Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Rap Rise of Iggy Azalea: How Did a White Australian Beat So Many Black Women to the Top?

The following is an essay I wrote for's "Culture Club" Collection.

Last week may have been the best one ever (so far) for Iggy Azalea. The "overnight sensation" - that's actually been several years in the making - simultaneously scored her first No. 1 single with "Fancy" and became the first new artist since The Beatles to hold down the two top spots on Billboard's Hot 100 as "Problem" slid into the runner-up slot.

Not bad in a pop world where Mariah Carey's latest single can't rise above No. 88 and the former fierce ruling diva's latest album sold well under 100,000 copies in its debut week.

Meanwhile, Iggy became the fourth female rapper ever to be credited on a No. 1 hit (if you consider Black Eyed Peas Fergie to be primarily a singer and her 2006 No. 1 debut solo single, "London Bridge," a pop song rather than rap), and the first white one - second, if you count Fergie. And if you don't, she's the second female rapper to be the lead artist on a No. 1 single, sixteen years after Lauryn Hill summited with her own solo debut, "Doo Wop (That Thing)."

But here's where things start to get tricky: Unlike Hill and most of the prominent female rappers who have come and gone since the '90s, Iggy is not American but Australian, and she's not black but white. She's like a mid-year Lorde, her Australasian predecessor on the U.S. charts, without the teen ennui and unruly hair.

Which brings us to the million-dollar question: Why has Iggy so boldly and so quickly gone where Azealia Banks (no relation), Nicky Minaj, Eve, Foxy Brown, Missy Elliott, Da Brat, Yo-Yo, MC Lyte, Salt-n-Pepa, Roxanne Shanté and Queen Latifah, not to mention fellow white female rappers like Luciana and Peaches, or her iconic namesake (not her childhood dog, from whom the woman born Amethyst Amelia Kelly adopted her stage moniker, but Mr. Pop) haven't gone before?

The answer lies partly in the quality of her hits (insanely catchy and well-produced), her MC skills (which fall short of remarkable  -- "I can hold you down, like I'm giving lessons in physics?" Really? --  although she doesn't lack a certain upper-middle-class post- 90210 appeal) and, to a certain extent, the way she plays up and plays down her race. Armed with an infectious mix of electro and hip hop, white teen-pop melody (thanks to Charli XCX and Ariana Grande, without whom neither of her current hits would be possible) blended with block-rocking R&B-friendly beats, she's white enough to reference the 1995 film Clueless in the "Fancy" video and enough of a sponge to confidently approximate American black slang and speech in her raps without a hint of an Aussie accent.

And lest we doubt her sincerity, she's got a black boyfriend, naturally - a famous, high-profile one: L.A. Laker, Nick Young.

She's like an Oreo swirl turned inside out, and composed of equally non-natural ingredients. Although she sounds more street-credible than Beyoncé does on the far superior "Yonce," no matter how hard Iggy tries, her vocals on "Fancy" are more a very passable facsimile than the authentic thing, and they probably won't make her a heroine in the hood. Still, you've got to give her credit for having the balls to go there. Not even Eminem tries to sound "black," which might be a large part of what made him a superstar (distinctiveness, a patch of pale in sea of color), but that's a hunch for another post.

This, however, doesn't fully explain why Iggy has broken through so dramatically with the fourth single from her debut studio album, The New Classic. I think that might have less to do with the race card than the way rap and music in general have changed. In a sense, Iggy is both the culmination of the slow but sure shift in the priorities of the cultural movement known as rap and a direct reflection of the way its primary colors are no longer black and white but green. What began largely as the voice of the have nots, the disenfranchised kids in black America, steadily morphed into the expressive domain of the newly privileged haves, a bastion of swag and swagger.

Iggy, though, clearly knows her rap history, and in her rap verses she embraces the age-old rap tradition of boasting mostly about her skillz with a Z, letting the song's title and Charli XCX's sung chorus and bridge advocate the bling factor.
"Film star, yeah I'm deluxe/ Classic, expensive, you don't get to touch"  --  Charli XCX, "Fancy"
The implication: Iggy is nouveaux riche and fabulous by association. The grand irony is that, despite her insistence on playing it up in interviews, nothing in either of Iggy's two breakthrough hits suggests her struggle to succeed (leaving home at sixteen and moving to the other side of the world to live and breathe U.S. hip-hop culture) or her previous underdog status. "Fancy" and "Problem" combined don't approach the lyrical depth of "Royals," 17-year-old Lorde's breakthrough, nor do they betray Iggy's stature as a did-it-her-way rising talent. Blonde and beautiful and not afraid to accentuate her physical positives, she looks like the perfect modern pop star, the kind that reality TV and/or social media have been regularly churning out for a decade now.

So instead of "Why her?" perhaps it should be "Why, of course, her!"

Unlike previous white female rappers Peaches and Luciana, both of whom are also non-American (Peaches is Canadian, and Luciana is a Brit) but were pushing thirty when they rose to prominence, timing is on Iggy's side. At twenty-four (her birthday was June 7), she's the perfect age to be a breakout star. Also unlike Peaches, who is a lesbian, Luciana, and almost every major black female rapper who came before her (with the exception of Foxy Brown and perhaps Nicki Minaj, if you prefer your bombshells on the outlandish and slightly campy side), she sells mainstream sex appeal. Straight guys (as well as lesbians) can want her; straight girls can aspire to be her; and gay guys can fashion her into their next pop icon.

Not to detract from Iggy's talent, but as we've seen all too often in mainstream pop, talent doesn't always get you anywhere, especially to the top of the pop singles chart. No, I don't believe her race has everything to do with her rise; if "Fancy" had been Nicky Minaj's latest single, it probably still would be No. 1 as it's that undeniable, mostly due to Charli XCX's contribution. But it's such strange, bittersweet irony that in the same week in which Minaj's latest single, "Pills N Potions," debuted at an unspectacular No. 47, the female face of a genre created for and by black America belonged to Iggy.

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