Summer of Iggy Azalea: 'Fancy' Rapper Defends Her Cred, Talks Lorde (Cover Story)
The say-anything, foulmouthed, lightning rod rapper suddenly owns summer as she ties a Beatles chart record (but she doesn't even care): "I'd rather be the Stones"
Late one early-summer Saturday night, Iggy Azalea, one of the hottest pop stars on the planet, enters the lobby of Manhattan's Mondrian Soho, one of the hottest hotels on the planet. In the lush garden patio, expensively dressed couples finish up elaborate dinners, while in the bar, women in this season's Louboutins are half-dancing to a steady electro throb and fielding the attentions of well-heeled bankers.
Tall and pale, wearing track shorts and dirty sneakers, her blonde hair pulled back from her face, Azalea looks like a gangly teenager who has just come home from soccer practice to find a bunch of her parents' boozy friends in her living room. "Ugh," she exclaims. "I forgot that it's a f-ing nightclub around here." If you only know her from the Southern inflections of her rhymes on hits like "Fancy" and Ariana Grande's "Problem" - the Nos. 1 and 2 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 dated June 14 - her starkly Australian accent is momentarily jarring.
She ducks right and heads up the stairs to her room. "This is how I feel about hotels," she says, as she settles into a dining chair in her small suite. "If mainly people under 30 stay there, I'm not interested. I want to stay in a place where 50-year-old rich people stay. It's not that I care who's around me - I just don't want anyone around me. And if it's an old rich lady, they're usually pretty quiet and disgusted I'm even here, which I like. I want to be at the pool and nobody is at the pool - not you and all your bridesmaids."
With that clarified, she picks up the phone and orders dinner: a hamburger with extra cheese, "that weird peperonata thing on the side" and four Arnold Palmers with mint. It's tempting to say that this image - the party-hating, teetotaling, old-lady-loving shut-in - is inconsistent with Azalea's public persona, a short-short-wearing, baller-dating, expert twerker. But as a white, 24-year-old female Australian rapper, upending convention and defying categorization is what defines her brand, though for a while it appeared to be what would sink her career.
Two years ago, Azalea was just another casualty of the record business, trying to turn a handful of accomplished mixtapes and press accolades into a label deal. The road to the April release of her debut album, The New Classic, has been a long one, but the results have been quick: The album bowed at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and at No. 1 on Rap Albums for the week ending May 4, and has sold 146,000 copies through the Nielsen SoundScan tracking week ending June 1. Her single, "Fancy," settles in for a second week atop the Hot 100, leading all three of the chart's metrics: sales, streaming and airplay.
With its bouncily insistent beat, "Fancy" is a strong early contender for song of the summer. And Azalea's collaboration with Grande - who she first met last November when they presented together at an awards ceremony - "Problem," gives her a unique accomplishment: She is the first act since The Beatles to have her debut Hot 100 hits ("Fancy" and "Problem") reach Nos. 1 and 2 on the chart simultaneously.
Azalea is aware that other people think this is a big deal, but to her, "it doesn't mean anything," she says, with a somewhat weary sigh. Then she smiles mischievously, seizing another opportunity to lean into her role as a rebel. "I'd rather be The Rolling Stones."
It has been seven years since Azalea first showed up in Miami, a 16-year-old from a tiny town of 3,000 on Australia's Gold Coast who had told her mother she was going on vacation with a girlfriend but was actually alone and not planning to return home until she had made it as a rapper.
In the years that followed, Azalea ran the gauntlet of music-industry hazing, from watching a deal with a major label (Interscope) unravel to falling in love and then breaking up with another high-profile up-and-comer (ASAP Rocky) to publicly feuding with a peer (Azealia Banks) to slogging through press tours filled alternately with questions about her status as a feminist and her favorite sexual position. Despite her youth, Azalea is already an industry veteran, and as such she has learned to put less stock in the symbols of her success (like matching a Beatles chart record) and more in the unique sound and image that fueled it.
"What does 'new classic' really mean?" she muses, when asked about what drives her life and her art. "For me, as a rapper, I just think whatever classic hip-hop is, the classic image of that? I don't think that's what it is anymore. And I am a good example of what it could look like now."
For many, the idea that a white girl from Australia could be the new face of hip-hop is distressing. At every step of her rise Azalea has been dogged with criticism about her outsider status, accused by some of not paying enough homage to the legacy of hip-hop and by others of too casually co-opting the genre's traditions. To her, it's a Catch-22: Is she not hip-hop enough because she comes from the Gold Coast of Australia, or too hip-hop because she rhymes in an accent that's more Atlanta than New South Wales?
"We get so caught up, especially in rap, with what's authentic, and I wish people would think more about what the f- that even means," says Azalea, glancing absentmindedly at the TV, broadcasting the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. "One critic was like, 'Why didn't you talk about more Australian things?' I don't understand why I'm supposed to write a song about living in the outback and riding a kangaroo to be authentic."
Azalea is full of colorfully expressed opinions about everything from her detractors and rivals to the awesomeness of Shania Twain's 1990s fashion statements ("She's such a queen"). You can tell she enjoys the comic drama of getting worked up. When Lorde's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance of "All Apologies" with the remaining members of Nirvana comes on the TV, Azalea blurts out, "Oh, it's her." There's a long pause, then she goes for it.
"Nothing against her, but I think when you're doing a tribute to someone that's dead, generally it should be the person's peer," says Azalea. "Lorde is not Kurt Cobain's peer. No matter if she killed the performance or not, I just don't think it's appropriate."
Like all good aspiring superstars, Azalea relishes attention, whether that comes from being worshipped, disagreed with or seen as unusual, the way she was as a child. "I was always the kid that was f-ing weird," she remembers of her experience growing up with her younger sister in Mullumbimby, New South Wales, a remote town approximately 400 miles north of Sydney, nestled among an enclave of hippie surf spots. Her mother cleaned houses and encouraged her daughter's interest in art. Her father worked as a landscaper, but also had a career as a standup comic and played in a punk band. Her parents had an unsteady relationship and eventually split. There were several years when Azalea was a child when she didn't really see her father but as she has gotten older, they've become "close in our own way," she says.
As the story goes, Azalea first heard Tupac Shakur's "Baby Don't Cry" when she was 11 and decided then and there to become a rapper. By 14, Azalea was writing her own raps and hanging out in one of Sydney's two hip-hop clubs. But more than a desire to become the Aussie Tupac, Azalea was driven by broader, more classical themes: escape and reinvention. "When I first started rapping, I thought I'd move to the city [Sydney]. But when I got there I was like, 'These people are still not my people,'" says Azalea. "They're still too practical for me. I need some real mental people to be around. I need a lot of batshit-crazy people who are completely excessive and ridiculous. I need to go to America."
Azalea landed in Miami in 2007, dabbling in audio engineering and pursuing her GED. The next year she moved to Houston, then Atlanta, where she lived in 2009 and 2010. It was around this time that she put up online her early, attention-getting tracks like the deliciously depraved, witty "Pussy," which began to earn her label attention. In 2010, Azalea moved to Los Angeles, where a deal with Interscope beckoned then fell apart. But after she released two buzz-stoking mixtapes (Ignorant Art in 2011 and TrapGold in 2012), a fan vote secured her the 10th spot on XXL's 2012 Freshman Class cover (Macklemore was also featured that year). That's when T.I. called. "I felt like T.I. could help me get to know producers and help me with my direction," she recalls.
Still, by the spring of 2012, her momentum had stalled as quickly as it built. Azalea had no record contract, no publishing deal, and what she says was a sticky-fingered booking agent. She also had split with ASAP Rocky and was feuding with R&B singer Banks. She retreated to Atlanta and went in search of new management. "I didn't want to work with a guy because they just seem to think you're impulsive," she recalls, "so I was like, 'I need to find some bitches that understand me. Like, big mean bitches.'" T.I. put her in touch with his booking agent, Cara Lewis at Creative Artists Agency, who connected the young rapper with her current manager, Sarah Stennett of Turn First Artists.
"I didn't even want to meet her," recalls Azalea. "I came to the lunch 40 minutes late in gym clothes, purely for the free food. Sarah was like, 'What is wrong with you, luv? Are you just really rude or are you heartbroken?'Â " Azalea was, in fact, heartbroken. "I'd just broken up with my boyfriend and nobody would return my calls," she remembers. "I told Sarah the whole thing and she was like, 'These f-ing c-s trying to f-ing dick you over. We're going to show them.' Then she sent me to Wales over Christmas to write."
Sending her to a remote U.K. location was deliberate. "I wanted her to get really away from all the glitz and glamour and really back to basics," says Stennett. "It was harsh - it was very cold and very dark in deepest Wales at a very faded glory studio, but it became a hugely important part of the process." As sisters in arms, Stennett set up Azalea with production team The Invisible Men, whom she feels are particularly gifted at coaxing what she calls "artist-defining" songs out of young musicians.
When the Wales work began to bear fruit, Azalea and The Invisible Men continued working on tracks for nearly two years, a long development process enabled by Turn First's funding and, eventually, Island Records, where president David Massey signed Azalea in the spring of 2013 (she's now under the Def Jam wing of Universal Music Group). One of the many demos they turned out, "Leave It," eventually became "Fancy." "When you have the time to create more tracks than you're ever going to use, the real jewels come to the top," says Jon Shave of The Invisible Men.
"It was a very, very promising, strong demo with a really great hook and an overall concept that was so promising. But the actual recording [of it] into a single really became something special," says Massey. "Leave It" was one of many "nuggets" The Invisible Men presented to singer-songwriter Charli XCX that might benefit from a killer pop hook. It immediately leapt out at her. "'Who dat who dat/I-G-G-Y,'" says Charli XCX when asked about it, quoting Azalea's key hook in the song. "I was so into it. I wanted to make it into, like, a 2014 girl power moment. There aren't enough high-profile female collaborations happening."
The "Leave It" demo leaked last December, and if you listen to it on YouTube, you can hear the difference between a good rap song and an undeniable pop hit. The beat and verses are in place, but without the Charli XCX hook, it lacks a chorus and easily graspable concept. "I really give Invisible Men a lot of credit for making the record magic," says Massey.
"The No. 1 thing people in the music business do to make you do what they want is tell you that your life will be over if you don't do it. They say, 'If you f- up, it will all be over. You'll never have another chance,'" says Azalea. "If I listened to those people, I would have been the girl who had the song called 'Pussy' and almost got a record deal and then didn't and went back to Australia." But she didn't, and now she's free. "You can't ever again make me scared of what's going to happen because I've already seen what happens: You end up in Wales and it's fine. I'm glad I know that."