The coin has two sides. (Left: Revolve Clothing; Right: Jason Nocito/Spin Magazine)
I’ve spilled virtual ink on Iggy Azalea, Azealia Banks, and their complicated relationship to each other and to music before. Twice in fact. But that was back in 2012, during this particular play’s first act. It looked like both were poised for big success and that we were destined to witness even more episodes of The Flora Wars because of it. But that was only half right.
Thus far, commercial competitiveness hasn’t been a defining element of the relationship between these two at all; it’s been the overwhelming unevenness of it. A month after Iggy’s debut album “The New Classic” dropped in April 2014, she was already standing toe-to-toe with the Beatles as the second artist in history to simultaneously occupy the #1 and #2 spots on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The album itself wasn’t exactly a blockbuster, but it debuted at #3 and has gone on to sell over 420K units in the U.S. alone as of early December 2014 (and that’s before counting the “Reclassified” reissue). Meanwhile, Azealia’s first official album finally made a surprise landing on November 6, 2014 and lo, the critical acclaim rained down in buckets…but sales have not. It entered the Billboard 200 at #30, selling 11K or so albums in the U.S., and if its second week sales of about 4K were any clue, it won’t be setting any records unless Black Jesus decides to grant Ms. Banks a holiday miracle.
“Black Twitter” (whatever that means) would like you to believe that Azealia is a 21st century lovechild of Nina Simone and Moms Mabley, while Iggy is just a cultural appropriator, an interloper looking to make several million fast-twerking bucks off of hip-hop culture. On the other hand, there are those who cast Iggy as a beautifully enchanted, fat-bottomed elf (the Tolkien variety, not the Christmas variety) from the Outback, who made her mark in a highly competitive genre despite being the wrong race and sex, and despite torrents of venom spewed her way by a rabidly envious, tragically wasted talent in the form of the Great Serpent, Azealia Banks.
The truth is that they’re both wrong.
We all know that Vanilla Ice was a pretender who hid behind a papier-mâché street resume and hi-top fade, but can we really say the same thing about Iggy? I’ve never heard of her misrepresenting who she is or where she’s from, in any sense of the words, as an attempt to gain acceptance or recognition. If you want to argue that because Iggy raps in an accent that is uncharacteristic of her race or where she’s from that she’s faking the funk, I’ll kindly ask you to pop in a Dana Dane tape or stream some French Montana and have a sofa’s worth of seats. Iggy grew up listening to black American rappers, so she raps like a black American rapper. Simple mathematics.
Then there’s the unspoken implication that talent is the deciding factor for whether someone gets an unrestricted pass into the Halls of Blackness. J. Cole’s recent words aside, very few black folks have anything to say about Eminem or Justin Timberlake. Of course, Eminem and J.T. happen to be top-class artists, and I’m not suggesting that Iggy is in their league. With that said, let’s be real: as a professional rapper, the woman is at least average.
I enjoy the hell out of “Work” and even as far back as “Pu$$y,” her talent was obvious. If her tracks were movies, maybe they wouldn’t be “Mad Max” yet, but cats are trying desperately to throw her in the discount bin with “Crocodile Dundee II,” and dude, that’s just wrong. I can think of multiple currently hot rappers who I’d rank like 13.7 levels below Iggy. (Cough. Migos. Cough. Young Thug.) The fact that there are constant rumors swirling that her mentor T.I. writes most/all of her lyrics, despite any real proof, should be a strong testament to her skill. Yet the hate persists.
And Iggy’s biggest hater is her nemesis, Azealia. She certainly not lonely though, ‘cause over the years Ms. Banks has gotten into more beef than a top-class Wagyu stud. I mean, the woman is firece, fiery, and flamboyant, and woe to he who trips her wire. She’s bickered with what seems to be a never-ending cavalcade of other artists and industry insiders, most importantly Interscope—which had been her major label home since 2012—before they dropped her in the summer of 2014, prior to even releasing her album. The woman has burned more bridges than the Luftwaffe, and as I’ve said before, she just seems so damned mean.
Then, last week, Azealia did an interview on Hot 97 where she articulated the frustrations that led to her most recent attack against Iggy. During the conversation, she talked about the latter’s silence in the wake of recent police violence and her view that it reflects a general lack of true concern for black people on Iggy’s part, despite an avowed love for their cultural artifacts. Overall, she lent a powerful voice to the sense that despite a general consensus that she and other black women like her are tremendously talented, many seem happy to ignore their contributions to culture.
“When they give these Grammys out, all it says to white kids is: ‘Oh yeah, you’re great, you’re amazing, you can do whatever you put your mind to.’ And it says to black kids: ‘You don’t have shit. You don’t own shit, not even the shit you created for yourself.’ And it makes me upset.”
Her teary emotional breakdown inadvertently exposed the depth of the wounds that she’s been nursing these last few years as a black woman in her early 20s, trying to navigate the landscape of an industry built on the immolation of your kind and the appropriation of its gifts. Despite being a thirtysomething black American man, I understood her plight in a deeply personal way, without ever having walked specifically in those mesh, platform wedge boots. There’s an undeniable truth to her recognition that there’s been a consistent effort to mine black cultural talent, refine and repackage it for white audiences, then enjoy the fruits of that appropriation.
Still, I wasn’t ready to lay the blame for that at Iggy’s feet…and Iggy wasn’t ready to accept it. Instead, she pointed at Azealia’s “piss poor attitude” as the cause for her inability to capitalize on critical success. With uncharacteristic bellicose gusto, she went on taunting Azealia: “Make it racial! make it political! Make it whatever but I guarantee it won’t make you likable & THATS why ur crying on the radio.”
The truth is that they’re both right.
It’s easy to look at the two artists’ mismatched outcomes and see a classic good vs. evil struggle in progress. The simplicity of a story with a well-defined hero and villain can be seductive—it’s worked nicely as the foundation for mountains of myths, fairy tales, and movies, and it makes for effortless moralizing—but the best modern storytellers understand that real life isn’t always so simple. They know that the boundary separating hero and villain is often blurred, if it exists at all. And it’s actually there, in that moral no man’s land, that we find Iggy Azalea, Azealia Banks, their allies, and their armies, engaged in a pop cultural proxy war for control of black identity in general and black female expression in particular. The ones funding the war on both sides are the millions of white fans who prop up an exploitative system, most of whom are just young, dumb teenagers, woefully and sometimes willfully ignorant of the real cost of the album that they just downloaded, even if they jacked it for free.