Wednesday, April 23, 2014

album review: 'the new classic' by iggy azalea

So do you want to know something that really pisses me off about mainstream radio in the modern era, something that reveals a certain type of systemic sexism that somehow has only gotten worse in the music industry? It's that whenever you have a new, up-in-coming female rapper who has a reputation for being able to spit and deliver potent lyrics, they try to give her a pop or R&B edge or at least that one song that will cross over to mainstream radio because of that pop edge. And as their careers progress, you quickly realize that the radio is going to stick with those pop-friendly songs instead of letting her step up to the microphone with hard-hitting raps, unlike her male counterparts. I mean, outside of Drake, how often have major labels gone up to rappers and said, 'Yeah, you need to be able to sing an R&B ballad or pop tune or you won't get radio play'? Male acts might be asked to dumb down their content - female rappers are asked to change their entire identity.

What, you want evidence? Look at Nicki Minaj, or Kreayshawn, or even to some extent with Angel Haze. Hell, even though Colette Carr had more outright pop appeal, her singles weren't exactly the songs where she was outstripping her male counterparts, which she can easily do. And thus when I saw early buzz suggesting Australian rapper Iggy Azalea was going to be singing for the first time on her debut album The New Classic, I simply shook my head. Of course she was - even though she featured on XXL's list of top rap freshmen in 2012 with Danny Brown, Hopsin, and Macklemore, I expected that with the long-delayed release and troubled production, this wasn't going to be a hard-hitting rap album. Either way, I gave the album a listen: how did it turn out?

Well, I'll admit it, I was wrong, because this album is a fair bit better than what I was expecting and the more I listen to it, pretty damn good. In fact, I'd probably hold up this record as one of the better examples of how to make an interesting and distinctive debut album, especially from a rapper. Is it perfect? Lord no, but given I was expecting this to be a gigantic waste of time, I was really pleasantly surprised by how much I liked The New Classic by Iggy Azalea, enough to even recommend it to you all today.

So okay, what caused this change of heart? Well, part of it is Iggy Azelea herself - namely, that in comparison with many of her recent female rapping peers, this is an album focused near-entirely on her rapping. No slow love ballads, no moments that paint her as a damsel, just a hard-hitting set of tracks where she talks about hustling, partying, luxury, and generally many of the subjects her male counterparts in hip-hop do with startling frankness. On that note alone, plus the fact that she recruits other singers - male and female - to sing her hooks, you get a performer who flips the gender binary with ease and is smart enough to comment on it on tracks like '100', 'Change Your Life', 'New Bitch', and 'Black Widow'. And while the novelty of the presentation - a white female rapper delivering the same sort of luxury rap - is nifty for a few songs, where Iggy Azalea actually stands out more is in her delivery as a rapper: not only can she spit with a pretty damn impressive and assertive flow, she also has emotional range and isn't afraid to show vulnerability when she talks about her past.

That story - of her flying to the States on her own and struggling to make a living on her own with no money or family, getting exploited by her label before finally making it - is actually reasonably well-articulated on this album, most on the track 'Work', and what helps is that the first two tracks, 'Walk The Line' and especially 'Don't Need Y'All' establish both her independence and talent, and their placement at the beginning of the album do a lot to temper her more aggressive or obnoxious tendencies. And coupled with the fact that she never gets hyperbolic or sexual with her assertions of power - except for 'Goddess', but I argue that track makes it work - the album is more concerned with establishing Iggy Azalea's story and her character. And yeah, it's completely shallow escapism, but it's better articulated escapism and with songs like 'Impossible Is Nothing' can be a little inspiring, a clear minority in her industry rising to command success and power, sticking to her principles, and even having the opportunity on songs like 'Change Your Life' to flip the gender binary and actually be the provider for the guy in question. A rapper with a little more narrative ambition would comment more on this, but that's not Iggy's intent, instead opting for a more simplistic pop approach, and instead lets T.I., the trapstep trio Watch The Duck, and dancehall singer Mavado make commentary on it instead. Incidentally, one of the reasons 'Change Your Life' is such a great introduction song for Iggy is that T.I. delivers a solid verse but doesn't overshadow her, which is perfect for establishing presence on a debut.

So where does Iggy Azalea stumble on this record? Well, if I were to pin it down, it'd be most in the instrumentation and production. Most of it is a fusion of trap, dubstep-infused pop, and the booming synths you typically find in EDM, with the slick polish of a pop record, and of all of the elements, the EDM pieces feel the least cohesive, especially on songs like 'New Bitch' and parts of 'Work', as they seem to be building to crescendos that don't really materialize. Honestly, whenever Iggy Azalea ventures away from this production, we get some interesting results: the cracking minimalism in 'Don't Need Y'All', the well-textured strumming and electronic interplay on '100', the opulent swell on 'Change Your Life' and 'Work', the rich theremin-like melody balancing against the xylophone keys on 'Impossible Is Nothing', and especially the steel drums and explosively heavy synths on 'Goddess', a song that went over the top and only because Iggy Azalea is a convincing rapper that it didn't become too much. Unfortunately, that can't really be said for 'Lady Patra' or 'Fuck Love', the first of which tries to create a reggae vibe with a really grating high synth line, and the latter going for a noisy electronic M.I.A. sound that just comes across as overstuffed. Both of these are easily the weakest songs on the album, and it doesn't help matters that Iggy Azalea's rhymes just aren't all that special to save them.

But in the end, if Future is the example of doing shallow escapism completely wrong, Iggy Azalea is getting it right. The production is solid and frequently interesting, Iggy Azalea is a definitive presence behind the microphone, and while I wish a few of her songs had more of a melodic focus, she does exactly what she needs to do on a debut album in establishing brand, personality, and placing her best assets forward. Better yet, there's enough flavour in the instrumentation and lyrics to suggest that she has more to say and can be interesting in saying it, which is enough to give this album a 7/10 and a recommendation. Folks, if you're looking for some fun female-fronted hip-hop that's better than your average luxury rap, give Iggy Azalea a shot - you might find yourself surprised.

No comments:

Post a Comment