It’s been four years since the Australian rapper topped the charts with her song “Fancy.” Since then, her career has stalled: She’s canceled a world tour, scrapped an entire album, and undergone an acrimonious public breakup. But most of all, she’s refused to reckon with her place as a white woman making hip-hop. So how does she explain herself?
Iggy Azalea is lost. Running behind schedule, the Australian rapper drove straight past the photoshoot off Sunset Boulevard and now has to re-route. She pulls into the lot in her black Rolls Royce. She’s alone. She climbs out of the car and walks straight through the studio. Her face looks beige and lifeless. Her eyes are truly, visibly sad. Not Bambi eyes sad, either: sad like the eyes of someone who is fed up. Too fed up to cry. She drags her feet along the floor in Balenciaga sliders. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle.
Re-positioning is hard for Iggy in 2018. Her career is not what it was. In 2014, she was the most successful female rapper to emerge since Nicki Minaj. Her debut album The New Classic (released on Def Jam) was nominated for four Grammys and enjoyed a hat-trick of hits: “Fancy” (featuring Charli XCX), “Black Widow” (with Rita Ora) and “Work.” She duetted with Ariana Grande on the pop star’s hit “Problem” and became the first act since the Beatles to hold both the Number 1 and 2 positions for debut entries on the Billboard 100. (Let’s note though, that’s not because they were good hip-hop records. They were accessible hip-hop records featuring mimicable Southern-aping rhymes and trap-lite production; dumb popular in the way that Kygo or Marshmello or G-Eazy are currently.) She was the protege of TI. He’s since distanced himself. Many have distanced themselves. Way back when, Iggy Azalea was selling more hip-hop records than Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West and Jay Z. “Mm-hmm,” she nods. You wonder if it’s maybe a surprise that people don’t—
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She cuts me off. “Remember that? Acknowledge it ever? Didn’t then? Don’t now? Does that surprise me?!” She spits out “surprise” like a piece of rotting fruit. “No, it doesn’t surprise me. People would like to pretend I never existed. I don’t think they wanted me to be successful to begin with. A-ha-ha-aha.” These “a-ha-ha-aha”s are over-the-top nervy laughs that pepper the entire hour. (Nothing we talk about is especially funny.) The laugh ends abruptly when I ask: Really, why? “Um.” She lowers her head, she softens her voice and with a look of unequivocal shame she responds. “Because I’m a white woman from Australia.”
Iggy Azalea hates having to talk about this but she must. She must because people hate Iggy Azalea. We live in the age of division and disagreement but if there is one matter in 2018 that unites music fans, critics and passers-by it is that Iggy Azalea is bad. We are not here to defend Iggy. Iggy must defend herself. If her career is ever to recover (a question looming heavily in the air), she first owes America an apology. She has come to represent something far bigger than just the human I see before me. She is a symbol for everything that’s wrong with the whitening of hip-hop in a streaming era that thrives on vanilla. Sure she’s not the first white rapper. The Beastie Boys, Eminem, Vanilla Ice, Macklemore have been here before. But Iggy is the first to talk with an Australian accent IRL and rap like she grew up next door to Clipse in Virginia.
She hasn’t had an easy ride. Her relationship with Def Jam has been fraught. An arena tour in 2015 was cancelled. She reveals today that she pulled it because six weeks out the label hadn’t released funds for rehearsals or hires. “Insanity!” she says. At the time Def Jam hid behind the convenient gossip of her relationship ending, thus hanging her out to dry. Her second album, Digital Distortion, was scrapped. Last June, Def Jam CEO Steve Bartels told Variety that the album was a “building process.” After two 2017 flop singles in “Switch” and “Mo Bounce,” that statement turned out to be baloney.
Beyond her label woes, her supposed peers have never stopped coming for Iggy, including Talib Kweli, Azealia Banks (“Iggy Azalea is Satan in the form of mayonnaise,” she tweeted), and Q-Tip, who sent her 40 tweets educating her on the history of rap. “Did u know that remnants of slavery exist today thru white privilege?” he wrote. “I say this 2 say u are a hiphop artist who has the right 2 express herself however she wishes… this is not a chastisement this is not admonishment at ALL this is just one artist reaching to another hoping to spark insight into the field you r in. I say this in the spirit of a hopeful healthy dialogue that maybe one day we can continue.” Iggy didn’t want to continue. She hit back accusing him of patronizing her.
Google “Iggy Azalea” and read 20,000 words of think-pieces. From Salon to Jezebel, Vulture to The Root, the articles are furiously well-researched and argued. “I maintain that there is no triumph and no celebration when we embrace a white girl who deliberately attempts to sound like a Black girl, in a culture where Black girls can’t get no love,” wrote Salon’s Brittney Cooper. The Washington Post even executed an extensive investigation into her “blaccent” with the help of sociolinguists.
The appropriation criticism has been lobbed at her choice of man, too. She’s been linked to A$AP Rocky, NBA player Nick Young, and most recently, French Montana. The public breakdown of her engagement to Young was also a great source of embarrassment. She found out he cheated on her when a confessional video leaked while she was on-set at Australia’s The X Factor—she judged it in 2016—having a touch-up. She cried for “30 seconds” backstage then had to be on camera for another four hours. “He wouldn’t pick up my phone calls to confirm or deny it,” she says today. “So I was sitting there for hours listening to people sing asking, ‘Did anybody call my phone?’ Nothing, nothing, nothing. I really didn’t know. No matter what anybody says. Did I know? No.”
Iggy talks while staring in the mirror of a grooming station. Her assistant sits to the side, as does her dresser. Her hair stylist—a man also called Iggy, a glimmer of light-ish relief—fixes plaited weaves to her head. Her publicist, whose handshake shares the strength of a bodyguard’s, constantly pricks his ears with Iggy’s every utterance. She seeks some comfort in a French dip sandwich which she chews on regrettably while reminding herself about the diet she needs to start. She manages a half-smile.
When you think of Iggy now, you likely don’t think of music; you think of problems. She can change record labels (she’s now with Island), rebound from relationship drama, and hire new management but she can’t change being the white woman from Australia.
“The whole privilege thing is a rough conversation,” she says. “I understand that in America there is institutionalized racism and there is privilege that comes with the color of your skin. That’s real. I grew up in a situation that didn’t involve any privilege and I worked really hard. A lot of my childhood is overlooked. People assume they know my life because Australia is a nice beautiful country. It’s tough because I want you to acknowledge my work and [to understand] that this wasn’t easy but I also don’t want to detract from or trivialize any people of colors’ position because that’s legitimate.” She gets wound up trying to reason through this. “So it’s like, Where do I fit in that whole conversation? I don’t know.”
Last month, Iggy released the first single off her second album, which is now titled Surviving the Summer. The song, “Savior,” is a mid-tempo, Lisa Stansfield-sampling, Quavo-featuring number upon which she raps: “My path got muddy, I feel like my feet trapped / Can you give me the strength now to beat that?” It’s quite stylistically soft for Iggy. Is she happy with how it’s fared?
“It’s a complicated question. I am happy with the critical response. The point of me putting ‘Savior‘ out was to talk about what I’ve been going through. But it’s a double-edged sword because [people] wanna see my curves, they wanna dance to my music at the gym. People want a million different things.” “Savior” has helped Iggy humanize herself and move away from that one-dimensional brash persona. “Of course it’s not going to be streamed as much or have as many views when I’m not twerking,” she says. “Part of me wishes it had the numbers as a measure of success.”
At the beginning of the year Iggy was finally freed from Def Jam, becoming the first artist to be allowed to leave the label mid-contract and choose another. She can’t say much about any of this because of lawyers. “I’m shutting the fuck up.” She makes a face at me as a slice of beef pokes out the side of her mouth. “It was… special.” Iggy has until April 30 to finish Surviving the Summer. She’s feeling confident. The record is “pretty aggressive” and is light on featured artists.
It was important, however, for her to start this new chapter with a message of vulnerability. That’s a risk she avoided when she was younger and projecting toughness. “It’s hard for women in hip-hop. We’re male dominated. There’s a masculinity to what you’re doing and those elements are misconstrued as ‘bitchy‘ or ‘arrogant‘. The fundamental things that make a good rapper can work against you.”
Exposing her weaknesses on “Savior” is arguably an appeal to people’s empathy. “I never want people to see me as a victim,” she says. “I’m strong and I’m tough but I don’t wanna be a cartoon. I wanna be a person. How can I show that I’m human?” Her aim, she says, is to tell people why she raps—for the love, not the money. Her hope is that fans and detractors both might embrace her own struggles, struggles she sought solace from in rap, rappers, and their stories.
Well, that’s how Iggy’s intending to rationalize these continued, thwarted attempts at a comeback.
Iggy is Amethyst Kelly. Nobody calls her Amethyst. Her best friends call her “AK.” Amethyst grew up “dirt poor.” She cleaned hotel rooms with her mom Tanya when she was 16, after she dropped out of school following repeated bullying to pursue rapping. “I home-schooled myself. I had four jobs. I don’t wanna say that everyone’s feelings about racial privilege are invalid ‘cause I was poor. But how do we have a conversation where I’m not discrediting either scenario?” she asks, not equating these things, but seeking the space to discuss both.
Following the American Dream, Iggy saved up, bought a ticket out of Australia and didn’t tell her parents. She worked illegally in the United States without a Social Security Number until 2013 when she was granted an O visa. She felt like she belonged here. “When I moved to America I didn’t feel isolated,” she says. “I was accepted by everybody. I feel isolated now. Sometimes it doesn’t bother me because I grew up that way. Other times I really… argh.” Again, the sad eyes. “I HATE it.”
Similar to when she was a kid, Iggy employed an IDGAF attitude towards all assailants (peers, critics) as a survival tactic. It blew up in her face. Now she’s an outsider because of rap and she keeps herself to herself. Social media allows her to compare her experience of fame with that of others. “I think, I wish my experience with fame could be fun like yours. But I have different problems. I guess everybody has problems. Maybe we all see parts of each other’s lives and wish they were ours.”
What does she wish for? “I wish everybody was my friend?” The question mark is because she doubts that’s OK.
Many many other artists have been scathing in their assessment of Iggy’s output. Halsey once told the Guardian, “She had a complete disregard for black culture. Fucking moron. I watched her career dissolve and it fascinated me.” Iggy doesn’t find it any harder hearing criticism from women. “I never expect women to support me more than men, although that would be nice,” she says. “The music industry is like a beauty pageant. Even when they support you, they’d piss on your prom dress. I don’t know Halsey. She doesn’t know me. We haven’t even had a conversation.”
The worst comparisons reduce her to a modern-day minstrel act, which Iggy counteracts by focusing purely on her visual image. “My videos are creative,” she says. She points to 2012’s “Murda Bizness” featuring TI, which was based on TV show Toddlers And Tiaras. “Is it because I rap in an American accent? Is that what is? Because I’m not here with a gold grill in my mouth and cornrows,” she says, incensed. “I’ve been in America since I was 16, I’m about to be 28. America is gonna have an influence on me. I live in this country with everybody else. I’m supposed to live here for almost half my life and not be influenced by it? If I’m influenced by it it’s somehow inauthentic or an act? This is my life. It’s been here.” It’s true, we are all products of our environment. But there’s a difference between a white hip-hop fan doing “rap hands” in the club on the weekend and building an empire at the expense of African-American voices, as some have accused her of. When it’s come to more pressing issues in the community she’s been so influenced by, Iggy has not been an ally. Has she sought to learn more about the history of the country she now calls home? Has she felt a new responsibility to use her platform to support Black Lives Matter or counter police brutality?
“I think it’s one of those damned if you do damned if you don’t things,” she says. “I’ve tried not to be too political because I am an immigrant. I’m on a visa. I’m not trying to go to a protest where they’re arresting celebrities and making an example of them because I’ll get deported.” Iggy has a Green Card now. Does that change things? “I don’t think you’ll ever see me at a march. I should show that I support those things but I’m not a political activist. I don’t wanna bring the complications of the world into my arena. I understand why people criticize that because I have a voice in hip-hop. I make ‘black’ music. I don’t want people to think it’s not something I care about. I want to make music for girls in the gym.”
I ask Iggy what she listens to in the gym. “I try not to go to the gym,” she laughs. Over the past few years she’s wondered whether quitting as a rapper is the best foot forward. “Should I even do this? Is it making it worse?” she says. She decided she cannot quit. She cannot imagine not making hip-hop.
So why do you make hip-hop?
“Because I have to,” she says. “I don’t have a choice. Not because I need to make a living. I could have a comfortable life, and not release another record. But it’s what I like to do. I wanna wake up and make music. I know a lot of people would like me to stop.”
Lately Iggy wakes up and makes music almost every day, to Island’s chagrin. She doesn’t like sending her ideas in. “I don’t want their opinions,” she says of the creative. The business, however, is different. And yet it doesn’t sound like Iggy’s listening to their business advice either. Her team sit around the dresser laughing about the regular panicked phone calls she makes when she finds herself struck by inspiration. “I’ll say, ‘I need to go to a studio!‘ The label say, ‘We can’t get the budget approved that quick.‘ And I’m like, ‘Reimburse me, bitch.‘”
That 2014 era of success is not what Iggy’s pursuing now. She simply wants to play, record and release. She is stripped of braggadocio. “I want to be able to do magazine shoots and not have magazines be like, ‘We can’t talk to her because we’ve heard she’s fucking crazy.‘” Changing the public perception is an uphill battle, and one she’s not convinced she’ll win. “There’s been so much fucking shit written about me,” she says. “It’s hard to change what people read. Even if you call them to retract it, everyone’s already read it.” Iggy says she hasn’t tried to get pieces retracted.
“It’s hard to do,” she says. “It costs a lot of money, they take you to court, you have to prove how this is affecting your income, whatever the fuck. That seems like an unlikeable thing to do.”
Recently some Twitter trolls re-posted a performance at the 2013 Splash festival which greatly upset her. “The person posting it said: ‘Wasn’t it funny the day we ruined her career by posting this?‘ They bullied me for an entire year. I had to delete all my accounts. I sat in my house ready to fucking kill myself because I thought I’d never be taken seriously again. What about that is funny? It’s like a girl saying, ‘Wasn’t it funny when we used to be in Grade 11 and we pulled a girl’s pants down?‘ It’s fucking twisted.”
You wonder who she calls on a bad day. Her mom? “No!” she snaps. “She’d worry too much. The world could crash down and I wouldn’t call her.” She thinks. “I don’t call anyone on a bad day. I don’t want people to worry about me. I don’t like people to see me crack.” Since 2014 Iggy has hung out with fellow popstar Demi Lovato who she considers a personal friend. Even Demi isn’t a person to confide in. They share stories about misogyny, sexism, the trappings of fame, but Iggy’s got more on her plate than that. Is there anyone watching over her? She looks to her personal assistant. She has her personal assistant.
It’s her concern with being likeable that really strikes me, given that all she does is bring the worst out in others. Perhaps the wildest truth I have come to uncover is that Iggy Azalea is likeable. In the past, her self-defensiveness has made her look selfish and unapproachable. Now she wants to engage. She is smart, self-deprecating, aware of her limitations, and not intending to do harm. If she can advocate for her mistakes with grace, convince the audience that she’s not a basic pawn in the pocket of label puppet masters, quit fighting with artists and show that inner complexity, there’s an outside chance she could turn this around and, well, survive the summer.
With that said, Iggy is unfortunately very stubborn. You only need to look at her Instagram profile picture for evidence. Oddly it’s a snap of Goldie Hawn’s face. “Apparently it would be better if I had a profile of my head,” she shrugs, rejecting marketing advice. “I will keep it Goldie Hawn till I die. I’m an arsehole.”
With the case of Iggy nearing an end, there is one final question bothering me. Does she reckon her experience in the music industry is unique?
“Yes,” she replies, with defiance. “‘Cause I’m the only one doing this.”