Harlem native Azealia Banks raps like a beast and drops some of the nastiest lyrics this side of 2 Live Crew. But that sly, infectious smile (and the fact that she looks like the second coming of Naomi Campbell) somehow softens the blow, making her kinda like the Sarah Silverman of rap. Born and raised in uptown Manhattan, the 21-year-old hasn't spent much time in her native New York in recent years after catching the ear of none other than Diplo. She moved to Montreal for a bit and spent any off time in Europe (where she's become friends with Karl Lagerfeld, who sends her gifts. NBD).
She's now back in the U.S., and Los Angeles has, like so many before her, reluctantly become her city of choice. But that international influence (and Diplo's) comes through in her music. One listen to her new EP, "1991", and it's obvious this is someone who's grown up on Lil Kim and Missy Elliot. Azealia's also demonstrated a dedication to busting her spitfire flow over '90s-style electro-house beats, a move rarely seen outside of the U.K. (or Baltimore). As a result, her sound ends up feeling closer to someone like Dizzee Rascal than the knee-jerk Nicki Minaj comparison.
All influences aside, Azealia has her own sound and style, with a natural rap voice more common in artists from the DMV, like Ladybug Mecca, or Wale even. She matches her precise flows with an impressive singing voice (thanks to that LaGuardia Performing Arts High School background) and some serious hook writing ability. Her breakthrough hit, "212," caught the attention of Kanye West and dominated rooftop parties in the summer of 2011, and it was paired with a raw but fun black-and-white video bursting with personality. Her follow-up, "Liquorice," is another rapid-fire house-rap jam with a more accessible chorus and a video -- by legendary fashion photographer Rankin -- set in a Tarantino-esque homage to spaghetti Westerns. Add to those accolades and achievements a feature on a Lana Del Rey remix, an internet-crashing GQ feature, and a Disneyfied but definitely not-for-kids cover of Paper magazine, and it's obvious we're already dealing with a fully formed pop star.
+ Find out more about MTV PUSH artist Azealia Banks after the jump.
But Azealia can hang with the hip-hop hardheads too, and you don't get to 25 million YouTube views without becoming a polarizing figure (see her medium-rare beef with Iggy Azalea after the latter landed the cover of XXL's Freshman issue), and even Lil Kim. (You also don't rack up millions of video views without The New York Times, NME and the BBC dedicating some ink/shine to you.) But what's hip-hop without beef, and what's not to love about a femcee who fearlessly courts controversy and isn't afraid to speak her mind? And recent tracks like "Nathan," featuring Azealia's favorite rapper and New York legend Styles P of The Lox, and "Jumanji" are both addicting uptempo battle-rap bangers that show she's got the skills to back up any slick talk on Twitter. Both tracks are off her upcoming Fantasea mixtape, which drops Wednesday, with a full-length album (that's highly anticipated, to say the very least) to come this fall. Azealia continues her underwater fairy tale when she brings her Mermaid Ball to Los Angeles on July 14 before heading overseas to spend the whole summer holding house-rap fans in Europe and the U.K. under her spell.
Azealia Banks' "Liquorice" Video
Azealia Banks' "Liquorice" Live Performance
Azealia Banks On Her EP Vs. Her Album
Azealia Banks On Her '1991' EP
Azealia Banks On Traveling
Photo credit: Brooke Nipar