You can love Iggy Azalea and you can hate her — and most people feel strongly one way or the other — but at the very least, she wants her music to provoke you to feel something. Anything.
Azalea has the blessing and burden of being a rising rapper with a profile at odds with the way most artists come up in the genre. If you wanted a caricature of the least likely rap star, Azalea could be your blueprint.
Looks like a model (and is one).
Raps with a Southern accent (rendering “murder business” as “murda bizness”).
At 23, Azalea has weathered a tsunami of ridicule at every turn, lampooned as culturally insensitive, untalented, opportunistic. There’s one criticism she defies, though: She has worked hard to get where she is.
After two years of delays, brought on by label changes and hectic tour schedules, Azalea is finally taking center stage, determined to be judged for her music. Island Def Jam will release her debut album, “The New Classic,” on Tuesday, and she’s about to embark on her first headlining tour, which kicks off at the House of Blues on Wednesday.
Azalea, haters be damned, is ready with guns blazing.
“I never mind if people like or dislike my music. I come from a family of people who love art, and everything’s subjective. I understand that,” she says recently. “I’m looking for an adverse reaction: I love it if you hate it; I love it if you love it. Just as long as you feel something. If you think that I magically popped up here and I didn’t earn it, that irks my nerves more than anything.”
She’s ready for it, but is hip-hop ready for her?
“I think the word hip-hop and what that represents and who that represents is such a broad statement,” she says, the intensity in her voice rising. “I listen to hip-hop. I love rap music. I buy rap music. I keep the culture going. There’s a misconception of what and who is hip-hop. To me, hip-hop can be a kid that lives in Australia in a country town with 3,000 people, and all she buys is hip-hop music and she loves hip-hop. And she loves Tupac [Shakur, the late rapper]. She’s hip-hop as much as the kid who lives in Brooklyn and listens to the same stuff. They’re both equally hip-hop. One is not more hip-hop than the other. You know what I’m saying?”
She’s fired up.
“So is hip-hop ready for me? Yeah, it is ready. There are so many different types of people who represent the culture now across the world. There’s not a clear representation of what hip-hop is in 2014. It has evolved. There’s more than just one face of hip-hop. I think hip-hop is ready, whether or not its gatekeepers and the people who write about it are ready to accept that. The face of hip-hop is multifaceted now.”
Maybe that’s why she called her new album “The New Classic,” as a nod to the reality that hip-hop has increasingly opened its doors to would-be outsiders. Queer rappers such as Le1f and Mykki Blanco have made inroads into the genre, albeit through largely indie audiences. Azalea, who was born Amethyst Kelly, also identifies as an outsider, one whose voice is just as relevant as her mainstream contemporaries.
“People who are buying rap want to see people like them represented, too. I’m white. I don’t want to hear white chicks being bashed in a rap song. I don’t like that,” she says. “We need Le1f on ‘David Letterman.’ It’s important because we’re buying the music, too, and we should have a positive representation of ourselves. We’ve earned it.”
The new album puts the attention where Azalea has wanted it all along: her talent as a rapper and musician. Its songs, which pulsate with electronic dance arrangements and feature cameos by singers such as Rita Ora (“Black Widow”) and Charli XCX (“Fancy”), are solid rap-pop hybrids and impeccably produced.
Spitting with a fierce flow, as if the words burn her tongue, Azalea exudes a hard-won confidence, blasting her critics who know little about her beyond what they’ve seen on blogs. On “Work,” she lays out her rags-to-riches story, detailing her life in a small town (Mullumbimby) and how she left because she had bigger dreams. “No money, no family/ Sixteen, in the middle of Miami,” she raps in the chorus.
“I think the main theme for me when writing this album was all the extreme joys and extreme failures of my life,” she says, with a semblance of a laugh. “It’s about that, it’s about trying to fight through something called people not believing in you. This year has been pretty good and stable, but 2012 and 2013 I think were the two hardest years of my life.”
Where to begin with those particular years? Her debut was originally set for 2013 but kept getting pushed back. She also got into a Twitter war of words with fellow female rapper Azealia Banks, who took issue with Azalea calling herself a “runaway slave master” in one of her songs. (Then again, a good beef is part and parcel of hip-hop lore.)
“It seems like it has been an odyssey. I didn’t know it would take this long to do it, but I think it was actually the best thing to have time to grow,” says Jason Pebworth of the Invisible Men, the UK-based production trio that co-wrote and produced many of the new album’s tracks. “Iggy is an absolute perfectionist, and from day one she had this vision for how it was all going to be pieced together. You kind of just have to follow her lead. Iggy can convince anybody of anything if she thinks it’s the right thing.”
“Hip-hop can be very territorial, but Iggy is from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. She’s sort of a mythical creature,” Pebworth adds, referring to her stints in Australia, Miami, Atlanta, and Houston. “Because she wasn’t born in this country, she was able to add this outsider’s fantasy approach to hip-hop.”
Azalea is not entirely on the outside looking in, though. Her mentor nearly from the beginning has been the rapper T.I., who helped get her signed, and she has also toured with Nas and Beyoncé. In 2012 she was on the cover of XXL, a premier hip-hop magazine, as part of its annual Freshman Class issue devoted to the genre’s next big acts. It was a controversial decision, but Eric Diep, the magazine’s associate music editor, says it was a good choice.
“Hip-hop changes so much. It’s never just about rap. It’s a melting pot of different styles, and Iggy Azalea does that well,” Diep says. “For someone who is open-minded when they listen to hip-hop, I think they would definitely embrace her. For the people who aren’t and would rather listen to Kendrick Lamar, Drake, or J. Cole, I think those people will catch up and finally realize that Iggy is a dope spitter and she’s part of hip-hop culture and reps it.”
Azalea wears her small victories as a badge of honor she didn’t expect to have to fight so fiercely for.
“It’s hard, but like all things, even the greatest things in life you get used to. Fortunately for me, I think those have yet to come, I hope,” she says. “I don’t think things could get much worse than 2012 and that initial [feeling of] almost having it and then having nothing at all. Once you’ve done it once, I can do it a million times. I know the worst that can happen, and I’m still here.”James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.