Then Grande’s “Problem” with a verse from Azalea also hit the Top 10, and “Black Widow,” featuring Rita Ora, impacted rhythmic radio, eventually climbing to No. 3 on the Hot 100. Over the course of one summer, Azalea became one of music’s biggest names; when the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards nominations were announced that July, she received seven, behind only Beyonce for the most of any artist.
Yet as her breakthrough coalesced, so did Azalea’s reputation for fighting on social media. She sounded off on a perceived slight from Nicki Minaj at the BET Awards in June 2014; warred with Snoop Dogg in October; dismissed an (admittedly disgusting) Eminem lyric about her in November; and shrugged off a Q-Tip Twitter thread about the importance of understanding hip-hop history in December. She also continued a back-and-forth with Azealia Banks, a sworn enemy since her mixtape days.
Some of Azalea’s critics took potshots at her on social media based solely on the fact that she was a white woman performing rap music. And while rote misogyny fueled some of the hate, her position as a white woman performing rap music on the biggest stages in America did warrant scrutiny. From the start of her career, Azalea professed a genuine love of hip-hop and sought out mentorship from black producers and collaborators, but repeatedly fumbled when it came time to reflect on her own privilege in the music industry, which naturally fostered skepticism from both artists and fans.
She fumbled on wax too, rapping in 2012, “When the relay starts, I’m the runaway slave-master”; her apology came quickly, with Azalea writing in an open letter, “It was a tacky and careless thing to say and if you are offended, I am sorry.” In a 2013 Complex cover story that ran six months before “Fancy” was released, Azalea said of her perceived “black”-sounding flow, "If you’re mad about it and you’re a black person then start a rap career and give it a go, too. I’m not taking anyone’s spot, so make yourself a mixtape. Or maybe if you’re black, start singing like a country singer and be a white person. I don’t know. Why is it such a big deal?” In December 2014, the same week she received her first Grammy nominations, she was criticized for remaining silent on social media during the nationwide protests against a grand jury’s decision not to indict a white police officer in the death of Eric Garner. “Black people are cool, but black issues sure aren’t huh?” Banks tweeted about her, which started another Twitter showdown.
Azalea’s problem, she acknowledges now, was that she couldn't distinguish between someone who wanted to start a dialogue and someone who wanted to tear her down. "It’s hard to separate trolling from legitimate criticism,” she says. “When you get thrown into the deep end, you have a natural inclination as a human to defend your character. There were times, in retrospect, where I was way too defensive... where there was so much coming from every direction that I just didn’t have the ability to pick through what was valid and what wasn’t. I just felt like, ugh, I'm walling off everything.”
Azalea does believe a large portion of the criticism was gendered, however. “It always is, and always will be a point of frustration,” she says. “But for me as a woman, it is tough to know when to speak about those things and when to stop, because it can kind of make you seem like you’re being a victim instead of taking accountability.” (For her part, Azalea is more careful now to identify and speak on cases of appropriation; during a recent interview with Power 106 in Los Angeles, Azalea was asked about Kim Kardashian West’s braids, and immediately pointed out that some might be bothered by the co-opting a black hairstyle. “That’s definitely something I’ve made mistakes on in the past … there should be an acknowledgement of where it originated from,” she said.)
In the months leading up to the 2015 Grammys, Azalea’s mentions were full of people calling her Grammy nominations undeserved. She finally began to wonder if she needed to take some time away from social media — “It was making me feel physically fucking ill,” she says now — as well as press pause on her career after a nonstop year-and-a-half. Azalea flew under the radar for the second half of 2015, hoping to re-emerge the following year with a new album, but the triumphant return never happened. “Team,” her 2016 electro-rap single that memorably included the line “Go and give 'em all the finger/You gotta set the score right, call it Hans Zimmer,” failed to crack the top 40 of the Hot 100, and three months after the song’s release, Azalea called off her engagement to NBA player Nick Young after he admitted on camera to cheating on her. She says that “personal trauma” added to her overall break from the spotlight; over the following two years, she floated out singles that didn’t make a dent at radio, while alternating between calling out Def Jam for holding her sophomore album hostage and blaming the media for a lack of attention (Def Jam did not respond to request for comment for this story).
Having officially parted ways with Def Jam at the end of last year, Azalea says of her former label, “They were being very supportive and doing the best that they could do, but creatively, I don’t think we were able to understand what it was that I was trying to do moving forward, and I felt a little bit like what they would’ve loved to do is recreate The New Classic. And I get that, from a business perspective. … The only pressure was to keep making pop music when I wanted to get back [to] recording. I said ‘I don’t want to make pop music.’ I remember sitting there saying to somebody with the label, whose name I won’t mention, ‘I don’t want to make music for your 10-year-old daughter anymore.’”