“First things first, I’m the realest,” Iggy Azalea raps on “Fancy,” the bouncy single that just hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.
Not everyone agrees. On Wednesday, the Australian-born rapper became the only artist since the Beatles to have their first Hot 100 hits chart at Nos. 1 and 2 simultaneously (she also appears on Ariana Grande’s “Problem”). But she has drawn some ire for her rapping style, in which her natural Aussie accent gives way to one that evokes the archetypal Southern rapper. The contrast was evident on last week’s “Dancing With the Stars” finale, when an earpiece issue caused a pause in her performance. As Azalea, 23, stopped to apologize to the crowd, she sounded noticeably unlike the rapper who boasts about being “in the murda bizness” in the opening verse of “Fancy.”
Authenticity is a recurring point of contention in rap. Did Drake start from the bottom or from Canadian teen soap “Degrassi”? Did Macklemore really need to broadcast that post-Grammy text to Kendrick Lamar? But the theme takes on a new resonance in the case of Iggy Azalea, who was born Amethyst Kelly in Sydney.
She grew up in the small town of Mullumbimby, New South Wales, and headed for Miami at age 16. After years of honing her craft, Azalea connected with Atlanta-based rapper T.I., who went on to produce her EP “Glory” in 2012. Earlier that year, Azalea was featured as part of XXL’s annual Freshman Class issue, becoming the first woman to receive that honor — but not without a bit of controversy.
American rapper Azealia Banks tweeted, “Iggy Azalea on the XXL freshman list is all wrong.” Banks, who is black, took particular issue with a lyric from the song “D.R.U.G.S.” in which Azalea raps “When the relay starts, I’m a runaway slave master.”
“I’m not anti white girl, but I’m also not here for any1 outside my culture trying to trivialize very serious aspects of it,” Banks tweeted.
In all fairness, it was a tacky and careless thing to say and if you are offended, I am sorry. Sometimes we get so caught up in our art and creating or trying to push boundaries, we don’t stop to think how others may be hurt by it. In this situation, I am guilty of doing that and I regret not thinking things through more.
Banks has made her own share of controversial statements, but her criticism illustrates why Azalea rubs some people the wrong way. Even XXL’s (generally positive) review of “Glory” noted that “Iggy Azalea’s buzz outweighs her catalogue.” The controversy was highlighted last week when Forbes published a blog post titled “Hip-Hop is Run by a White, Blonde, Australian Woman.” That assertion — and the white privilege it seemed to gloss over — riled some readers and the headline was later changed to “Hip-Hop’s Unlikely New Star: A White, Blonde, Australian Woman.”
Azalea is certainly not the first rapper to affect an accent not her own (see: Nicki Minaj), but detractors note that it lacks a certain self-awareness. In a review of Azalea’s album “The New Classic,” Complex Magazine zeroed in on why the faux accent is offensive to some.
Iggy Azalea’s other weakness is her voice, which consistently strikes a jarringly inauthentic note. She raps with a tightly-wound drawl, one that, to American ears, feels tone-deaf not musically, but socially. Her voice, in essence, sounds like a put-on version of a particularly technical rapper from the American South. It’s the kind of thing that would make Ke$ha cringe—and that’s ultimately what makes it unique. It’s another contradiction: her rap style begs to be taken seriously, but is instead vaguely silly. Someone from the States would never attempt to pull this off on such a large stage; it requires an outsider’s audacity, a lack of awareness about racial dynamics in the States.
It’s unlikely that the criticism will have much effect on the success of “Fancy,” which boasts an addictive beat and a catchy hook, sung by British pop singer Charli XCX. It’s poised to become one of this summer’s anthems — if not The Song of the Summer. And while Azalea could easily turn to another hip-hop trope and dismiss her critics as “haters,” she could also take a more constructive approach.
For the record, Azalea told Complex last year that she has “never” rapped in her Australian accent. “Of course I’ve asked myself, “Does that make me fake?” she told the magazine. “I don’t think the voice makes me fake; it makes me an artist. Voice is my medium.”