This week, Iggy Azalea's Charli XCX-featuring single "Fancy" hit No. 1 on the Hot 100. It was followed up by another single featuring Iggy: Ariana Grande's "Problem," which climbed to No. 2, making Iggy the first recording artist since the Beatles to top the pops with her first two charting singles. Iggy's rise hasn't been without controversy—for one thing, there was the time she seemingly accused this writer of being a middle-aged man in sandals over a vaguely negative review. But more relevantly, she's yet another white face selling black art, the latest in a line of co-options which most recently inspired handwringing on a big stage with Robin Thicke. Likely to add fuel to the fire is a collage of her tweets going around that draws attention to numerous suspect statements about race and sexuality. It paints a picture of Azalea as not the most thoughtful person to pick up a microphone, but when has that ever really been a limitation for rappers?
None of this controversy will be able to stop "Fancy." If anything—as was the case with Robin Thicke's ode to non-consent last summer—it will only grow more powerful with time, as the thinkpieces churn and more radio listeners absorb the catchy hook, a bouncy faux-DJ Mustard beat, and an Australian-American's dressed-up "rapcent." "Fancy" will be 2014's song of the summer, whether you like it or not.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who follows music or has heard "Fancy." Or anyone who's ever believed there's no such thing as bad publicity. Shit, "Fancy" is doing so well it's even knocked Azalea's U.K. hit/U.S. flop "Work" onto the Hot 100 retroactively—a sure sign she's turning into a star, rather than a one-off hitmaker.
Those who don't care much for Iggy are sputtering, gasping, and pearl clutching right now, monocles dropping into their Lime-a-Ritas, but her competition is thin. Chris Brown's "Loyal"? Already toppled from the top of the pops. John Legend's "All of Me"? Too maudlin. "Happy"? What is this, spring 2014? A few other songs, like Nico & Vinz's Sting-lite inspirational "Am I Wrong" or Jason Derulo's "Wiggle" are making moves in the top ten at this moment, but unless Justin Bieber mans up and suddenly releases his DJ Mustard collab, the hard data and anecdotal evidence points to "Fancy."
The data is in the Billboard charts and on Shazam, the app that scans the unfamiliar song you're hearing to tell you its title; "Fancy" has dominated Shazam's charts for North America. Its appeal as a "summer jam" feels obvious, too—it's a dancefloor filler, a bright, cheery record that stars a statuesque blonde. There's the Little X-directed Clueless-inspired video, a familiar groove with a proven track record on the charts, and all the other reasons enumerated by Billboard here. Most interesting, though, is the last example, which is at the nut of the rising Iggy Azalea controversy: Nothing on radio sounds quite like Iggy.
As a defense of Azalea in the ongoing outcry around her success, it's an essential point, particularly since she's been accused of assuming the costume of black masculinity, or even minstrelsy. It's the core argument of Rich Juzwiak's piece for Gawker, published around the time of her album's release. And it helps explain the appeal of an artist whose lyrics this writer described as "so nonspecific as if to be meaningless" (Juzwiak went with "generic"). But the lyrics aren't the purpose—the appearance of them, delivered each in their rightful place, is. Azalea, Juzwiak argues, is a hip-hop drag queen.
While it's always a bonus, "soul" is not a requirement for a drag queen. The goal of "realness" within drag contains within it an awareness of its own inattainability—realness is not so much about how convincing you are, it's about how convincing you are within your limitations. Realness is a carrot dangled in front of the drag queen, and the art of drag is in the chasing.
This is to say that what we appreciate in drag is the palpable effort that goes into it. You're watching a routine, and you, the drag queen, and the forces of the universe—including but not limited to gravity—know it.
That's the thing about her vocal style. While she's clearly emulating a rapper's drawl down to its granular specifics, there is a uncanny valley effect, like watching a wax museum figurine walk around. That it's executed as perfectly as possible draws more attention to her inability to be that which she aspires to emulate. The jarring feeling of her vocals failing to sound like rappers we already know—contends Juzwiak—is the "point."
It's a convincing argument. The weird part for me—the reason "Fancy" and Azalea create such cognitive dissonance for the listener—is this particular statement: "I find it helpful," Juzwiak says, "to interpret Azalea not as a traditional rapper, but as something freer who's openly playing with the genre and the overall concept of identity."
But why is hip-hop necessarily something an artist would need to be freed from? This is the ground on which thinkpiecers are apt to mobilize this summer, as "Fancy" becomes the summer's dominant anthem. On the one hand, you have those concerns with her co-option of a culture, her reliance on tools innovated by others; on the other, those who enjoy the work of a new artist with a distinctive style, one whose goals might not be those of hip-hop artists more broadly.
After all, hip-hop has always played with the strictures of identity—this isn't that radical or new. (Certainly Nicki Minaj has toyed with similar conventions—although her 'ehh' single "Pills N Potions" won't be able to upset the "Fancy" juggernaut.) What does it mean that Iggy Azalea can so easily 'transcend' hip-hop—and what keeps other rappers from doing so? If hip-hop's formal characteristics are such a limitation, why does she still rely on hip-hop's costumes, its style? What does it mean that an outsider oblivious to the social implications of her vocal style has resonated so successfully with such a wide swath of America? Do they see themselves in her? Or is she just the lucky beneficiary of a good hook?
And whatever these answers are...can we all just admit that it should been Kreayshawn?