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Azealia Banks gets in the game

By// Quinn Peterson

Azealia Banks just had one of the best weeks ever — she released a great new record titled NEEDSUMLUV, embarked on a tour with dates in Europe and Japan, announced she’s been officially signed to Universal Music and been buzzed about on the internet. Safe to say, the 20-year-old rapper and singer from Harlem has a chance to dominate — and significantly advance — the incredibly scarce lane of female MCs.

For those unfamiliar, Banks, who told Pitchfork that she originally set out with musical theater and acting dreams, has made a name for herself over the past year or so like most other up-and-coming hip-hop artists — via the internet. She’s garnered much praise for that work, especially overseas where her song 212 broke into the Billboard charts last year.

A talented and intelligent rapper, and solid vocalist who honed her talents at the LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts (before dropping out to do rap), Banks’ diverse influences — everyone from Lil’ Wayne to indie punk-rock band Interpol — have her equipped with the tools and the frame of reference to have vast mass appeal.

Of course, comparisons to current hip-hop/pop darling Nicki Minaj are inevitable. “It’s not something that I particularly like,” she told GQ.com of the Minaj comparisons late last year, “but it’s something that I understand. It’s just people making sense of things.” That’s because beyond Minaj, who many would argue has benefitted greatly from a lack of competitors, there are no other female MCs reaping mainstream success, making Banks an oxygen tank in a field desperate for a breath of fresh air.

Minaj’s gimmicks have been effective (if not over-the-top), no doubt, but challengers are necessary indeed. Banks can provide a much-needed alternative.

The challenge for the female MC has always been in the unending search to find the happy medium between the machismo skill-set that underlies hip-hop, and the sexy but respectable attitude, required of most female recording artists. It’s a daunting task that few have perfected. MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliot and Eve have figured it out. Others, like Foxxy Brown and Lil’ Kim, have found success, too, but typecast themselves by being overly and overtly sexual. Deft lyricists, like Jean Grae, have plenty of skills but lack mainstream appeal. Countless others have tried and failed altogether.

It remains to be seen where Minaj will end up, but Banks has a chance to add her name to the first list and extend beyond all of them with music that spans far beyond the traditional scope of hip-hop. Songs like L8R showcase her sharp flow, while bouncing, energetic cuts like 212 and NEEDSUMLUV are evidence that Top 40, Electro and UK success are well-within reach for Miss Banks. Despite the wide range of sounds she channels, none of them ring as forced.

Hip-hop is in dire need of some different perspectives, and it’s looking like Banks could be one to provide that.//