Stop Being So Surprised By the Rise of Iggy Azalea
After decades of searching, we have found the next Beatles. And her name is Iggy Azalea.
Well, sort of.
Azalea just became the first artist since the Fab Four to have their first two singles finish at No. 1 and No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the same week. The Beatles did in 1964 with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in the top spot, followed by “She Loves You.” On this week’s chart, Azalea’s sassed-out humblebrag “Fancy” surged to No. 1, while her collaboration with Ariana Grande, “Problem,” sits pretty at No. 2.
And while we hesitate to call a 23-year Australian-born rapper who pens couplets like “And my flow retarded, each beat dear departed / Swagger on super, I can’t shop at no department” the next John Lennon, her milestone can’t be ignored. After all, it’s one that that hasn’t been hit in 50 years. Plus, she’s also only the third woman to do ever have the two top songs in a week. (Mariah Carey scored the feat in 2005 and Ashanti did it in 2002, but it was neither artist’s chart debut, as it is Azalea’s.)
Azalea’s seemingly meteoric rise is all the more fascinating, however, when you consider that it wasn’t meteoric at all. Her chart takeover has been staged for more than three years now, when whispers that Azalea could be music’s next big thing first began.
In “Fancy,” she raps, “you should want a bad bitch like this.” But why has it taken so long for us to want this particular bad bitch? And why is everyone acting so surprised that we want her?
Azalea—then Amethyst Kelly—was born in Sydney and moved to Miami when she was 16. In 2012, she got T.I.’s attention and the rapper produced her EP, Glory. The industry was intrigued; XXL’s annual Freshman Class issue featured her, the first time it included a woman, and suddenly everyone was talking about Azalea…if not always for her music.
A semi-feud with Azealia Banks put Iggy Azalea—yes, we realize those names couldn’t make the feud more confusing if it tried—in the headlines more than is normal for an untested hip-hop newbie with no full record out yet. (Azalea’s first full album, The New Classic, wasn’t released until last month.) Even XXL admitted in its review of “Glory” that “Iggy Azalea’s buzz outweighs her catalogue.”
That statement, really, hasn’t ceased being true.
Though it just recently hit No. 1 and is playing everywhere, all the time—the grocery store, on the radio, the local bar, in my head—“Fancy” was actually released in March, debuting on the Billboard 100 chart at a ho-hum number 88. (“Problem,” Azalea’s collaboration with Ariana Grande, on the other hand, is among the fastest-selling singles in iTunes history.) Basically, then, “Iggy Azalea,” as a name and concept, has been floating amorphously around the industry for nearly three years, despite the fact that it’s taken that long for most of us to actually hear her music.
And now that her music is catching up to her hype, another round of buzz is generating around her name, this time centered on how remarkable and unusual her rise has been. But it actually may not be at all.
Forbes recently ran a story headlined “Hip-Hop Is Run By a White, Blonde, Australian Woman,” remarking about how apparently astonishing it is that a rapper who fits that description is making a mark in that industry. “In a genre dominated almost exclusively by African American men she sticks out like a statuesque thumb,” the piece argued, inciting instant backlash, the crux of which is crystallized by this tweet:
The article was later renamed. Now it reads, “Hip-Hop’s Unlikely New Star: A White, Blonde, Australian Woman.” But is Azalea’s fame really all that unlikely?
Controversy hasn’t stopped following Azalea. There’s a vocal contingent that finds the affected Southern accent she raps with, despite being from Australia, to be offensive. Read Complex magazine’s take on it:
“Iggy Azalea’s other weakness is her voice, which consistently strikes a jarringly inauthentic note. She raps with a tightly-wound drawl, one that, to American ears, feels tone-deaf not musically, but socially. Her voice, in essence, sounds like a put-on version of a particularly technical rapper from the American South. It’s the kind of thing that would make Ke$ha cringe—and that’s ultimately what makes it unique. It’s another contradiction: her rap style begs to be taken seriously, but is instead vaguely silly. Someone from the States would never attempt to pull this off on such a large stage; it requires an outsider’s audacity, a lack of awareness about racial dynamics in the States.”
Take the racial politics out of it, however, and the delivery seems less controversial than it is, perhaps, calculated. And, if not calculated, then tried and true.
For all the talk about how revolutionary and refreshing Azalea’s presence on the charts is, she’s actually the perfect example of that old adage: everything old is new again. “Fancy,” fun and addicting as it is, and Azalea’s delivery of it, flirty and campy-cool as it is, is basically a retread of the formula that Gwen Stefani and Fergie perfected in their respective solo careers.
She’s not so much the “bad bitch” as she is yet another “Hollaback Girl.”
That’s not as much of a dig as it sounds. It’s not like Gwen Stefani is releasing new music right now. (Where have you gone, Gwen?) Every artist is inspired by other musicians, and Azalea has even said that Stefani has influenced her sound. And for all of the eye rolling over the Black Eyed Peas, Fergie’s solo work—“London Bridge,” “Glamorous”—was exciting and edgier at the time than it might seem in hindsight.
And that affected accent thing? In addition to Stefani and Fergie, Nicki Minaj is certainly a blatant example of that. And, after a first listen, would anyone have been shocked to hear that it was Ke$ha spitting rhymes on “Fancy,” and not Iggy Azalea?
Azalea’s music is actually quite enjoyable. “Fancy” and “Problem” will duke it out for the title of Song of the Summer and we will be dancing in our ringside seats cheering on the fight. Both songs are catchy earworms that we’ll gladly faux-complain about being overplayed come August, but secretly be singing along to in our head.
The frustrating thing here is the astonishment over it all, over the Iggy Azalea phenomenon. Because there’s nothing phenomenal about it. It’s an example of an artist who is expertly using image, buzz, and the girlie urban-meets-bubblegum-pop formula (should we dub this genre “hip-pop”?) that has worked to catapult the careers of a whole crop of female performers in the past.
There’s nothing particularly fancy about it.
***Editor's Note: The original piece incorrectly transcribed Azalea's lyrics. It read, "And my flow retarded / each beat did depart it," when, as Azalea herself pointed out, the correct lyrics are, "And my flow retarded / each beat dear departed." We regret the error.