This week saw the release of ‘The New Classic’, the debut album from Australian born ‘rapstress’ Iggy Azalea. Having initially struggled to find a foothold within the industry following a number of false starts and label disputes, the release of a number of promising singles combined with the novelty of her unusual background, has seen her popularity grow steadily over the past year.
Given the male dominated nature of hip-hop as a genre, mainstream female rappers are in short supply, with Nicki Minaj and arguably MIA, the only real success stories of note in the past five years. Despite the early promise of artists such as Angel Haze and Azelia Banks, both have struggled to establish themselves; Haze’s much delayed debut album Dirty Gold bombed and Banks is yet to release an album or come anywhere close to replicating the huge success of her 2011 single 212.
In a recent piece for NPR, Erik Nielsen, who teaches classes on hip hop and African American literature at the University of Richmond investigated the difficulty such artists were having. From those he questioned within the industry, many attributed the scarcity of female rappers partly down to the costs associated with creating and maintaining the artists’ physical image. Whilst it’s laughable to consider the multi-billion dollar industry baulking at make-up and wardrobe costs, the idea that image is considered at least as important as the musical talent of a female rapper, is not a hard concept to comprehend.
When you consider the female rappers (or pop stars in general) that have enjoyed success throughout the genre’s history, more often than not they’re those that have created a sexualised image of themselves, conveyed through videos and promotional material. Whilst it’s partly about empowerment in a genre largely defined by its suppression of the female voice and perspective, it’s also become a necessary ingredient for commercial success. However, aside from the obvious gender politics of mainstream hip hop, the way the genre’s sound has developed over the years now means that artists seeking a successful debut, are often far more cynical in constructing their output.
As Nicki Minaj has shown through her success since 2010; the formula for commercial stability and mainstream relevance as a female rapper, involves delving into the world of pop and dance. Though both Pink Friday and Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded contained more familiar sounding rap songs, they also featured tracks designed to cater to the masses, such as hits ‘Starships’, ‘Superbass’ and ‘Check it Out’. By expanding her sound beyond that of typical rap and hip-hop, Minaj broadened her appeal and gained chart success crucial to establishing her brand. Combined with her eccentric (yet sexualised) image and multiple personalities, Minaj crafted herself a place amongst the musical elite, with huge sales figures backing up her self professed greatness.
Despite such success however, Minaj was criticised from fans that accused the artist of neglecting her responsibilities as a powerful female voice within rap; viewing he decision to cash in within the world of pop as a betrayal. In a previous GRODT column, I argued that while such accusations were understandable, they were also shortsighted and naïve. By achieving chart success with a number of ‘hip-pop’ singles, dance tracks and high profile features, Minaj has created solid foundations, which she can continue to build upon. And with the MCs upcoming third album, The Pink Print, rumoured to be a return to her rap roots, it’s clear that Minaj now feels comfortable enough to resume her assault on the hip hop throne.
Though male hip hop artists are no strangers to cynical pop collaborations, there still seems to be a greater freedom allowed to male MCs when approaching their debut records. It’s hard to imagine an up and coming female rapper releasing the same sort of album that Kendrick Lamar was able to for example; not because of a lack of ability, but due to audience defined industry constraints.
Minaj’s accomplishments are the product of a number of calculated music choices, a distinguishable persona/image and a serious worth ethic; the rapper has shown others the recipe for relevance, it’s up to them to follow it; Iggy Azalea is arguably the first do so. With a unique background that adds to the charm of her alternative American dream narrative, Azalea’s (controversial) vocal talent, voluptuous figure and often elaborate fashion choices make her perfect for a label driven rap career. In previous interviews Azalea has explained how she was initially hesitant over making pop records due to her dedication to rap, but recent output from the Australian showcases a considerable change of heart.
Following the release of songs like ‘Pussy’ and ‘Work’ to a lukewarm reception, there’s been a notable change in approach, resulting in more polished numbers such as ‘Change Your Life’ and album opener ‘Walk The Line’. Her biggest hit to date, ‘Fancy’, is a pop record, elevated considerably by the Stefani-esque contributions of Charlie XCX and a meticulously crafted video homage to ‘Clueless’.
Further inspection of Azalea’s album finds the rapper opting for melody over wit and wordplay, with ‘Black Widow’ written by Katy Perry (presumably straight after Dark Horse) and featuring Rita Ora, another example of an artist aiming to cater to the masses; her identity becoming fainter as a result. The album feels creatively muddled and it’s hard to really grasp what Iggy Azalea’s unique sound/vision is; her adoption of a fake American accent makes this even more difficult. And whilst she is certainly on the path to achieving a good level of success with ‘The New Classic’ (which shipped 55,000 units in its first 3 days) and upcoming features she has planned with pop-stars like Ariana Grande; it remains to be whether such a cynical approach will hinder her ability to establish an identity as clear and strong as Minaj’s.
Nevertheless, Azalea is following the best example she’s got and setting her own in the process; given the current state of hip-hop, pop enabled credibility seems the inevitable safety net for ambitious female MCs. ‘The New Classic’ may not appeal to rap purists, yet it may well be exactly what it professes to be; the new way of launching a career in a genre that’s increasingly diluted as each year goes by.