Text: Malik Alain
The five years since her Grammy-nominated album The New Classic debuted have tested Iggy Azalea’s resilience, to say the least. Amid accusations of cultural appropriation, feuds with fellow artists and her major-label departure, the Australian bombshell resolved to keep her iron in the rap game fire and stick to her guns.
Those guns are blazing on her long-awaited sophomore album In My Defense, which she refers to as “a real rap album” in contrast to the pop-heavy vibe of her debut. And she does keep it very real on this bass-heavy, no games project, from addressing the cultural appropriation issue on “Clap Back” (“‘Cause I talk like this and my ass fat/ People say Iggy tryna act Black”) to shamelessly declaring that she “just wants to f*ck” on the raunchy bop “Just Wanna." The album proves an unabashed explosion of the creative energy, frustration, and sexuality that Azalea felt she had to suppress while under her Universal Music Group recording contract. “It’s been really refreshing and amazing,” Azalea says about releasing an album as an independent artist. “When I was under a label, I felt like I kept hitting so many glass ceilings. And at first, I was willing to compromise; I put out a pop-infused album that did very well commercially, but it also put out a misconception about who Iggy really is, and I lost a bit of my roots there. Commercial success is obviously great, but I want to make music that conveys who I am, above all; that is success to me.”
In all of the rapper’s unapologetic furor, she knows exactly what she is most unapologetic about: “I’m least sorry about making hip hop music,” Azalea proclaims with conviction, “because it’s something that a lot of people think I should apologize for. People want me to be this mainstream, pop-y thing and that’s just not me. I’m a rap artist with real rap roots, and I’m not going to change myself or not do what I love because someone doesn’t think I should be doing it. It’s like people think I should lean towards pop as a way to apologize for the rap music I started out with…just, no. It’s music, you know? And I’m good at it; it’s what I love, and I will never be sorry for making hip hop.”
After resisting being made out to be the bad guy for years, Azalea leans into it on In My Defense, the album cover for which depicts Iggy propped up against a retro BMW in an empty parking garage, seemingly lifeless after having been shot in the head in her sparkling silver dress in shoes. In “shooting” herself in the head for this cover, she reclaims the many shots taken at her by the media and her haters, rendering those weapons henceforth useless against her. This decidedly macabre vein slithers through the videos she released for the two lead singles from the album, “Sally Walker” and “Started," where both of Azalea’s respective opposite leads are killed. Iggy laughs as she addresses these darker proclivities, “Well, I think that’s just kind of who I am, you know? A savage!” she jokes. “But really, I think I am drawn to things that are dark and shocking but still very cheeky. Without a label, I was able to push the envelope way more, do things that would have never been approved when I was signed. So the visuals are a bit aggressive as a result of having to water myself down for so long; all that pent up aggression and vision was released. But I always tried to keep it very cheeky at the same time, so it wasn’t too scary.” Azalea’s eyes light up at my suggestion of the aesthetic as Camp—“Exactly! And I’m very camp! Which I don’t think people quite understand, even though I have been the whole time really, even with my appearance. There’s always been a campy sense of humor in my visuals, even way back on “Murda Bizness” with T.I. and that whole Toddlers and Tiaras scene.”
The camp agenda was palpable at Azalea’s show the night before we spoke, where she executed spitfire verses, facilitated a twerking contest and did her own generous share of booty bouncing with aplomb, all in a pair of custom six-inch Christian Cowan rhinestone stiletto thigh highs. “It feels good,” Azalea smiles about touring again, “because I think I felt a bit demotivated about live shows for a long time. They used to be my favorite thing in the beginning of my career when I was doing small shows, but I hadn’t toured in a long time and done headline shows where it was just people who came to see me who really love my music.” Her gratitude for the fans that have supported this tour is very genuine—“This is giving me my life now. I’ve really missed this. It’s great to be on the road again—in that environment again. It’s very nostalgic for me.” In an unexpected yet welcome departure from a typical hip hop opener, RuPaul’s Drag Race season 11 finalist Silky Nutmeg Ganache began the show with a saucy Rihanna lipsynch medley.
Silky is the most recent in a slew of queer artists that Azalea has been making a concerted push to feature in her recent work. Silky’s fellow season 11 contestant Vanessa Vanjie opened for the L.A. leg of Azalea’s tour and is featured in the “Started” video along with Trixie Mattel. Shea Coulée, Mayhem Miller and other Drag Race alums hold court in the “Sally Walker” video, and trans influencer Nikita Dragun has a cameo in the video for “F*ck it Up." “I always felt like I had a relationship with the queer community,” Azalea says fondly, “I feel like a lot of people didn’t realize, even a lot of the drag community, or [RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 3 winner] Raja, who I’ve been friends with for a long time and did my makeup on tour. I’ve had a lot of ties with queer artists, but I never really thought about trying to incorporate them that, in a way, gives them a platform to expand their artistry or their fanbase via my fans.” This last bit comes heavy with self-awareness and perhaps tinged with guilt. “It was always more helping me behind-the-scenes. I take a lot from them and I see with the RuPaul thing, drag culture is becoming more mainstream, but there are still a lot of misunderstandings about queer artists being real artists that you should take seriously.” Azalea’s pro-queer sentiments are refreshing, coming from an artist who by her own admission still fights for respect in the rap industry, which is plagued by homophobia. That she seems to have taken her own experiences of marginalization and channeled them into empathy for a community that has known no other experience is even more charming. “These are just people that I f*cking live for, and die for, that I tune into and I’m following on Twitter and I want to see. That’s why I chose Silky or Vanjie to open instead of a rap act. These are real artists, they’re real entertainers. These girls are amazing. They’re extra. They dance. Silky can sing. They have so many talents. They should have these outlets to gain platforms, so if I have a platform on that stage, then my fans discover them and we have another thing in common that we love, that’s awesome! That’s a win for everybody. So why not?”
While it could easily come across as queer-baiting for commercial gain, as other artists’ recent gimmicky attempts at inclusion have been accused of, Azalea’s sincerity towards the community clearly informs the tasteful, flattering and respectful manner in which her queer family is portrayed in her work. “I don’t think about it like, ‘Oh, I’m doing you a favor.’ I can’t do the show without them and they can’t do the show without me. Together, that’s what makes it great.” And it seems to be paying off, with sold-out shows in L.A., New York and San Francisco promoting the new album. In embracing the taboo, and befriending the Other, Iggy Azalea stands a chance to be regarded less as a black sheep in the rap industry, and more as a dark horse.