“Let’s celebrate the aquababes,” Azealia Banks demands on her recently released Fantasea mixtape — and what better way to pay homage to Banks’ recent infatuation with all things under-da-sea than to host a party fit for a mermaid queen?
That’s exactly what the 20-year-old rapper did Saturday evening at the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood with her Mermaid Ball. Riding the wave of buzz following a wildly successful New York incarnation of the show, Banks transformed the otherwise inconspicuous venue into an underwater party paradise overflowing with a mix of mermaids, sailors, seapunks and drag queens all donning elaborate homemade costumes.
An experiment in performance and spectacle, the Mermaid Ball combined traditional concert performances with aquatic-themed sideshow theatrics; barely clothed mermaids danced provocatively in the theater’s side boxes during every set, giant novelty balloons in the shape of seahorses and dolphins decorated the main floor and attendees were encouraged to enter a costume contest for a $1,000 prize. Industry types and the occasional bewildered parental chaperone peppered the crowd, sticking out like sore thumbs amidst the hordes of bedazzled, midriff-baring teens snacking on complimentary cotton candy.
More significant than its format, however, was the Mermaid Ball’s lineup. Predominantly female, the event’s roster of radically inventive and relatively new artists allowed the Mermaid Ball to function as both a celebration of second-wave “girl power” as well as a showcase of the impressive talents of young women in hip hop and electronica. Themed décor and cartoonish costumes aside, Banks created a visual extravaganza that commanded the audience’s attention throughout the course of the sold out performance — a remarkable feat for an artist who has yet to release a full-length album.
Rapper and Internet personality Brooke Candy served as the evening’s host, sauntering and bouncing across the stage in a pair of impressively tall platform sneakers while enthusiastically baiting the crowd with the occasional, “How you bitches doin’?” between sets. Early-arrivers were treated to sets from L.A. beatmakers Nguzunguzu and two up-and-coming female rappers — Gita, from Oakland, and Maluca, the New York City artist who also appeared at the first Mermaid Ball performance.
Although scheduled early in the evening, M.I.A. protégé Rye Rye managed to draw an excitable audience, setting the pace for the evening with a charmingly frenetic set. Flanked by two blindfolded dancers, the Baltimore native blazed through her songs with breakneck speed, her equally impressive and jittery dance moves eliciting screams from the crowd. In what was perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening, Rye Rye was joined onstage by Robyn during a rendition of the hit single “Never Will Be Mine”. Despite sound issues, the mere sight of the legendary Swedish singer sent the crowd into a frenzy, with one young woman loudly proclaiming, “I seriously could die right now!”
Also on the bill: Charli XCX, the young London-based singer known for her unique brand of dark, emotive pop. Backed by a live drummer and keyboardist (the only live musicians featured in the Mermaid Ball) Charli brought some much needed variety to the lineup, hypnotizing the crowd with a blend of gothy club beats paired with classically inspired powerful vocals.
The indisputable star of the show was Banks herself — it was her Mermaid Ball, after all. For a rapper with such a nascent career, Banks’ is an undeniable stage presence and wordsmith, oozing with an unapologetic, no-holds-barred taste for the suggestive and sarcastic. Whether settling into her role as rap’s resident “rude bitch” (“212”) or the “vamp with the ribbon and the little panties” (“Bambi”), Banks’ wields her dichotomous nature like a deadly weapon, often boasting of her ability to seduce both men and women alike with her venomous tongue.
Decked out in a mesh bodysuit decorated with strategically placed metallic patterns, her Little Mermaid-esque hair whipping behind her dramatically as she raced through each track with impeccable precision, Banks held the audience in rapt attention during the entirety of her 30 minute set. Occasionally, a pair of skilled backup dancers provided visual accompaniment to Banks’ snark-heavy tracks, but being on stage completely alone is when Banks fully steps into her own.
While other acts on the Mermaid Ball bill used choreography to accentuate their performances, Banks kept her movements to a minimum, stalking the stage like a rabid beast while captivating the audience with the sheer bite of her flow. The effect is a powerful one; Banks’ ability to possess the entirety of a stage using her vocal prowess alone lends credence to the smack-talking, no-nonsense persona so integral to her rapid rise to fame.
All her unruly feminine forces aside, Banks is unafraid to express a genuine gratitude to her fans — many of whom eagerly shouted along to every song in her set. “I just want to thank everyone who came out, dressed up and joined my little ‘fantasea,’” Banks proclaimed before launching into her breakout single, “212.” Only after the confetti finished raining from the venue rafters did the illusion of Banks’ Mermaid Ball fade away, something Banks was quick to acknowledge: “OK, L.A.,” she giggled as fans tore apart the intricate balloon displays, “It’s over.”