Azealia Banks sticks to music in Coachella triumph

Azealia Banks, the hip-hop singer who rarely shies from controversy, kept to the music and won a triumphant reception with a genre-crossing set at the Coachella festival.

The 23-year-old New Yorker emerged as a crowd favorite on the first day of the influential music festival in the California desert, where prominent performers Friday included sexagenarian hard rockers AC/DC and the sleek post-punk band Interpol.

Banks has been persistently in the news after spearheading charges that Australian rapper Iggy Azalea was exploiting African American culture and, more recently, telling Playboy magazine that she hates “fat white Americans.”

But at Coachella, Banks steered clear of provocation and showed why she is one of the most dynamic, versatile and challenging artists to emerge recently on the pop radar.

Banks seamlessly switched from rapping to singing to, on the enraged breakup song “Yung Rapunxel,” shouting into a megaphone.

She built energy on stage with her duo of synchronized hip-hop dancers, backed up both by the house influence of Montreal-based DJ Cosmo and rock guitar riffs from her band.

In perhaps a veiled reference to her Playboy comments on Middle America, Banks’ only statement of sorts at Coachella was to fly a digitized US flag on the screen behind her.

Yet Banks’ lyricism consistently shows an intensity that, much like her off-stage persona, she feels no need to self-censor.

She closed her performance to a burgeoning crowd with a riveting “212,” her sexually and racially charged song in which Banks snatches a woman from a man whose sexuality she proceeds to mock.

– Action Bronson –

While Banks tried to steer clear of trouble at Coachella, another rising hip-hop artist from New York — Action Bronson — seemed to court it, if playfully.

Bronson, a former chef who frequently references his own obesity, thrust himself into the crowd and raced back and forth in the pit as if on a mission to make his presence felt physically.

“Every time I do something athletic, I want a round of applause,” the red-bearded, tattooed rapper said.

Bronson, who recently released his third album which is his first on a major label, enjoyed a giant turnout despite being placed at an early 2:30 pm slot, with numerous fans saying he was their main draw to Coachella.

He eagerly signed a fan’s sports banner from Albania, the rapper’s ancestral country. Not wanting anyone to feel left out, he promptly did the same for another fan who brought a flag from Colombia.

Bronson’s rap style owes a debt to the Wu-Tang Clan — whose members Raekwon and Ghostface Killah performed separately Friday at Coachella. But his performance also had traces of the in-your-face attitude of the early Beastie Boys as Bronson took the stage to hardcore rock and, summing up his motto, invited the crowd to a collective raising of middle fingers.

Bronson has little pretension in his subject matter, often rapping about food. His new album, “Mr. Wonderful,” features Bronson and Chance the Rapper taking to task jealous women on “Baby Blue.”

Yet Bronson’s revving up of the crowd came to anti-climax as several cap-wearing fans grabbed him over the barricade with a forcefulness he clearly disliked. Bronson — who had just sung the verse, “Ride the Harley into the sunset” — left without saying goodbye.

– Alabama Shakes –

Alabama Shakes is driven by the sheer force of frontwoman Brittany Howard who possesses a steely yet raspy voice that brings to mind the power of male blues singers yet with a greater range.

With Howard also an impressive rock guitarist, Alabama Shakes defies easy musical characterization as the band glides between the blues, garage rock and gentler Americana, and was backed up at Coachella by Gospel-influenced singers.

The mix of genres made it somewhat less disconcerting to see the modest Howard and her band from the small town of Athens, Alabama, performing before a fashionable and often scantily clothed California crowd as the setting sun glistened on the surrounding desert and palm trees.

With Alabama Shakes releasing a highly anticipated second album later this month, they commanded a strong following at Coachella despite the misfortune of performing at the same time as two crowd-pullers — Interpol and Swedish pop singer Lykke Li.

Interpol, whose album “El Pintor” last year marked a return to the energetic but gloomy rock that made them a key force in the New York scene of the early 2000s, performed with a new light show whose urban landscapes and black and white portraits reinforced the music’s mood.

– AC/DC –

Other highlights on Coachella’s first day included DJ Snake, the French producer known for his work with Lady Gaga, whose dance set coupled with a swirling light show turned out a dangerously overflowing crowd.

AC/DC, who will start a global tour next month in the Netherlands, turned the volume noticeably loud as they performed classics including “Back in Black,” “Hell’s Bells” and “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.”

AC/DC, who released an album in November, are playing without original rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, who is suffering dementia, and drummer Phil Rudd who is accused in New Zealand of making death threats.

But lead guitarist Angus Young, Malcolm’s brother, still came out in his trademark schoolboy outfit — this time red — at age 60.

“I hope you guys like rock ‘n’ roll, because that’s all we do,” singer Brian Johnson said.


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