This week marks the release of one of the most highly anticipated albums of 2014. With catchy hooks prime for radio and glossy production, many of its 12 tracks could easily straddle that lucrative line between pop and rap. But enough about Future’s Honest; rapper Iggy Azalea dropped her full-length debut on Tuesday as well.
The New Classic, as many quite reasonably anticipated, hasn’t lived up to its boastful name, at least from the perspective of hip-hop critics. Reviewer after reviewer after reviewer seems compelled to catalog Azalea’s otherness — her skin color, her country of origin, her gender, her looks — while building arguments against her music. She’s effectively in the online stockade, charged with a litany of crimes against rap: appropriating American hip-hop culture, mimicking Southern flows like a trained bird, being insufficiently lyrical.
But those who find Azalea’s content lacking somehow can’t see the forest for the trees. “Don’t Need Y’all” is essentially Drake’s “All Me” and “No New Friends” consolidated into one compact tune, while “New Bitch” follows in the confident, stilettoed footsteps of Foxy Brown, Lil Kim, and Nicki Minaj. She’s even got a sense of humor, spitting punchline-rap one-liners like the bristling “head over heels” zinger on “Work.” Far from being radically removed, Azalea is practically workmanlike and even a touch mundane in her approach to hip-hop.
For some, Azalea’s backstory, which involves leaving her hometown in the Southern hemisphere as a teenager to try and make it here in America, has too many holes. Yet how many Swiss-cheese narratives have we been fed from rappers alluding to their mastery and prominence in the drug trade, the pimp game or some other criminal enterprise? Living as a broke aspiring rapper in cities like Atlanta, Houston, and Miami seems a lot more plausible a scenario than being yet another one of Atlanta’s hundreds of purported cocaine kingpins.
Enduring conservative notions and perceptions that, to varying degrees, remain a part of hip-hop play at least some role in the criticism surrounding The New Classic. There are still a few “Blue Laws” kicking around that create barriers to entry for a rapper like Iggy Azalea, ones that raise internal red flags in at least a subset of contemporary rap fans. While there’s no credible evidence of any organized campaign to take her down over her lack of melanin or a Y chromosome, you don’t have to be a dubious puritan like Lord Jamar to experience some sort of unease over Azalea’s quantifiable foreignness.
It doesn’t matter, though. Now a mature global phenomenon, hip-hop is changing whether people want it to or not. Entire generations have grown up with rap music on the radio, television, and Internet providing entertainment and influence. No longer limited to a handful of rigidly branded flavors, hip-hop has become a veritable Freestyle Coke Machine, dispensing dozens of variants on demand to consumers of diverse backgrounds. After years of aggressive multi-channel hip-hop marketing, to expect that what Americans consider urban music would remain our national product or purely reflective of one particular culture sounds completely absurd. Reggaeton has proven one shining example of rap’s diasporic effect, one powerful enough to break through embargoes and sanctions to reach all corners of the globe.
Why, then, is it so surprising that Azalea would sound like an American rap artist, or some approximation of one? Over the past 23 years, chances are good that most, if not all, of the rap she was exposed to came from the US and thus impacted her approach, her flow, and her aesthetic. Mileage aside, moving to Miami from Mullumbimby parallels the trek scores of young actresses undertake when departing various flyover-state podunks for the Tinseltown promises of LA.
Save for a few trolling comedians, nobody really expects Azalea to drop copious references to koalas, aborigines, and the Crocodile Dundee film franchise in her songs. Demanding that her rapping mirror her homeland or that failing to do so makes her inauthentic is similarly absurd. It’s certainly not something asked of rock or pop singers from outside the lower 48. When Toronto’s own Drake cops that Migos flow, he’s committing no inexcusable cultural sin. Azalea’s former beau A$AP Rocky’s ascent can be attributed to his demonstrated adoption of the slowed-down styles of Houston. When Californian rappers can declare themselves King Of New York, location clearly matters less and less.
Consider this: it’s been 22 years since reggae artist Snow scored a worldwide smash hit with “Informer,” in which the white Canadian showcased a patois reminiscent of Kingston, Jamaica rather than Kingston, Ontario. Since then, M.I.A. has successfully dabbled in dancehall from the get-go, as those who heard “Galang” when it first broke can attest, and followers of the sound have no doubt heard Alborosie over various popular riddims. So when Azalea dips into similar terrain on the Mavado-assisted, Sleng Teng-tinged “Lady Patra,” it shouldn’t lead to outrage or offense.
Up until “Fancy” became a Billboard success, Iggy Azalea appeared a possible fluke, one whose insular cult following could limit her opportunities to properly break out. In contrast, one of the primary reasons why British rappers have largely failed to translate well in the States has to do with their general unwillingness to ditch the accents and follow the market. Given her own chart performance in the United Kingdom, clearly she’s doing something right — and, if anything, can potentially serve as a viable model for future generations of non-American rappers to compete here for years to come. I’m just being honest.