It’s telling of the early-January news drought and of hip-hop hand-waving freakoutery -- particularly when women are involved -- that the first big music story of 2013 has become a Twitter microfeud between two rappers: Azealia Banks, who broke out in 2011 with “212” and who, thanks to a couple other microfeuds, has a gaffe count also somewhere around 212, and Angel Haze, whose Reservation EP won her best-of-the-year accolades alongside Banks just last year. If this sounds familiar, it should -- arguments like these have a way of leaving Twitter and encroaching upon the real world, and of drawing a certain kind of attention from people who don’t otherwise follow promising rappers’ careers. We can probably all agree that this is regrettable -- if perhaps not for the same reasons.
The details, removed from OMG! immediacy, become mundane: Banks tweeted on Thursday that people not born in NYC shouldn’t identify as New Yorkers, and Haze, who was born in Detroit but later moved to New York, took offense. (Banks and Haze, like countless rappers before them, trade on regional pride in their breakout tracks -- Banks, who is from Harlem, with “212” [Manhattan’s area code], and Haze with “New York”) This prompted a war of slurs, with various degrees of spite and homophobia/transphobia. Both artists are bisexual, and both have significant gay fanbases -- particularly Banks, whose subcultural omnivorism includes ball culture. As such, much of the backlash has come from the gay community, including GLAAD. There was quick remorse: Haze apologizing for a colorist tweet, Banks sorta-apologizing for calling Perez Hilton, involved for some reason, a f*ggot (then justifying it with various “I knew what I said” and “it’s not really about a gay male”s.) There were three diss tracks, also quick: recorded in hours and alternatively slick (Banks, with a serviceable Machinedrum backing track and bent closer to “I’m hot” than “you’re not”) and scrappy (Haze’s, practically freestyled; she claimed this was on purpose, not wanting to “waste studio time.”) There was the sense that the tracks themselves were almost beside the point, despite their most quoted lines calling people out for being solely “Internet goon[s], Twitter personalities” (Haze, on “Shut the Fuck Up,”) or boasting about going for “profit not gossip” (Banks, on “No Problems.”) There was the creeping uncomfortable sense that the press would have the wrong sort of field day with the whole mess.
They had some sort of field day, anyway. Blogs covered the feud the way they cover all Twitter feuds, generally treating the whole mess like a WWE spectacle. (The blog term for this is “meta-enabling”; the colloquial term is “stir craziness.”) Perhaps it’s more accurate to say most treated it as a “catfight,” with all the sexist implications. Outsiders got involved if there was something in it for their brand. Even GLAAD’s response, though a lot more measured, had -- as SPIN’s Brandon Soderberg points out, a whiff of the opportunist. If there wasn’t shilling, there was shaming. Countless people -- fans, haters, Twitter bystanders -- who’d normally have been limited to observing could now take it upon themselves to become Banks and Haze’s backseat managers, generally citing some amorphous but, in their telling, inescapable career doom.
This is not very likely. There hasn’t been a huge, career-defining or -derailing rap beef in years; 50 Cent vs. Rick Ross probably comes closest. There have been rappers whose careers have been defined, then curtailed, by repeated smaller feuds -- ones that, crucially, dwarf their music. (Kreayshawn’s Something ‘Bout Kreay, for instance, had issues besides emerging from a warground of sniping, but that certainly didn’t help.) Neither Haze nor Banks is in a great career position for this. Haze has critical acclaim but little mainstream attention, and while she got a signal boost from the headlines, it’s not necessarily the notice you’d want before your album’s out. Banks, while more established, has yet to follow “212” up with a comparable hit and is quickly becoming as known for her album delays -- as Haze pointed out, upcoming debut Broke with Expensive Taste was pushed back, as was last year’s EP 1991. In the meantime, she’s feuded with at least one person per single, including almost every prominent female rapper: Nicki Minaj, Lil’ Kim (who herself feuded with Minaj earlier), Kreayshawn, Iggy Azalea.
This is not an accident. The prevailing narrative about female rappers is that there can be only one at a time, each either coronating the next or usurping the last. It’s largely a media invention -- women generally don’t join rap single file, nor did they suddenly take to rap en masse in 2012 to upset the balance -- but it’s so prevalent that every female rapper knows it. Consider that the typical music industry response to women in hip hop has progressed only from titters to tiptoes or trendpieces; there’s still the sense that people don’t quite know what to make of their presence. Consider, also, the needless, deathless tendency of (often white) audiences to view hip-hop culture as spectacle, and feuds being easy sources of it. This helps to explain why outsiders complain so often about homophobia in hip hop -- better described as homophobia in the world, which happens to contain hip hop and most other genres besides. With all this going on, the conditions for feuds like these to happen are overripe. There are economic factors as well: the industry’s permanent slump in sales forcing artists to mine any external revenue sources they can, bold personalities ideally being one of those, or the demand for news, any news, causing anything bitter on Twitter to vault into the headlines then the real world. Nothing here is new.
So while it’s not necessarily unreasonable, per se, to scold Banks and Haze this go-round, it is rather fraught. Leaving aside the fact that it’s entirely possible nobody, rappers included, will give a damn in six months, you just don’t see this kind of hand-wringing elsewhere. Beef between male rappers, unless there’s some external narrative (see: anything written about Chief Keef), is rightfully dismissed as off-topic silliness. Think Common vs. Drake -- or if you’re unfamiliar with that particular bit of minutiae, which itself is telling, think exactly what you’d imagine Common vs. Drake to be like. This won’t kill their careers. Not even the slurs -- Banks, for instance, has said questionable things for months, but there was more outrage when she “appropriated” the work of a couple dozen Brooklyn seapunks than black gay culture -- let alone when she targeted a mainstream celebrity blogger. Banks and Haze don’t have obligations either way: to make nice (as the peanut gallery argues), to make nasty for the blogs (as their pageviews argue), or even to make art from it all (as the aforementioned SPIN piece argues). Sure, they could probably help, whether as damage control or diverted energy. Haze, for one, seems to think so; she said she’s done with the whole thing. They could even turn the whole fiasco into something other than a case study of how the music world still doesn’t know how to deal with female rappers. It’s probably well past that, though. Maybe next feud.