Mermaids are awesome. Azealia Banks wants you to know that. On Sunday night, the polarizing 20-year-old rapper transformed Bowery Ballroom into an underwater carnival, complete with floating seahorses, cotton candy, and lots and lots of balloons. The sold-out Mermaid Ball, curated entirely by Ms. Banks and featuring an array of downtown rave staples, was packed with scenesters, models, fist-pumpers, skaters, and drag queens. Ground-level New York DJs the WcKids set the scene, looping frantic dance samples over menacing trap beats – the type of blistering mix that scores illegal warehouse parties where teenagers bring their own bottles. Most of the attendees bore VIP stickers: on nights like these, everyone is important.
Fresh from her first performance of the day at Hot 97's Summer Jam, Banks entered her ball as any semi-aquatic celebutante would: flanked on either side by her girls, and wearing nothing but seashells, jewels, some well-placed pasties and her milky, mischievous smile. She posed for photos before prancing backstage, as opener Maluca played a set of hard-edged Latin dance and world music. Her voice soared higher with every beat and peaked in the stratosphere – imagine an episode of Sailor Moon set in Spanish Harlem. "My city's on fire!" she chanted during the closing number, and New York felt as hot as ever.
No Mermaid Ball would be complete without a $1,000 costume/voguing contest, and this particular night did not disappoint. Contestants strutted their homemade fins and fishtails with billowing pride, and the audience judged by applause as host Jack Mizrahi quipped along: "I need all my mermaids to the stage," he beckoned. "But only Ariel's; we don't need no Ursula's!" By the time the merman dubbed "Bubblina" (because, well, he blew bubbles) took home the tiara and bouquet of roses, there had been enough twirls, snaps and dips to get the crowd riled up.
While many of New York City's storied MCs rep an outer-borough, Azealia Banks is exhaustively Manhattan: the Chinese slippers and Yaki weaves of Washington Heights, the daring silhouettes and self-validating price tags of Soho, the private-school entitlement of the Upper East Side and the fierce, churning sexuality of the West Village. So her proper Big Apple debut was less industry event than homecoming party, packed with old friends and new fans eager to celebrate her new EP 1991 and the tsunami of success that preceded it. "This is my first show in my hometown!" Banks beamed as she hit the stage in navy and salmon translucent spandex, retaining the pasties (designer Alexander Wang, who was bopping on the dance floor throughout her set, seemed to love the ensemble). She asked the important questions: "Who's already drunk? Who's already high? Who's fucking tonight?"
Despite the wealth of hype that has surrounded the young rapper, Banks still has a very small catalog, and much of her material ran together in a blur of chunky Nineties house beats and rapid-fire lyrics that the audience couldn't sing along with if it wanted to. When she's at her best, Banks' penchant for foul-mouthed fun and sticky hooks are unstoppable: during her rising B-side "Liquorice," fans eagerly belted the harmonious bridge without her help. But with few large-scale shows under her belt, Banks' command of the crowd wavered at times, as she raced through verses and hardly engaged between tracks. Still, the infatuating spunk of her viral clips translated in person, and when she slowed things down just a shade for "Jumanji," the new single off her July 4th Fantasea mixtape, the refrain "Real bitch, all day, uptown, Broadway" felt right at home on the Bowery.
No matter how one feels about Ms. Banks off wax, a hit is undeniable. When she launched into her flagship single, "212," the evening climaxed with an explosion of balloons and confetti drenching the frenzied crowd beneath. This high point punctuated what was most impressive about Banks' New York debut: in lieu of simply putting on a concert, an artist with only a half-dozen songs created a six-hour experience, sharply tailored to the audience that has propped her up to where she is today. Just hours after Nicki Minaj bailed on her long-awaited Summer Jam performance, disappointing thousands of ticketholders, the young Azealia Banks showed a keen, intimate sense of her fan base – she aimed to give them their money's worth, and succeeded.
Banks' set faded out with Betty Wright's 1972 classic "Clean Up Woman," a song about a lady who will eagerly steal your man if you aren't treating him right. Coincidence? "What you gon' do when I appear?" she'd taunted moments earlier. "This shit been mine! Mine!"