identified as queer) and erratic public outbursts — appear compounded by the fact that she is a black woman. Publications and fans have basically written Banks off, dismissing her as a deranged wild card while amplifying rappers like XXXTentacion or Famous Dex, both of whom have allegations of domestic assault looming over them and neither of whom have released music as remotely compelling as she has. The double standard that exists for black women in music, and elsewhere, doesn’t absolve Banks, who narrowly avoided arrest last month after missing a court appearance over an incident in which she bit a woman’s breast, of responsibility. But that an artist’s transgressions is measured against their identity is undeniable, and unfair.
Last week, Banks posted an optimistic treatise on Instagram putting into the universe, as she often does, her desire for a record deal and for various big ticket collaborations (including one with Iggy). On Twitter, she agreed with one fan who suggested that “All [she has] to do is drop a song and be on good behavior for a week.” Based on the music alone, it’s not hard to imagine a successful comeback. But something Banks has never been quiet about, and that her detractors seem unwilling to admit, is that these things are rarely just about the music.