Azealia Banks @ Bowery Ballroom, NYC 6/3/12

Thanks to Peter Rosenberg’s sexist comments, Azealia Banks was the lone billed female performer at yesterday’s Hot 97 Summer Jam, yet another circumstance indicative of the spotlight the young Harlem rapper has been placed under. Early on — particularly the time period after she announced a record deal with XL — it was not a place where she thrived, necessarily. The early goodwill, buoyed by the monstrous Song Of The Year candidate “212,” sputtered as releases were pushed back and festival dates were cancelled, all complete with a running commentary thanks to Banks’s mouthy Twitter account (the ‘Gum was not spared). It was not a career that, by any stretch of the imagination, seemed well-managed. But at the center of the cyclone, the brilliance of Banks’s talent still blazed — Azealia Banks, after all, is some kind of combination of Lil Kim’s streetwise bravado and Gaga-esque pomp. So, her first show as a headliner, Sunday night’s Bowery Ballroom gig, mere hours after a spell at Summer Jam, was a big moment. (wagz2it took the pics up top and read the rest of the review below).

For as much as the pressure could have seeped in — after all, Bowery Ballroom has enjoyed a second (or third life) as a pre-conquest proving ground — Sunday night’s presentation was an admirably laid-back affair, a drag ball masquerade accented by Seapunk/mermaid iconography and an undercard of underground-approved heroes of NYC’s queer rap scene (House Of LaDosha, Tigga Calore). Before I arrived, a friend’s friend who had already been there for a while described the crowd as “ratchet,” and I found that description to be accurate. So by the time Azealia hit the stage — a little after 1 AM on a school night — the crowd was still enthused, though I suppose the on-stage competition to award the night’s best mermaid had something to do with that (someone named “Bubbleloosha,” or something like that, won. Congrats!). Though Azealia’s outfit was eye-popping — intercut orange and cerulean, star-shaped pasties visible through a thin mesh top, pink-and-blue tinted hair flowing well below her waste — her on-stage presence was practiced and cool, unflashy but purposefully so. After all, it has to require a lot of focus to rap that fast, which Banks did, only barely leaning on backing tracks. She played the lesser-known, Machinedrum-produced “Barbie Shit,” and everyone up front knew the words. Acrylic balloons like dolphins and octopi were batted through the crowd. Instead of a merch stand, a girl in mermaid garb worked a cotton candy machine and handed out her wares for free. When the breakdown of “212” hit, Banks’s sister, sitting in the balcony, was there to rip the cord on another cache of aqua-colored balloons. It was that kind of crowd.

In her performance, Banks didn’t show the audience much more than what we already knew, as her thirty-minute set included all of the material from her excellent (if short) recent EP 1991. Though she introduced a song as a new song from the forthcoming mixtape Fantasea, it turned out to be “Jumanji,” an impressive, electric track that surely made its way to thousands of iTunes playlists (and mixtapes) the second it was available and a song that elicited the a satisfied sigh of recognition from the audience when the first bars dropped. Banks was joined by a pair of absurdly athletic dancers, who at one point performed solo during an interlude, but it was hard to notice them when they flanked Banks, such was the magnetism of Banks’s onstage exercise (how do mermaids breathe, anyway?). Though the songs in question this evening, many of them in flush with the Burial-lite dance textures of collaborating producer Machinedrum, leveled this particular crowd, the larger, message-board fodder questions still exist. Can Banks come up with another “212,” or carry a pop single? Is she the anointed savior, as promised, for those rap fans that think Nicki doesn’t rap enough? Can her densest stuff stick on the radio? Can she be the lynchpin of a festival? Though I have a good feeling about her, none of that was answered. But for the moment, Banks has found focus in the chaos.