Cover story: First things first, Iggy Azalea’s the realest
April 27, 2016
“First things first, I’m the realest,” raps Iggy Azalea on her debut album, The New Classic. “Fancy” featuring Charli XCX is an electro-hop ode to the finer things in life. By “champagne spillin’, you should taste that”, I-G-G-Y launched herself at the global consciousness. “Fancy” was the soundtrack of 2014, played on radio stations, at summer camps, pool parties and infinite road trips. It also became Azalea’s most successful single to date, earning her the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The same week, her collaboration with Ariana Grande, “Problem”, sat pretty at No. 2. Up to that point, only one other act had reached one and two simultaneously with their debut Hot 100 entries: The Beatles.
If sharing such a feat with The Beatles wasn’t enough, Azalea became the first female rapper with roots outside the United States – she’s Australian – to dominate the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. The New Classic pervaded the US, Europe and back home. More accolades followed: second female rapper to reach No. 1 (Lauryn Hill was first); seven consecutive weeks at the top (a record at the time), and one of 13 female artists to hit the top spot with their debut single (Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” was the 14th). Then award nominations and statuettes streamed like her spilled bubbles: the Grammys, MTV Video Music, People’s Choice, and the MOBOs. Her upward trajectory seemed easy, almost effortless, as if she had been blessed with a triumvirate of beauty, talent and luck. Unlike the icons of her chosen genre, hers was not a story of hustling on the streets, growing up in a ghetto or serving time. Then again, if every successful rap artist needed a hard-knock narrative, Kanye West would not be one of the best-selling artists of all time and Drake’s “started from the bottom” would not have been an affluent Toronto neighbourhood. No, Azalea’s journey from Mullumbimby to Miami was not the industry’s rags-to-riches trope. It was a move all her own.
Amethyst Amelia Kelly was born in Sydney and raised in Mullumbimby, a small rural town in Australia with a population of 3,000. Her stage name comes from her childhood dog Iggy and Azalea is the street she grew up on. Her family still lives there. But Azalea craved a separate reality. She longed to live in America, having fallen for the country and it’s all-pervading American Dream during an earlier road trip with her grandparents. However, growing up an outsider did have one perk: “It definitely prepared me because I’m sure as hell still an outsider now. But I like being an outsider, an underdog. It surprises people and I always like to surprise people,” says Azalea.
The trip and her teenage love of Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott, Field Mob and 2Pac sparked something. After saving money through a series of menial jobs, Azalea, then 16, told her mother she was taking a two-week holiday to the US with a friend. Instead she flew solo to Miami, intent on escaping the self-styled “Biggest Little Town in Australia”. At the time, she knew only one person in America.
Azalea knew the move was brazen but couldn’t imagine how else she was going to make it. “I always had big aspirations and it seemed illogical to me to take logical steps to achieve something that was so extreme as what I wanted to do. So it wasn’t scary for me. I’d be more scared to sit in an office my entire life. Living a life where you almost know what to expect every day scares the shit out of me. Even if I weren’t a musician, I don’t think I would fit into any traditional work environment.”
From Miami to Houston to Atlanta, Azalea began building a network of contacts. She met future collaborators and went to work putting out mixtapes and videos online. She credits her breakthrough to the power of YouTube and the Internet’s ability to help fashion a fan base. Although tracks such as “Work” and “Pu$$y” earned millions of views on YouTube and even unexpected fans like Jessica Alba who endorsed “Pu$$y” on her Facebook (“I didn’t think someone so graceful would appreciate something so crass but that’s cool,” says Azalea of the connection), she remained unsigned. But sheer weight of numbers swayed the industry and Azalea struck a record deal with Island Def Jam. A modelling contract and tour with Beyoncé followed, before the long-postponed release of The New Classic in April 2014.
Hot on those heels came a fashion collaboration followed with footwear brand Steve Madden, the charting hits and, of course, all the Twitter and tattle that comes with being both famous and a woman. The Internet is the sharpest of all double-edged swords. Matters came to a head early last year, when Azalea decided to take a break from social media. Management took over the running of her accounts, letting Azalea, in her own words “take a step back”. Today, to the delight of her fans – with whom she interacts on a near daily basis – she is back. But with boundaries. “I feel like I would have no problem with technology if I could use it without having everything I say on it turned into an article for somebody to write and in turn for somebody else to read. I think if I was just a normal person using social media, I would have Snapchat, but I feel like I need to have a disconnect to be sane.”
So far, so good. Gone are the arguments with pizza delivery chains and fellow rappers. In their place are pictures of beloved horses, humorous stories about her two bulldogs and the inevitable plugs for upcoming songs. Among all that is a young woman discovering the power of her platform. She has taken a stance for gay rights by using Twitter to shine a spotlight on the Miami Beach Gay Pride Parade last month, where she was the guest of honour with Elvis Duran. In interviews, Azalea has expressed her willingness “to do what’s right” by refusing to perform in countries such as Russia until they end persecution of the LGBT community. Still, Azalea does not consider herself a role model. She says, “As a role model, I don’t think I’m a great one. But I would let my child listen to my music and I think I’m a cool person. I think I have a good message. I do consider what I do now knowing there are younger people watching and there are things I wouldn’t do on stage anymore that I used to do. But I don’t sit in the studios wondering what somebody’s mom would say about my lyrics.”
It’s extremely nuanced and thoughtful answers like this that belie Azalea’s relative youth. She turns 26 next month, in tandem with the release of her second studio album Digital Distortion.
So what can we expect from this latest offering? “With The New Classic, I was definitely trying to break into the mainstream and the album included what I thought would be successful and what people would gravitate to. With Digital Distortion, rather than following the trend, I was trying to create my own trend. The intention is, ‘hey we live in this digital era, it’s really easy for people to distort your character and let the record show, this is my character that can’t really be twisted’, and I’m trying to sonically give you the vibe of what I would want to represent myself as.”
She still wanted to keep it energetic and fun, mostly because that is what her core fan base – the Azaleans – love about her music. Azalea turned to her top pop influence for lyrical inspiration. “This is funny but I really like the Spice Girls and I did think about them a little bit when writing this album,” Azalea says. “One thing I liked was that they would incorporate made-up words like “zig-a-zig-ah” and leave the meaning open to the listeners. I considered that when writing lyrics, caring not as much what the words mean most of the time but leaving the words open to interpretation.”
Another influence Azalea often cites is Missy Elliott, but despite all the love the young rapper has for Elliott, the two have never met. “She’s tweeted me a couple of times which is pretty cool,” Azalea says, “That’s something – better than nothing!” What would Azalea say to Elliott if they came face to face? “I would say, ‘hello?’” Azalea exclaims with a laugh, “I’m kind of shy with people I like. I don’t know if I would have the courage to make a big speech about how much I was influenced by her. I would probably try to play it cool but I hope I get to meet her. One day.”
With all the buzz at hand for Digital Distortion, that dream may soon come true. The launch of “Team” in March, the first single from the album, debuted at No. 42 on the Billboard Hot 100. Following the release, she topped the real-time Billboard and Twitter Trending 140 chart, becoming the “most shared and discussed track on the social-media network for five straight hours” largely because – who would have guessed – Iggy Azalea is like online catnip.
The video bears all the hallmarks of the genre. Supercar? Check. Dancers? Check. Private Jet? Graffiti? Cops making arrests? Check, check, check. If you look past the matte black Ferrari with its personalised number plate, you’ll be able to see clones with pixelated faces. The clones share high blonde ponytails and nails as-sharp-as-daggers. Azalea is hounded as she makes her way to the private hangar of an airport where, after much spray-painting of the plane, the police finally rock up and escort Azalea to meet a distorted – but familiar – face. The twist is not an M. Night Shyamalan narrative, but it’s revealing nonetheless.
As Azalea explains, the video invokes the theme of “running away from, but then being saved by, your own self.” She adds: “you always have to mess yourself up and then have a realisation and fix it yourself too”. In an online question-and-answer session with fans, she explained that “team” means she is her own best support. “I am my own team. 20 per cent meaningful, 70 per cent bop, 10 per cent ratchet.”
Azalea is a woman with power and strength. She is not vulnerable. She does not need your pity. But neither is she the tough, foul-mouthed, defiant lightning rod for controversy that most people assume. Listen closely to radio and television interviews she has given in recent weeks which portray a purposeful and intelligent woman – one who handles repeated probing questions about her personal life with surprising grace and honesty. “I can’t imagine someone talking to me and I just say, ‘no comment’. That makes for such a boring person and I would never aspire to being a boring person or regret being a ridiculous one.”
Beneath the bravado of her lyrics, she makes a connection that inspires fierce loyalty in her fans, and sports a lively, spontaneous sense of humour. Still she remains one of rap’s more polarising figures. Does that faze Iggy Azalea? Not really. She survived what she describes as one of the toughest years of her life – cancelling The Great Escape tour, among other things – and seems a stronger person for it. Ultimately, Azalea aspires to leave a simple legacy in the industry, “I hope I’m somebody who inspires other people to think outside the box and do that unapologetically.” Much like the iconic woman she identifies as her own legend – Grace Jones.
The secret to Azalea’s strength, her irrepressible fame-game appetite and resolve lies in the lyrics to one of this summer’s biggest releases: “Baby, I got me and that’s all I need.”
Photography / Dennis Leupold
Creative direction and styling / Paris Libby
Photography assistants / Joel Perez, Winston Kingston and Alex Joliceur
Styling assistant / Alison Sherman
Make-up / Lora Arellano at Cloutier Remix
Hair / Kiyah Wright at Exclusive Artists Management
Location / Hollywood Hills, California