Review: Azealia Banks dazzles at the Fonda

Azealia Banks brings her "Mermaid Ball 2012" show to the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood on July 14.
(Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles Times)

From the moment Azealia Banks swagger-sashayed onstage before a capacity crowd at the Fonda Theatre on Saturday, she radiated old-fashioned star magnetism and immediately showed why she’d been tagged one of hip-hop’s brightest new stars — even though she’d distanced herself from the genre, saying she’d “rather be a dance artist.”

Dressed in a sheer bodysuit with strategically placed strips of material and sporting her signature thick mane of mermaid-style hair, the 21-year-old unleashed a rat-a-tat-tat stream of perfectly enunciated words — creating that most foundational of relationships between a rapper and her fans.

It’s where we ride the wave of their flow, holding tight as they dazzle us not only with their wordplay and ideas but also with their delivery. We get to carve out an imaginative space for ourselves (the selves we might wish to be) inside their magnetic idiosyncrasies and quirks.

That’s no small part of the appeal for an artist like the unapologetically, raunchily bisexual Banks, whose all-ages crowd seemed to run the gamut of races and sexualities. Her free download “Fantasea” dropped only days before the show, but every track she performed off the new collection was a sing-along for huge portions of the packed crowd.


Though Banks proclaimed her sexuality right from the start of her career in “212,” her debut single released late last year (that track’s unprintable, money-shot line was repeatedly sung with near-gospel fervor by the crowd), she hasn’t gotten the same level of critical consideration afforded R&B; singer Frank Ocean, who didn’t really come out repping any specific sexual orientation. The liner notes on Ocean’s new release, “Channel Orange,” detail him falling in unrequited love with a man. Love songs on the CD contain masculine pronouns. Both have led to proclamations in the press and music world that he’s hip-hop’s first openly gay or bisexual male artist.

The sexual ribaldry in Banks’ lyrics finds her swaying from men to women as equal objects of attraction and/or derision, and she is equally lustful or dismissive if she deems them trifling. What’s also interesting is that she allows the men she dallies with in song to have the same sexual fluidity she claims for herself; she never buys into the demonizing of “down-low” brothers.

The playfulness and exuberance of her music and lyrics are in stark contrast to the dark emotionality of Ocean’s work. Her persona is light years removed from the drama and emotional bruising of coming out to herself or to others. She has no interest in justifying or explaining a thing, so she doesn’t. You’re free to take it or leave it.

From the jagged sonics of “Jumanji” to the glorious disco-House of “Esta Noche” (in both, Banks’ delivery evokes elder stateswomanLil’ Kim) to the hysteria-inducing “Licorice” and “212" (both found on Banks’ EP “1991,” released in May), she rapped to pre-recorded tracks, owning the crowd. Her breath control was impeccable, and that she flawlessly replicated and expanded upon her studio recordings proved she’s the real deal.

Maluca, Charli SCX and Rye Rye were also on the bill, but only one of them pulled her weight. Clad in a silver tinsel skirt and sparkly black sneakers, Rye Rye came close to stealing the night.

The 21-year-old Baltimore native (who’s been championed by culture-jamming star M.I.A.) rapped her underground hits “Shake It to the Ground” and “Bang,” among others, with the charm and presence of Salt & Pepa combined. Joining in with her two backing dancers for arduous choreography that was rooted in Baltimore club moves, she worked the room like a seasoned vet and held her own when she brought out surprise guest Robyn to perform their duet “Never Will Be Mine.”

Still, it was Azealia’s night, and she firmly reminded us why she and her music were so mesmerizing. The rapper transfixed her audience, and it was almost impossible not to get swept up in the adoration.

One of her fans posted on her Tumblr page the day before the concert: “Azealia Banks is a gay man raised on Busta Rhymes and Crystal Waters. There’s no other explanation for Fantasea.” That’s not inaccurate, but it does diminish the power of the yoni that centers her persona and her work. And the thing is, mainstream hip-hop still hasn’t yet produced a man with the testicular fortitude equal to Banks’ moxie.