The Week In Pop

The Wilting Of Iggy Azalea

Believe it or not, the equivalent of a full presidential term has passed since Iggy Azalea ruled summer 2014. Back then, it was hard to go about daily life without encountering this young blonde white woman from Australia rapping in an affected Southern drawl. Her pop-rap hits were everywhere — and whenever you weren’t hearing those, you were probably subject to the contentious chatter that followed her like the cloud around Pigpen. Four years later, Amethyst Amelia Kelly is far from the spotlight and struggling to find a way back in. At the time, though, she was a genuine sensation.

Coming off Memorial Day weekend, Azalea hit #1 with “Fancy,” a celebration of opulence buoyed by a spicy-sweet Charli XCX hook, a Clueless-inspired video, and production team the Invisible Men’s best DJ Mustard impression. The same week, she rose to #2 via her verse on “Problem,” Ariana Grande’s saxy breakthrough single. It was the first time an artist’s first two hits occupied the top two spots on Billboard’s Hot 100 simultaneously in 50 years, since the Beatles did it with “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” way back in 1964.

It goes without saying that Azalea’s career since then has not been nearly as successful as the Fab Four’s, but whatever expectations her momentary dominance might have inspired, things have gone about as poorly as they could have. She did make it back to #3 later in 2014 with the Rita Ora duet “Black Widow” and hopped on mildly successful singles by Jennifer Lopez (the pointedly titled “Booty”) and T.I. (the questionably titled “No Mediocre”). She logged another Platinum single with the #27-peaking “Beg For It,” went Gold with “Trouble” and “Team,” and caused a decent stir with the Britney Spears collab “Pretty Girls.” But generally her trajectory has been downward ever since debut album The New Classic receded from currency, and the accumulated injuries along the way have often seemed catastrophic.

From the beginning, Azalea’s clumsy embrace of hip-hop made her a punchline and put her in the crosshairs of the ongoing debate about cultural appropriation. As early as 2012, when Azalea became the first woman to be named an XXL Freshman, critics including Azealia Banks wondered how the magazine could pass over so many talented black women to instead endorse “a white woman who called herself a ‘runaway slave master.'” Like Banks, her homonymous rival and problematic peer, Azalea did have a habit of putting her foot in her mouth — try not to cringe at her racist pre-fame tweets — but her proclivity for faux pas did not halt her ascent to stardom.

At the height of her fame, when she was saturating TV and radio and inspiring parodies by Jimmy Fallon and Weird Al, the scrutiny only intensified. Although Questlove defended her, saying “we as black people have to come to grips that hip-hop is a contagious culture,” others such as Saul Williams condemned America’s embrace of “an Australian girl rapping with a southern accent.” Q-Tip schooled Azalea on hip-hop’s historic intertwinement with black culture and social justice issues. Erykah Badu dismissed her music as “definitely not rap.”

And then there was “White Privilege II,” the 2016 track in which Macklemore wrestled with his own awkward place in the hip-hop hierarchy, lacerating himself with lyrics including: “You’ve exploited and stolen the music, the moment/ The magic, the passion, the fashion, you toy with/ The culture was never yours to make better/ You’re Miley, you’re Elvis, you’re Iggy Azalea.” Azalea didn’t take too kindly to that, which set off another round of criticism from the likes of Talib Kweli, who declared, “I actually rooted for Iggy when she first came out. But she’s disrespected hip hop culture one too many times.”

All of this was going on against a backdrop of increasing racial tension and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. White police officers were killing unarmed black citizens with alarming frequency and often not facing accountability. As people scrambled to take sides in a heated culture war, the public’s patience for Azalea’s shtick wore thin. Meanwhile she postponed and eventually outright cancelled a US tour. Protesters caused her to drop out of a Pittsburgh pride event, citing old homophobic tweets. Saturday Night Live clowned her. Halsey called her a “fucking moron” with a “complete disregard for black culture.” Her engagement to NBA star Nick Young fell apart.

None of this would have necessarily derailed Azalea’s career if she was still making hits. As we’re seeing now with disreputable figures such as alleged child pornographer 6ix9ine, massive popularity has a way of trumping whatever controversy is threatening to take you down. Unfortunately for Azalea — and maybe fortunately for music fans and society as a whole — she hasn’t come close to replicating the success of “Fancy,” “Problem,” and “Black Widow.” Instead it’s been an endless series of dud singles and delayed release dates. In the summer of 2014 it seemed inconceivable that another men’s World Cup would transpire before Azalea dropped LP2, but more than four years later Russia 2018 is a wrap and what remains of her fan base is still waiting on a full-length follow-up to The New Classic.

Near the end of 2015 Azalea started teasing a new album called Digital Distortion. By the following March it had a lead single, the aforementioned “Team,” which made it to #42 on the Hot 100 but was ignored by rap radio and couldn’t crack the top 20 at pop stations. A planned July album release never happened. When her relationship with Young crumbled, she pushed back the album to 2017 to rework it in light of the changes in her personal life. As time wore on, she attempted to regain buzz with a series of false-start singles including “Mo Bounce” and “Switch,” each one generating less buzz than the last. Her situation grew so dire that last year her label Def Jam refused to release any more singles ahead of the album.

Digital Distortion never came out, though according to a recent Billboard profile, Azalea got the phrase tattooed on her fingers. Instead of completing the tortured rollout, she parted ways with Def Jam, signed with Island, and pivoted to a new project called Surviving The Summer, essentially shitcanning two-plus years of work and starting over from scratch. This past February she shared the Quavo collab “Savior.” An overt pop move that only barely conversed with hip-hop, it was her best song in years, but despite its extreme catchiness it too failed to generate public interest.

The months wore on, and eventually the promised album Surviving The Summer became an EP called Survive The Summer. Last Friday, it finally dropped — sadly, without “Savior.” Instead the project features guest verses by Tyga and Wiz Khalifa and a bunch of the flavorless hardhead rap Azalea has specialized in ever since her “Fancy” heyday, presumably in an attempt to prove her hip-hop bonafides and win over an audience that wants nothing to do with her. At six tracks and 15 minutes, Survive The Summer is not the grand return she probably had in mind, both in terms of its scope and her continued inability to conjure much of a creative spark.

The set is listenable enough. The dark trap beats are sufficiently booming; Azalea’s rhymes are confident and charismatic despite also ranging from uninspired (“Baddest white bitch in the club/ Hot boys on my dick in the club”) to clunky (“While you was on a diet, your girl made millies/ Fuck beef, I got more at stake than Philly”). There are clever references to her surgically altered nose and her ex Young’s new team the Golden State Warriors, but mostly she just brags about being rich and thick. Such shallowness only really works when the rapper is wildly inventive in terms of wordplay or delivery; “wildly inventive” is not a phrase you could ever use to describe Iggy Azalea. Still, the EP is not the embarrassment I expected, especially compared to what Azalea’s been through in recent years.

Closing track “OMG” with Wiz Khalifa even qualifies as promising. Azalea raps in a lithe rapid-fire cadence that reminds me of Eminem’s “Forgot About Dre” hook over an eerie Asian sample that evokes Fat Tony and Tom Cruz’s underground gem Double Dragon. She’s never been a special lyricist, but on this song she at least finds inventive and engaging ways to deliver boilerplate bars like “Think he got a chance with a bitch like me, he ain’t rich enough, rich enough/ Calls need to stop he ain’t callin’ ’bout the guap, I ain’t pickin’ up, pickin’ up/ Y’all lil’ hoes can’t sit by the pool, you ain’t thick enough, thick enough/ Weave so long and the pussy so wet, gon’ eat it up, beat it up.” Plus, next to Khalifa on autopilot she sounds like a genius.

Survive The Summer’s lead single, the turgid Tyga rendezvous “Kream,” got Azalea back on the Hot 100 for the first time in two years — barely, at #96, but on the chart nonetheless. Its video has more than 65 million views — a far cry from the 864 million views she got for “Fancy,” but exponentially better than the 15 million generated by “Savior.” Maybe she’s on the comeback trail, or maybe this is one of those late-game rallies that ultimately falls short. On the project’s title track, when she raps, “Can’t stay alive much longer, look, look/ You won’t survive the summer,” it’s unclear whether she’s taunting her competition or acknowledging her own precarious place in the music industry. At this point it’s hard to imagine her returning to full bloom, but for better or worse Azalea seems poised to endure into autumn and beyond.

snipe you from miles

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CHART WATCH

Drake’s Scorpion rules the Billboard 200 albums chart for a whopping fifth straight week thanks to 145,000 equivalent album units but just 12,000 in sales. Per Billboard, it’s the first album to spend five weeks at #1 since the Weeknd’s Starboy and the first to spend five consecutive weeks at #1 since Drake’s own Views. Drake has also surpassed Jay-Z for second most career weeks at #1, second among hip-hop artists to Eminem’s 32.

Debuting at #2 is Kenny Chesney’s Songs For The Saints with 75,000 units and 65,000 in sales. Post Malone, Juice WRLD, Cardi B, and XXXTentacion are at #3, #4, #5, and #6 respectively. The Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again soundtrack falls to #7, followed by Halestorm’s Vicious, entering at #8 with 29,000 units/27,000 sales. After The Greatest Showman at #9 comes the #10 debut of Daughtry’s Cage To Rattle with 26,000 units/24,000 sales.

Over on the Hot 100 singles chart? You guessed it: more Drake. “In My Feelings” rules for a fourth straight week — and that was before the song’s official music video dropped, so look out for its dominance to continue. At #2 again is Cardi B, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin’s “I Like It.” 6ix9ine, Nicki Minaj, and Murda Beatz’s “Fefe” rises to a new #3 peak, a career best for 6ix9ine and Murda (as an artist; Murda produced Drake’s #1 smash “Nice For What” but did not receive an artist credit). Maroon 5 and Cardi’s “Girls Like You” slides back to #4.

Debuting at #5 is DJ Khaled’s “No Brainer” featuring Justin Bieber, Chance The Rapper, and Quavo. Per Billboard, it’s Khaled’s fourth top-10 hit, Bieber’s 14th, Chance’s second, and Quavo’s fifth. The rest of the top 10, in sequence: Post Malone’s “Better Now,” Juice WLRD’s “Lucid Dreams,” Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up,” Tyga and Offset’s “Taste” (at a new #9 peak), and Drake’s “Nice For What.”

POP FIVE

Twenty One Pilots – “Levitate”
Here is a genuinely good rap song from one of the biggest rock bands in the world. It sounds like some high-tech fashion-rap single that would premiere at Complex, but rather than rattling off boutique designers its lyrics are narration linked to their ambitious Trench concept album. I like it! Though as my colleague Peter Helman points out, surely with 21 pilots they could do more than just levitate.

Troye Sivan – “Animal”
As this lush Frank Ocean-goes-’80s-synth-pop excursion reminds us, the kid has his shit figured out. Bloom is going to be one of the best pop albums of the year.

MAGIC! – “Expectations”
The lyric goes, “Expectations can make you believe that what you desire is what you need.” But the subtext here is subverted expectations — as in I did not think this white Canadian reggae one-hit wonder would return with a shadowy Afrobeats-inspired summer jam with some extremely pleasant brass flourishes.

Why Don’t We – “8 Letters”
The eight letters here are presumably “I love you,” but it drives me crazy that Why Don’t We is nine letters. As for the song, it’s a decent boy-band power ballad that could conceivably get these guys the radio breakthrough that has so far eluded them.

Olivia O’Brien – “UDK”
“UDK” is another bid at a successful “i hate u, i love u” follow-up from gnash’s duet partner. It stands for “you don’t know,” as in “you don’t know me,” and its lite ’80s guitar-pop undertones definitely represent a different flavor than I was expecting.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Adam Levine went off on MTV for not nominating Childish Gambino for any VMAs, but later apoligized when he realized “This Is America” was nominated for seven. [Vulture]
  • Machine Gun Kelly released a video for “LOCO” starring Pete Davidson. [YouTube]
  • Davidson’s fiancée Ariana Grande is teasing a Carpool Karaoke appearance by pretending not to know anything about it. [NME]
  • Grande also announced “American Express x Ariana Grande: The Sweetener Sessions,” a trio of performances in small venues in NY, LA, and Chicago. [Twitter]
  • Beyoncé discussed pregnancy, Coachella, and more in a new Vogue cover story. [Spin]
  • Dua Lipa slammed a 2003(!) New York Times article about Beyoncé that said she was “no Ashanti.” [Twitter]
  • J. Cole dropped “Album Of The Year,” a new freestyle over Nas and the Bravehearts’ “Oochie Wally.” [YouTube]
  • MØ and Diplo released a video for “Sun In Our Eyes.” [YouTube]
  • Juice WRLD made his late night television debut on Kimmel. [YouTube]
  • Cardi B announced her first concert since giving birth and cancelling her opening slot on the Bruno Mars tour. [Rolling Stone]
  • I hope you’re ready for a Blink-182/Steve Aoki collab because it’s coming. [Billboard]
  • Pink, hospitalized with a virus, had to cancel a couple of shows in Australia. [USA Today]
  • A New Jersey woman paid for a stranger’s snacks at Wawa and then learned he is Keith Urban. [NorthJersey.com]
  • John Legend, Janet Jackson, the Weeknd, Shawn Mendes, and Cardi B are playing this year’s Global Citizen Festival in NYC — separate from Global Citizen’s Mandela 100 event in South Africa this December. [People]
  • Ellie Goulding announced her engagement to art dealer Caspar Jopling. [Standard]
  • Iggy Azalea announced on the radio she was dating NFL player DeAndre Hopkins, but a few hours later both announced they were single. [Yahoo]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME