'Why is it that you can have The Rolling Stones,' Azalea asks, 'but a white rapper is weird?'
"Fancy" is giving Iggy Azalea life. It's the fourth single from the Australian rapper's forthcoming debut, "The New Classic" (April 22, Def Jam/Grand Hustle), but audiences are behaving like it's her first, turbo-charging a career that had languished in label limbo: On Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart dated April 26, the song rises 15-11. "Fancy," featuring Charli XCX, was launched with a memorable video that pays pitch-perfect homage to the classic 1995 film "Clueless," with Azalea channeling Alicia Silverstone's valley girl philosopher Cher Horowitz, down to the yellow plaid mini-skirt and white knee socks. But on this April day, sitting in the New York offices of her label, Def Jam, Azalea looks less like a schoolgirl and more like a newly elected head of state. Dressed in white sailor pants and a navy blue military jacket, her signature platinum blonde hair is wrapped in a flawless, proper chignon. She has just learned that "Fancy" has been added into rotation at WHTZ (Z100) New York -- the pop music equivalent of winning the New Hampshire primary.
"I wish I was a teenager in 1997," says Azalea, 23, in an Aussie accent distinct from the Southern twang she raps with. "But with 'The New Classic,' I want younger generations to look back on what we're doing now and say, 'I wish I was a teenager in 2014.' I come from an era of kids who are always being told that what we make is not classic. But my album says to people my age, 'Don't devalue that we can be culturally significant -- because we can be.'"
The grand designs of Azalea, real name Amethyst Amelia Kelly, have unlikely origins: Mullumbimby, Australia -- a tiny town of 3,000 two hours from Brisbane -- where she was weaned on Tupac and Missy Elliott before moving to the States at age 16 with her sights set on a rap career. Azalea bounced from Miami to Atlanta to Los Angeles, where she filmed the video for "Pu$$y," her introduction to the world. The 2011 clip made waves, and not just because of Azalea's nimble flow; it seemed to make the most of her uniqueness in rap -- a white, Australian female with model looks boasting about cunnilingus, surrounded by black culture in the streets of South Central.
The wins came quickly after that: offers "from nearly every label," she says; a contract with Wilhelmina Models; placement on the cover of XXL magazine's "Freshmen" issue; a now defunct relationship with rapper A$AP Rocky (she's now dating Los Angeles Laker Nick Young); and, perhaps most important, the support of superstar rapper T.I., who threw her down with his Grand Hustle crew. The co-sign lent her credibility in a hip-hop world that's still reckoning with Macklemore, one in which a white female rapper has yet to succeed.
T.I. laughs off any talk of his alliance with Azalea being out of the ordinary. "You mean her being Australian, me being American? Her hair being blond, my hair being black? Her being tall, me being shorter?" T.I. asks over the phone from Los Angeles. "I don't get it: If we're counting differences, I didn't know."
But Azalea's differences came to the forefront in February 2012, when rapper Azealia Banks, who's black, criticized a lyric in the former's "D.R.U.G.S." ("When the relay starts, I'm a runaway slave/ Master") on Twitter. After a back-and-forth with Banks online and in the press, Azalea apologized for the line. But she claims the media's treatment of their feud, combined with sexism in the industry, played a role in killing a deal with Interscope that seemed so imminent that she had jumped the gun and announced it publicly in 2012.
"The media [said], 'Either you like Banks or Iggy,' so labels were like, 'There can only be one rapper with a vagina,' " explains Azalea, who says she found out the Interscope deal was dead through the press. "You go on MTV -- 'Iggy got dropped' -- that's how you hear. Then you call the [label] and nobody picks up their phone. You may as well be f-ing dead."
Azalea set her sights on the United Kingdom, inking a deal with Mercury there at the top of 2013. "I signed to Mercury because no one would take me over here," she says. "Rappers like Angel Haze or Dominique Young Unique are on the radio in the U.K. -- I can only hear one female rapping on the radio here."
Azalea landed four songs on the Official Charts Co.'s U.K. Singles chart and finally worked out a worldwide deal with Def Jam, another Universal Music Group label, in April before finishing "The New Classic." (Virgin/EMI will release the album in the United Kingdom.) Throughout the album, she delivers staccatos in a sassy, Southern-accented tenor; the production follows suit, paying homage to Atlanta bounce while looking to the future with EDM leanings. "100s" features an interpolation of KP & Envyi's 1998 classic "Swing My Way," while "Goddess" has a pared-down steel-drum beat reminiscent of the coldly minimal beats popular in the U.K. grime scene. Azalea even sings a couple of hooks, buoying a theme of reinvention, of overcoming skeptics.
Back at Def Jam, she's rolling her eyes, frustrated by rap purists' apprehension toward someone that "looks like me and is from where I'm from."
When it's noted that some criticism toward her might be rooted in the often-troubling intersection of race and music throughout U.S. history -- with jazz and rock'n'roll, in particular -- Azalea seems unfazed. "Why is it that you can have The Rolling Stones, but a white rapper is weird? The Rolling Stones were originally doing blues. This is not weird, this is like history repeating itself. When people say stuff like that about race, I just think you don't really love music because you don't know about music."
"But get used to this," she adds. "Because if it's not me, it's going to be somebody else."