I didn't fully appreciate the 23-year-old white rapper from Australia who goes by the name of Iggy Azalea until I realized earlier this week that she's a drag queen.
A female drag queen, playing a woman. That's a compliment, not an insult. It doesn't refer to her appearance, although you could make the case that her garish fashion choices, her height (5'10" plus whatever heels she's inevitably wearing), her blonde femininity, and her improbably exquisite beauty (check the contours of those cheekbones!) make for a look that some men aim for when they dress like women. Her stage name is a combination of her childhood pet's (Iggy) and that of the street she grew up on (Azalea)—a classic convention for producing your "porn name," but also your "drag name."
More to the point, though, is that as someone who speaks with an Australian accent, with a distinct twang mimicking that of the American South (lapsing into a sing-song deeply reminiscent of executive producer/collaborator/mentor T.I.), but who grew up thousands of miles away from any hip-hop capital as we know it, Azalea's gift is in imitation. Azalea started rapping when she was 14 but got her real training after leaving her native land at 16 and hopping around the southern United States. In Atlanta, she encountered the OutKast-affiliated Dungeon Family, whose Backbone was a particularly strong influence on her. My former colleague Emma Carmichael's 2012 profile of Azalea summarized the studied nature of the rapper's flow, and its resulting criticism:
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."
While it's always a bonus, "soul" is not a requirement for a drag queen. The goal of "realness" within drag contains within it an awareness of its own inattainability—realness is not so much about how convincing you are, it's about how convincing you are within your limitations. Realness is a carrot dangled in front of the drag queen, and the art of drag is in the chasing.
This is to say that what we appreciate in drag is the palpable effort that goes into it. You're watching a routine, and you, the drag queen, and the forces of the universe—including but not limited to gravity—know it.
The unmistakeable performance that goes into Azalea's rapping (she just doesn't talk like how she sounds on her records) dovetails nicely with the hip-hop ideals of hustling and grinding. She raps about this in the traditionally abstract fashion (from her single "Work": "I been up all night / Tryin' to get that rich / I been work-work-work-work-workin' on my shit"), but because her efforts are always so apparent in the flow itself, she's simultaneously telling and showing. What keeps her from sounding entirely robotic, and why she's probably "passing"—as at least an American if not a black woman—to the people who hear "Fancy" (her first bonafide hit in the U.S.) on the radio is a sporadic quiver that makes her voice sound eager to jump outside the lines. She's a such seasoned performer that she wouldn't dare, but the threat keeps things exciting. If it's not soul you're hearing there, it's at least an apparent human.
She keeps that humanity subtle, though—her debut album, which was released this week, finds her routinely larger than life. Its appropriately bombastic title is The New Classic. Azalea rarely portrays herself as less than flawless and even when she does ("Imma keep it 100, I'm a boss chick but he run it"), she's still pretty fucking fabulous. She's a goddess, she's a black widow, she's capable of upgrading your life just with her presence. Becuase her lyrics tend to be generic, with only small flashes of insight, humor, and dexterous wordplay, she's not asserting her command by investing in these personas. Instead, she's trying them on, showing you how sickening she can be, no matter the look. She's every woman, or, at least, every woman she wants to be.
"First thing's first I'm the realest," is how she opens "Fancy," and then she sets to supporting this ridiculous claim. She's obsessed with American culture, including its hustle-focused mantras: fake it till you make it, you can be anything you put your mind to, hard work pays off. But her interest in it doesn't stop there, and like a good drag queen, the visual component of her work is layered and ornate.
Her music videos are clever, regularly go viral, and reveal a fascination not just with American culture but of American meta-culture: critiques, satires, distortions of existing institutions. "Change Your Life" is her take on Paul Verhoeven's take on Las Vegas opulence: She alternately plays both Nomi and Cristal in the Showgirls-inspired clip (also referenced: Martin Scorsese's Casino and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner). She holds a funhouse mirror up to the hilariously distorted interpretation of the concept of beauty that is child pageantry by playing a Pixy Stix-/Mountain Dew-reliant stage mom in "Murda Bizness." The "Fancy" video celebrates the absurdity of the way Clueless celebrated the absurdity of the American teen. These layers of knowingness have the same layered effect of a drag queen lip synching "I'm Coming Out" (that is, imitating Diana Ross imitating drag queens): a man playing a woman playing a man playing a woman.
Everyone is always performing. Free your ego from its trappings and you're boundless. To to use RuPaul's catchphrase, you're born naked and the rest is drag. Hip-hop has always erased the line between life and art (see how Vanilla Ice was laughed out of the genre when it became apparent that he had falsified his biography to make it sound like his upbringing were rougher than it was), but has grown more tolerant all around, even in this area (to wit: Rick Ross still has a career even after falsely denying his past as a prison guard).
That said, I find it helpful to interpret Azalea not as a traditional rapper, but as something freer who's openly playing with the genre and the overall concept of identity. She is a case for the entertainment factor in realness over the real. (In the same respect, I feel like Nicki Minaj works much better as a pop star who sometimes raps than as a rapper who keeps making these shitty EDM pop songs.) Only time will tell if Azalea's debut is the new classic she claims it is. I kind of hope it doesn't, only because she thrives so beautifully in the shifting overlaps between pop and rap, real and fake, artist and performer, icon and iconic.
[Image via Getty]