Hip-hop remains one of the last bastions of bald-faced homophobia. Rappers follow any remotely gay-sounding comment with “no homo,” and historically, one of the devastating battle disses is questioning your rival's heterosexuality.
But there have been hints of change. Earlier this year, an Iggy Azalea concert attracted more openly gay men than we'd ever seen at a hip-hop show. A couple weeks ago, Odd Future member Frank Ocean poked his toe out of the closet with the announcement that his first love was a man. And last night, Harlem rapper Azealia Banks' first headlining show in L.A. was a “Mermaid Ball,” a glitter-smeared, drag-encouraged event that seemed modeled after New York's gay-friendly early '90s club scene.
Mylar balloons in the shape of seahorses and spelling out the name of Banks' just-released mixtape, Fantasea, bobbed throughout the Fonda. Girls in seashell bras and guys wrapped in fishnet posed for iPhone photos between grinding. The climax of the night wasn't Banks' performance as much as a Vogueing-slash-twerking dance-off to determine the winner of the $1,000 prize for best mermaid-inspired costume.
Warmly embracing hip-hop's largely ignored homosexual demographic wasn't the only savvy move on Banks' part. Billing a show as a party means no one gripes about short sets. Although Banks headlined, her stage time was no longer than Maluca or CharliXCX's; she walked onstage at 11:40 and wrapped by 12:16. Fine for a beginner showcase, but Banks now has plenty of material to fill a longer set. Her show last night lasted about the same time as the one we reviewed at Coachella three months ago — she should be working on increasing her stamina to perform longer than a half hour.
Our other complaints from that show still stand. Given that she had the crowd in her clutches (when she walked out in a mesh bodysuit with metallic fuchsia cutouts and nothing but a zipper down the back and launched into “Fuck Up the Fun,” the place lost its mind), we expected her to interact more. She's notoriously ballsy on Twitter, and if any audience would have been receptive to a little bitchiness, it was this one. Yet she stuck to generic shout outs — “How you feelin', L.A.?!” — and song introductions.
She doesn't have a hype man, but she does rely on backing tracks, which she needs to learn to do without. However, that she's able to dance and still rip a good portion of her whiplash-worthy verses is impressive. Some are also saying she only has one flow, but let's just let her enjoy the exhilaration of her gift right now, and expect that she eventually will harness and direct it in more nuanced ways.
Meanwhile, her song collection jumps and pops like hot grease. “Jumanji” creates an alternate Jungle Book world, and “Liquorice” could transform even the most conservative suit into a club kid. Her best song to date, “1991,” is a throwback to the house scene that so heavily influenced her. The beat is so transcendent you don't need to pop ecstasy, her verses are stacked, and she seamlessly transitions from her lower, grimier rapping register to a sweet and mellow alto for the chorus. Who needs a hook girl?
The night predictably ended with her breakout, “212,” as well as a bunch of confetti and a balloon drop. We still say bravo, but with reservations. Too many new rap artists underestimate the effect a good live show has on both their finances and their fan bases (see Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y for two artists who really got it). We hope Banks doesn't.
Personal bias: Being a strong, young, attractive woman terrifies people, especially men. Azealia Banks has plenty of them scared.
The crowd: Sparkly. We don't envy the Fonda's cleanup crew.
Random notebook dump: The go-go dancer on stage right is stealing the show, and it has nothing to do with her fake boobs.