Robert Christgau: Iggy Azalea's 'New Classic' Is Plenty Authentic -- and Damn Good to Boot

Miller Mobley
Iggy Azalea for Billboard photographed by Miller Mobley on April 2, 2014 at Drift Studios in New York.

Iggy Azalea 'New Classic' Review, Robert Christgau

I come not to remind you, in case it's somehow slipped your mind, that Australian-born rapper Iggy Azalea is the first artist to place his, her or their first Hot 100 singles at Nos. 1 and 2 simultaneously since the damn Beatles. I come to inform you that, like the damn Beatles, she's put together a damn good album, engaging front to back. I come to insist that like all the solidest hitmakers, be it the Beatles and the Stones or my gal Pink and Iggy's benefactor Beyoncé, Azalea's persona suggests a person worth getting to know for more than three-and-a-half minutes at a time. True, the album would be even more engaging if one of those record-tying singles -- "Problem," with its raw sax sample -- wasn't on Ariana Grande's CD instead. And at this juncture in pop capitalism it would be silly to expect a flat-out pop bid like The New Classic to be deep -- or, please, "authentic." But it is complex. And it doesn't have a bum track on it.

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I discovered this not by keeping one ear on the radio, which I don't have listening time for anyway, or watching videos, which with Azalea I learned to tolerate and occasionally admire only after duty called (love her tentative sneer, hate the irrelevant "Black Widow"), but by sticking the physical CD in a changer with roughly similar candidates and waiting for it to grab me -- or not, which is usually how this process turns out. In this case, however, there was a turning point midway through my third or so play -- as it happens, a moment of "authenticity." On the early "Don't Need Y'all," the former Amethyst Kelly swallows the first two words of "Talkin' 'bout no money, no family/16 in the middle of Miami," shifting the full force of her fake drawl onto "no money" and transforming a structurally marginal, lyrically telling couplet into a mini-hook. Five tracks later the words "No money, no family/16 in the middle of Miami" return as the maxi-hook of the excellent non-breakout debut single "Work." It's the only such repetition on the album. This is something she wants us to remember.

Iggy's many haters charge that she uses ghostwriters, which is easy to say and hard to prove and so what anyway -- gee, she may have scrubbed fewer floors earning airfare to Miami than she claims to boot. Either way, those lines nail something both real and factual about her. Mullumbimby, the New South Wales town where she grew up, would seem to be the kind of half-bohemian settlement you find on the northern California coast, only warmer and with better surf -- that is, not the true boondocks many assume. Clearly her parents were hippies; her surfer father had a part-time stage career, while her mother became a hotel cleaner-turned-substitute teacher because she had two kids in her charge. Clearly Amethyst hitchhiked the 400 miles to Sydney more often than a 13-year-old female should, which is never. And without doubt she flew off at 16 to seek her fortune. You want authentic? Iggy Azalea has all the lineaments of a risk-taking young rebel without a well-off family to back her up.

So let New Zealander Lorde, the daughter of a civil engineer, break pop by dissing Maybach materialism. Azalea wants diamonds, and she says as much in The New Classic's non-chartbound finale "F--- Love." Inspired at age 12 by Tupac, whose flow was never world-class either, she spent the next half of her life transforming herself into a hip-hop star. There were backers who backed off and lessons from Atlanta rappers and a few mixtapes -- try Ignorant Art, which doesn't live up to its title in part because nothing could -- and a major affair with A$AP Rocky and an obscure deal with T.I. and decisive guidance from a female British management team.

Finally, 12 songs in 42 minutes appeared in April -- all rapped, all but one with a sung chorus or mini-chorus. Iggy singsongs the tune unaided on what are undeniably the six sketchiest tracks musically -- tracks that just as undeniably hold up fine anyway, in part because each fleshes out and aestheticizes her backstory better than her first two hits do. Charli XCX ("Fancy"), Rita Ora ("Black Widow") and of course Ariana Grande ("Problem") do the heavy hooking on the hits so far, with trapstep trio Watch the Duck and dancehall bruiser Mavado in the wings with The New Classic's most soulful and powerful entries, respectively: "100" and "Lady Patra." And then there's the exception: "Work," the track that grabbed me, possibly because I'm not altogether hooked on hooks myself. The hooks, of course, are one reason hard die-hards put her down -- in the triumphant Dirty South manner, her hip-hop is radio-friendly as a matter of principle. The cumulative weight of the long-player they never think about.

Azalea raps an octave lower than she speaks in a drawl markedly less shrewd and ironic than that of Mick Jagger, a comparison that comes up. Personally, I think it's silly to complain that she "tries to sound black" -- insofar as she does, it's a formal rather than cultural project. What I hear is awkward and determined and endearing -- less so on video, where you can sometimes catch her forcing it, but always the striving self-creator pursuing her "art," as this boho baby rightly calls it when she paints her nipples red for a tantalizing glimpse in the "Change Your Life" video.

Thematically, The New Classic is a long way from deep. As part of her formal project, but also as part of her autobiography, she writes too many songs about what I'll call pre-Maybach materialism while hoping along with Lorde that obscenely luxurious cars are never her thing. Predictably, the songs where she expresses wonderment that "Impossible Is Nothing" are more relatable than the ones where she flaunts her liquid assets. But the ones where she pledges to keep on striving are more relatable than that, because striving is built into her flow itself. That's what her complexity is about. African-Americans may feel that they've had it harder than her by definition, and for the most part I agree. But that doesn't mean she had it easy. Anyone who doubts her motives should check out Def Wish Cast, marginals from Sydney's western suburbs who've long ruled the actually existing Australian rap subculture with shouted braggartry that makes Fred Durst sound like Rakim. She got out of there none too soon.

It saddens me that Nicki Minaj and Azealia Banks are among Iggy's haters, because a lot of the race-based flak the newcomer gets carries an extra charge of the sexism those two strong women know damn well kept them off the cover of XXL when they were coming up. But having made my case for Iggy Azalea's art, I need to add something. As far as I'm concerned, Nicki Minaj is the most gifted major-label rapper to rise up in the last five years, Kendrick Lamar included, and Banks' "212" is a musical pinnacle Iggy is unlikely ever to approach. There's a physical beauty to their flows that no striving can replace. But I also need to quote a critical thinker whose authority far exceeds mine. Turns out Questlove is a big "Fancy" fan -- loves "the over-enunciation of 'hold you down.'" Says Mr. Thompson: "You know, we as black people have to come to grips that hip-hop is a contagious culture. If you love something, you gotta set it free."

Word.