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‘I’m The Realest’: The Authenticity Of Rap’s Newest Superstar, Iggy Azalea

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"‘I’m The Realest’: The Authenticity Of Rap’s Newest Superstar, Iggy Azalea"

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"Don't you want to use your popularity for a good cause?"

“Don’t you want to use your popularity for a good cause?”

CREDIT: Screenshot from “Fancy”

Surely you already know the hook of what’s emerging as our clear frontrunner for Song of the Summer:

I’m so fancy
You already know
I’m in the fast lane
From L.A. to Toyko.

I’m so fancy
Can’t you taste this gold?
Remember my name
‘Bout to blo-o-o-o-o-ow.

Sounds great! There’s just one problem: How can you remember her name if you don’t know who she is?

The song belongs to Iggy Azalea, the white, blonde Australian rapper currently locking down the number one AND number two spots on Billboard (with this hit at the top and Ariana Grande’s “Problem,” which features Azalea, as the runner-up). But the person who wrote and sings that hook is British pop performer Charli XCX. And even though Iggy finds time to spell out her own name many, many times, she never calls out Charli by name. What is that about? Isn’t there some hip hop etiquette here, about giving proper hat-tips in song the people who appear on the track? Meanwhile, Charli XCX seems to be making a career out of cranking out hits for other people; she wrote “I Love It,” the Icona Pop smash you either heard on Girls or literally anywhere else you went in 2012. (For a deep dive on Charli XCX, I point you to this excellent Grantland story from last year.) What’s a girl have to do to get some name recognition around here?

I called up Travis Gosa, a professor at Cornell University who teaches and writes about hip hop, race and education, to talk through all these Fancy feelings and find out if Azalea is committing some kind of cardinal rapping sin. What started as a conversation about Charli and this track expanded into a broader discussion of Azalea and how she is positioning herself in the world of rap.

Let’s start with your general thoughts on this issue of giving credit and shout-outs in hip hop. Is Charli owed a shoutout because she wrote the hook, or is the fact that she wrote it not a factor at all?
This question of authorship and songwriting in hip hop is actually quite complex. This goes back all the way to the beginning, when you start thinking about, who wrote the lyrics to “Rappers Delight” back in 1979. It’s 35 years later, and we’re still arguing about whether or not Big Bank Hank’s verse was written or stolen from Grandmaster Caz? He literally, in that song, spells out Casanova Fly, which is Caz’s name back in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. He spells out “I’m the C-A-S-An-The-O-V-A and the rest is F-L-Y.” This may be the beginning point of people starting to argue whether or not it’s important to write your own lyrics in rap music.

These things go back and forth, as to whether or not it’s important to write your own rhymes. And some artists have become so successful and so rich, they don’t even bother pretending they write their own rhymes. Bad Boys For Life, you remember this one, P. Diddy says, “Don’t worry if I write rhymes— I write checks.” That is someone who, after years of people saying “Diddy, you didn’t write any of those songs,” just decides, “All I need to do is shout-out my own name, my own products.”

So really what I think you’re getting at with Iggy Azalea is: how different it is in hip hop, as to whether it’s important to give credit?

It seems especially weird to me that Charli doesn’t get a shout-out in this song, given that Iggy is a rapper paying homage to all this classic rap. So many rap songs fill the first thirty seconds with a bunch of shout-outs to everyone involved in making the track.
I’m so glad that you are thinking about this track, because you’re right – there’s so many songs in which the first minute is spent calling out people who just got out of jail, people who are back in jail, someone who died, your record label, your momma, Jesus. There is this concern to have someone’s music or lyrics within the broader context of your family, your city, your record label. But this Iggy album, I think it’s called “The New Classic” for a reason. She is a white, blonde, Australian rapper who is trying to claim a legitimate place in American hip hop, [and] that is really identified with black, male, urban rappers. So when she makes an album called “The New Classic” and a song called “Fancy,” you’ve got to figure out who she’s really trying to shout-out and who she is really attributing her success and her swag to.

This whole song, “Fancy,” is nothing but a shout-out to the most classic verses, lyrics, bars and rappers of the ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s. The first verse is nothing but an ode to Nas, and anyone who is a hip hop head would immediately recognize that she’s using the lyrics and the style, the bars, of famous, established, iconic black rappers. And I think she’s doing this for a reason. She’s paying tribute to a culture, to [challenge] the claim that she’s a Vanilla Ice or a Macklemore with no connection to the culture. Immediately everyone who has heard rap music in the past 20 years is like ‘Oh snap, that’s Nas.’ She’s trying to bring 88 back. She’s making allusions to A Tribe Called Quest. I think she’s doing much more on this album than just using those trite conventions of shouting out everybody from your hood. She’s really trying to pay tribute to these black male artists who paved the way.

Charli XCX and Iggy Azalea performing at the Billboard Music Awards.

Charli XCX and Iggy Azalea performing at the Billboard Music Awards.

CREDIT: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Does she owe it to Charli to, in a sense, publicly thank her for this hook? The hook is the part that everybody sings; it’s the reason the song is a hit.
You have to think about the hook. Look back to the 1990s, someone like Nate Dogg… sort of slightly after that first era of gangster rap on the west coast. If Nate Dogg sang the hook on your track, you KNEW, this was the star of the show. So there are some people who have sung the hooks on rap tracks who really take front and center stage. But then I’m thinking about all the other types of unnamed artists who fill in vocals, fill in tracks with hooks – they aren’t really part of the show. I would say that, looking over the past 20 or 30 years, sometimes the hook, the person singing the hook, really plays an important role. It’s almost a duet, a joint effort.

Iggy has had pieces of this rap for over a year now, but the reason the song is taking off like this is because of Charli XCX’s contribution: she wrote this catchy hook, and she sings it really well.
This hook certainly does make it probably one of the most radio friendly rap-pop songs of all time. That might tell you about the pop aspirations of Iggy. One thing I think is, what’s interesting about hip hop songwriting and rap songwriting, there have been all these cases where people have failed to give credit to different bars and verses they’re playing off of, and it’s seen as an insult. So sometimes, when you use other people’s lyrics, it’s the beginning of a rap beef. You could really insult somebody. I’m thinking about when Lil Wayne used the Kanye lines, “And you can live through anything if Magic made it,” and people heard that a few years ago and thought there was some kind of beef. Why is Lil Wayne flipping Kanye’s lines about Magic Johnson? And I remember Lil Wayne doing an interview saying he loved those bars and was paying homage to Kanye West.

Are the rules different when it’s a rap song featuring a pop hook, as opposed to a pop song that features a rapper? Because Iggy is featured on Ariana Grande’s “Problem,” the number two song in the country as of today, and she calls herself out over and over again. But is that just a rap convention that pop doesn’t share?
This other song, where Iggy shows up as the guest spot rapper, it kind of flips it. I feel like Big Sean, on this track, they’re doing the things that Iggy is doing: Big Sean is doing the whole allusion to “The Whisper Song.” He plays this hook that is a sort of shout-out: “This is not just some pop song. This is the rap song. This is part of hip hop culture.” And so when I hear Iggy jump on and just keep saying her name over and over again, I’m like, wait a minute: this is what I hear male rappers doing. This is what Drake does. When Drake shows up on a track, it’s kind of self-promotion for himself. When I heard this, I’m like ‘This is what I expect of male rappers, like Drake, when they show up on other people’s tracks,’ I couldn’t think of any other hip hop songs when a female artist did that.

I’m thinking about your overall question of, how do I make sense of this? And I keep reading all of Iggy, her interviews, her music, her guest spots on other people’s albums, it really is an attempt to put herself in a legitimate spot in hip hop culture. And I think it’s been successful. So far, I haven’t heard the backlash yet… For the most part, what she’s doing in these songs, she’s demonstrating a mastery and understanding of rap and hip hop culture that is really shielding her from people asking, “Wait a minute, are we okay with this?” This is a huge change. We spent a decade arguing about Eminem. We spent two years trying to get rid of Vanilla Ice. Now, I think she’s found the formula: “How do I present myself as a legitimate person in hip hop culture? How do I make these songs palatable to a pop audience?… So far Iggy has really shown with this album that she’s able to pay homage to those tropes and unwritten rules in hip hop culture.

What about Charli XCX? It feels like she’s missing her second star-making opportunity in a row. She wrote “I Love It” and gave it to Icona Pop; she sang the hook, but it doesn’t appear to have earned her a whole lot of mainstream name recognition. This song is blowing up and she literally sings, “Remember my name,” but her name is nowhere to be heard. How can anyone remember a name she doesn’t say?
I think you’ve hit on something… She’s becoming the everywoman. Sometimes in music, you have these moments when an artist is able to become a chameleon, work with a lot of artists and shift to suit the vibe, sound, or tone for different artists. They never really step in front.

This might be a good strategy. I’m thinking of white female pop artists from abroad, and they find themselves immediately embroiled in some racial controversy. People are still arguing about Lorde’s “Royals” and if it’s racist, “gold teeth” and “Cristal.” And another white female artist accused of using black dancers as props (editor’s note: ya’ll know it’s Miley). So I wonder if this is not purposeful [on Iggy’s part], if she’s been able to find her line in hip hop music.

I think she’s on top of her game. One thing that other white artists [usually] need is the constant cosign of black male artists. I know about her relationship with T.I. With Eminem, he always had this looking back at Dr. Dre: “Are we going to trust this guy? Is he good, is he part of the culture?” And beyond that initial cosign from T.I., I kind of feel like she, in a way, has moved beyond this need of constantly needing her music to be cosigned or approved. I think she’s doing it musically, while other artists have felt the need to do it publicly. It’s in her music, that she’s paying her dues, and not getting tied up in all the identity.

So am I fired up over nothing? I just think if I were Charli I’d be so annoyed that this song is huge and her name isn’t huge, too.
I think we’re both dating ourselves here. I teach hip hop classes at Cornell University, so I’m actually becoming old school to the millennials. And one thing they tell me, every time I ask them about popular music, they keep telling me: we do not listen to the words. And I’m like, what do you mean, you don’t listen to the lyrics? And they keep telling me, it’s not the lyrics that matter, ti’s the beat, it’s the vibe, can I turn up to this. So I feel a little old school when I say, when I hear a song, I listen to it several times, I google the lyrics, I go on Rap Genius, I try to figure out what the samples are. In a way I kind of feel like, this Iggy album may be appealing to two very different audiences. Every song on the album, immediately, you know you’re supposed to turn up. It’s the track. And then you look at the lyric section, and it has that depth, the allusion to classic rap songs, that older folks and older hip hop listeners will like. It appeals to both groups in a way.

Her video is pure millennial-bait.
In that video, who is the Charli character? She’s both sonically and visually playing with the idea that Iggy is the star, the blonde that everyone is lusting after.

Well, Charli is Tai. I think Iggy is savvy enough to know, what with all the appropriation controversy she’s already stirred, that it would be a very bad idea to cast Charli as Dionne.
There’s Tai who, at the end of the day, becomes just as desirable, just as famous, just as front and center [as Cher].

So what’s next for Charli, then? Can she break out? Is there precedent for the girl who sings the hook to make that transition to pop star in her own right?
Can I imagine her as a solo artist? I’m not sure, looking on all the guest spots of the artists she’s worked with, whether she’s someone who really has that aspiration. I just watched the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, and there was almost a society, an unspoken understanding, that the best thing you can do as a backup singer is to actually make the person up front sound their best, look their best. And I wonder if Charli as an artist is really sort of paying homage to that legacy, to say that you shouldn’t be P. Diddy all the time, up in front of your artists.

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