Iggy Azalea almost wasn't Internet-famous. Last summer, the native Australian was living in Los Angeles, and after what was supposed to be two weeks in Miami at age 16 had turned into five years spent in four cities throughout the states, she was down to the last of her savings. She had one shot left, and so she used that money to film the music video for "PU$$Y," a song off her first mixtape.
It was a desperate act. "I thought, this is my last money, this shit better work," she recalled, sitting on a basement couch at Manhattan's SOBs nightclub before her sold-out show last month. "Because otherwise I'm gonna have to go home. I thought, this is the video, it has to work. It will work. It has to work."
The video went live on YouTube in late August. It was shot on Slauson Avenue, on the Rollin 60s Crips turf. Iggy wore a striped tube top and tight yellow pants meant to accentuate her ass, which is, objectively speaking here, pretty big for a white girl. She and her girls licked at ice pops in such a way that one does not generally lick at ice pops in public, and there was also an adorable young boy doing the Dougie. It went viral soon after.
Now, at 22, Iggy has a management deal with Grand Hustle Entertainment, the label owned by the rapper T.I., a modeling contract with Wilhelmina, and a space in that strange new precipice of fame that now exists when very young artists earn scale-tipping internet buzz nearly overnight.
"It's fucking scary," Iggy says now, on the evening of her first big New York show. "I remember the day that video went viral, because it happened really quick. And I was sitting with my friend Peezy, and we went and sat at a café underneath my house. And I was like, holy shit, I don't know if I can cry or fuckin' scream of happiness right now. Because this shit is like a snowball and I can't stop it.
"I feel like I opened up a box. And it's like, did you fucking want to open the box or not? I don't fucking know. I thought I did. Did I?"
Last week, a white New York hip hop DJ threw shade at rapper Nicki Minaj and the "chicks" who listened to her music and started a long discussion about realness, intention, and origin in hip hop, and where female artists fit in. It was only a couple of weeks earlier that Iggy, a white female rapper from halfway around the globe, sold out her first show in New York City. Of all of the self-reflective periods that hip hop has endured over the years, this one might be the most muddled: a culture that has spread far enough to reach a female teenager in Mullumbimby, Australia, and produce a viral video and an inevitable record deal is still doing its best gate-keeping job on a growing force of female rappers.
More than Minaj, though, it is a story like Iggy's that should have us thinking and talking about authenticity in hip hop. Iggy is a twofold outsider to the game: she's not only a white woman, she's a white foreigner. She's the girl you never expect to see at a rap show, let alone selling out one. She shouldn't be here.
In February 2006, when she was just 16 years old, Iggy left her mother's house in Australia and moved on her own to Miami. It was only supposed to be a two-week vacation, but she ended up staying for 10 months. Miami was the first stop in what essentially became a five-year crash course in southern American hip hop. From Miami, she went on to Atlanta, and then to Houston, and finally to Los Angeles, where she ended up recording the mixtape (Ignorant Art) and taping the music video ("PU$$Y") that put her on the internet mindscape. In Atlanta, she caught on with the Dungeon Family, and specifically the rapper Backbone. She also befriended DJ Unk and Big Oomp of Big Oomp Records, and they'd let her record in their studio.
"I was like, whoa," she says now, some five years later, "these are legends, teaching me how to rap."
Azalea's breaks came in quick succession in L.A., where she recorded Ignorant Art in a garage studio on Slauson. She and her close friend Peezy started a hair company together on the side, and the business helped Iggy get a green card, but she was running out of money. She'd grown close to the rapper Pusha-T (formerly one half of the Clipse, now of Kanye's GOOD crew; Iggy says "he's like my fucking mentor"), and he encouraged her to do something drastic.
Soon after, she shot "PU$$Y." The video had nice direction and a nearly six-foot tall Australian girl squatting in a belly shirt. It had to work. Kreayshawn had already proven that a white girl rapping in a pretty music video could lead to a $1 million record deal, and for all of her weaknesses, Iggy's ability was just a hell of a lot more compelling than the rapping we heard in "Gucci Gucci." Iggy had an accent, an ass, and a song that said the word "pussy" over and over again. It took off.
Ten months have passed, and now Iggy Azalea finds herself in a kind of post-viral purgatory. She is signed with T.I.'s Grant Hustle Entertainment, and on the day we met, at her stylist's parents' apartment on the Upper West Side, she was about to finalize a contract with Wilhelmina Models (that deal was finally made official today). She plans on releasing a second mixtape, Glory, this month; her first album is still in the works. She and Peezy want to continue running their hair company, and they even redesigned their website last month. She has options, and a lot of new music to release. She doesn't see herself as a "viral" star without any staying power.
"I don't know if the ride to success is like this," she says, charting out a flat graph with a shot upwards at the end. "Sometimes it's like this." She draws out a gradual rise. "This didn't just happen off of luck or something that maybe people think is undeserved. That's how it's sort of portrayed. And sometimes perhaps it is. But I feel like, I ate a lot of Ramen noodles for this shit. So I'm not about to fall into nothingness, you know what I mean? I'm not going back there again."
Before her show at SOBs, Iggy spent four hours at a sprawling Upper East Side apartment, planning her outfits for the next five days with her stylist, Andrew Mukamal. She would be in New York overnight, and then fly up to Montreal for a media junket, and then back down to the states for a set at the Bamboozle Festival in Asbury Park, N.J. After that, she'd head back to L.A. She seemed exhausted, and slightly perturbed by the hassle of it all.
After Iggy and Mukamal had selected her outfits for the next week ("Your ass looks fucking amazing in this, by the way." "That's ‘cause I have an amazing ass."), she sat in a dining room chair, looking out a wall of windows at the high-rises around us. Also in the room: her publicist, her hairstylist, her makeup artist, and her stylist-stylist. Iggy pulled up the free Family Feud app ("It's like four dollars! I just need the free version") on her iPhone as her $600 ponytail was finalized. We played as a group.
"Things that get backed up," the makeup artist, Portia, read to the room.
"An ahss," Iggy said, straight-faced. The stylist-stylist picked up an issue of W and flipped through it. "Iggy, did you know you're in this?" he asked. It was a spread featuring Iggy, Kreayshawn, and the rapper Dominique Young Unique, who was put on by Kanye West last fall. All three, W wrote, are in the "court of Minaj." Iggy hadn't seen the issue, or heard of Unique.
The publicist's phone rang. It was Iggy's manager, inquiring about sound check, which was scheduled to start in 20 minutes. There was no way we'd make it, especially with Iggy's incompetent driver who, she said, kept interrupting her phone calls to tell her about his paintball league. The publicist tried to arrange for a later time, but the rapper Yo Gotti had a 7 p.m. set.
"I'm not performing without a sound check," Iggy yelled from the background, "so I hope he heard that."
"Sometimes," she said quietly to Portia, "you have to be a bitch."
Ten minutes later, Iggy was on the phone with her manager. She was unhappy.
"I don't want Stix to do sound check, I want to do sound check… Guess what, I'm doing shit right now… tell the motherfucker to figure it out… well tell him I'm not doing it, then... Well, did Yo Gotti sell out his show?"
By the time she hung up, she'd arranged for a 9:45 p.m. sound check—just after Yo Gotti left the stage and just before the doors opened for her.
"See, that's what you gotta do sometimes," she said to the room. Portia nodded: "They wouldn't do a dude like that."
"Exactly my fucking point! If I had a dick, first of all, I wouldn't even be fighting for it. And it wouldn't be unreasonable to ask."
Later on, at SOBs, I ask Iggy if she's having any fun. The day, even from my perspective, has seemed stressful; each decision has come across as a chore. Iggy thought about it for a beat.
"Sometimes you have good days and sometimes you don't," she said. "It's a rollercoaster, and it's hard to stay afloat. And I don't feel established yet, ‘cause I'm not. So it definitely feels like a lion in your back.
"I'm just trying to keep a job. My job is rapping. If you look at my visa for what the fuck I'm here to do, that's what it will say. So I have to keep this job or I go home. It's important to me."
Iggy's arrived at a time when a lot of women are rapping, and it would be dishonest to pretend that the competition hasn't helped a bit. We are now at a point in hip hop—possibly fleeting, who knows—in which a new female rapper is not immediately labeled "the next Lil' Kim" (that was Nicki Minaj) or "the next Nicki Minaj," (that was Azealia Banks), simply because there's too much competition to do so. At the very least, the laziness in those alignments has never been more apparent: we only stack female rappers against one another because they are female. Three years ago, I interviewed a Detroit rapper who goes by the name Miz Korona. She's in the movie 8 Mile, briefly, and she released The Injection in 2010. In Detroit, she's a part of hip hop's old guard.
We talked for an hour or so about her life and career, and about what Nicki Minaj—she was well on her rise to fame at the time—could mean for other women who rap. Korona was optimistic.
"I see a really big surge in stuff," she told me. "There are women who are standing up and speaking out and saying, ‘You know what? Whatever. I don't care what y'all say, I'm a do my thing.'
"In the next three to four years," she added, "everything is going to flip and females will dominate this game."
Three years later, here is where we are: Nicki Minaj's Roman Reloaded debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200; Azealia Banks, while separating herself from the "rap game," is the darling of the Internet, the high fashion world, and Gwyneth Paltrow; Kitty Pryde, a teenager from Florida who works at Claire's, is the current obsession of the New York blogger set; and Rita Ora, a British Albanian woman hailed as the "next Rihanna," is sampling Biggie in her radio-ready, tween-friendly party jam. Somewhere within that jumbled spectrum, there is Iggy Azalea.
In the last month alone, I have seen all of those women sell out New York City venues. None of them, really, are releasing what Peter Rosenberg might consider "authentic" hip hop right now; none of them, really, are immune to the industry pressures that bring about songs like Nicki Minaj's "Starships" that he and others so strongly resist. Two, somewhat improbably, share half of a stage name. Some of them are white, some of them are not from here.
And Iggy, for all of her efforts, is still trying her damnedest to sound like a good rapper. She described the the process of learning to rap as "time-consuming—it took a long, long time."
This is precisely where much of the criticism Iggy received thus far has fallen: there is a studied nature to her flow. She sounds very much like someone who learned to rap by listening to other (black, male) rappers and mimicking them. There isn't a "wrong" way to go about learning to rap—and in a time when a free computer program can yield a hit track in under an hour, it's almost quaint that we still cling to artistic process here—but Iggy's own route, compelling as it may be, just doesn't align with the usual script.
Rappers' flows are called flows because they are supposed to sound natural. Though she says she now feels as if she's totally found it, Iggy's sounds practiced. In conversation, her voice is high and light, her Australian accent unmistakable. When she raps, though, her voice lowers a near octave. She growls, sneers, and takes on an accent that is decidedly un-Australian. "White girl team full of ba-yad bitches," she raps on "My World," with a near southern twang: "Ha-yands in the a-yer, this is for the bitches getting' money up in he-yere." On tracks with particularly hard instrumentals, such as "Murda Bizness," her first collaboration with T.I., it can almost sound like she's straining to match the assertiveness of the beat. You can hear the effort in every rhyme.
In the New York Times, Jon Caramanica wrote that she "sounds as if she learned to rap for a part in a Movie of the Week"; on his blog Cocaine Blunts, critic Noz called her flow "forced and rehearsed to the point of being grating."
"In short," he concluded, "she lacks soul. Because she is white."
Iggy says, with an appreciable amount of self-awareness, that she's felt like an outsider since she's arrived. She is an outsider, and that likely has something to do with her unease with sudden fame. She first heard a hip hop song when she was a teenager in Mullumbimby, when two boys down the street, one of whom she had a big crush on, played 2Pac's "Baby Don't Cry" for her. She bought his album Still I Rise soon after and listened to it "over and over and over again." After that, she says, she started "researching" the music.
Over time, and even with the endorsements and the signings and the relative fame, she's started to think of herself as a guest in someone else's house. There's a "responsibility," she explains, to recognize hip hop as a black art form.
"Iggy Azalea on the XXL freshman list is all wrong," Banks wrote on Twitter. "How can you endorse a white woman who called herself a ‘runaway slave master'? Sorry guys. But I'm pro black girl. I'm not anti white girl, but I'm also not here for any1 outside of my culture trying to trivialize very serious aspects of it."
The lyrics in question came from Iggy's "D.R.U.G.S." freestyle, which opened with the line, "When it really starts I'm a runaway slave... master/Shittin' on the past gotta spit it like a pastor." Iggy responded with a 450-word apology and explanation.
"I don't ever want to be the person that takes something and doesn't give homage to where it's from," she explains now, in a room full of black people at a Manhattan nightclub. "It's like if you went to your boyfriend's house for Thanksgiving and you were like, acting disrespectful. I feel like in a lot of ways I'm a guest, sort of. And I think a lot of it is because I'm from Australia, too. I didn't grow up in this, I kind of dropped in it. And sometimes I do feel like a visitor and I feel like I have to be respectful like a visitor would be—to not just go dusting my feet on everyone's couch."
The sentiment that comes across here is one that plenty of white hip hop fans can likely relate to, including me. Whether or not that culture wants anything to do with you is another story, and that's likely why Iggy feels so much pressure to prove herself. It's "always" been there, she says, "whether I wanted it or not." And for all of her efforts, and for all those Ramens, she still comes across as play-acting, or at least like she just happened to stumble into the game at the perfect moment. Iggy's spent a long time learning the ropes here, though, and if she is playing a part—subconsciously or not—it says much more about hip hop's expectations for female behavior and an aspiring artist's willingness to adapt accordingly than about any personal flaw or intentional disrespect of a culture. Backbone had a southern twang, so Iggy has a southern twang. Nicki Minaj licked a lollipop, so Iggy licked a popsicle.
Before too long, she'll probably have her own version of "Starships," too.
At SOBs that night, there was a line down the block, and the bouncers outside were turning people away at the door. The crowd was racially diverse but predominantly female, and there were certainly more white girls than you'd see at your average rap show. Some of them proudly proclaimed that they were "Azaleans," a title reserved for Iggy's most dedicated fans. Angel Haze, one of the most talented female rappers who is not a white Australian out right now, was in the crowd with a friend.
Iggy emerged, as all artists at SOBs do, from the back of the venue and walked through the packed crowd. She wore a black, floor-length Michael Kors dress and Versace platforms that she and Mukamal had picked out, and that $600 ponytail. She was surrounded by cameras. She could just as well have been on a runway.
Onstage, she opened with "Backseat." Everybody in the first ten rows or so knew every word of every track. Iggy looked utterly confident in her heels, and her face took on a near-permanent grimace. She was posturing, but by now, she's comfortable doing it. Halfway through the set, she called five girls up onstage and set up a twerk competition. Two men threw dollar bills at their shaking asses while Iggy observed from the side. When the song ended, she stepped in to judge herself: "Wait, wait, just ‘cause I'm a girl I don't get to pick a girl?" she yelled. "Just ‘cause I'm a bitch I don't get to pick a bad bitch?" Even with the power switch in play, it came across as the most rehearsed, formulaic part of the show. It seemed as if Iggy, along with her two male judges, were doing what the form called for. They weren't necessarily wrong.
The set ended with "PU$$Y," and all of the girls screamed the word along with her on the hook, and finally "Murda Bizness." "Kinda feel like I'm goin' to a funeral," she said. She made a pistol symbol with her hand and held it over the crowd. "Like I killed some bitches."
The beat dropped, and so did Iggy's voice. "I'm the first of my kind," she rapped, "you ain't seen any?" The pout on her face, as it happened, looked a lot like T.I.'s sneer.
Photo by Ericka Mitton.