This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 2 Music Issue. Subscribe today!
WHEN NICK YOUNG first saw the video for Iggy Azalea's "Work" -- white girl, platinum blond hair, 5-foot-10 without her Louboutins, rapping -- he thought, "Oh, man. She looks very hot." So he tagged her as his "Woman Crush Wednesday" on Twitter, a hookup venue he'd previously tried (and failed) with Miss California. This time, "she actually bit on it," Young recounted later. "And then I got to mackin'."
Seventy Wednesdays later, the NBA goof and the rap novelty epitomize the modern power couple: a relationship forged on Twitter, reinforced via cuddly Instagrams, expertly cut with relatable real-talk. The global domination of rap music and the mainstreaming of NBA celebrity culture have made them crossover stars -- with Young regularly name-checked on Perez Hilton and Azalea splashed across Black Sports Online -- but have also framed them, unwittingly, as central characters in a morality play about the state of race relations in America.
Young, 29, entered the NBA with a preordained narrative: After his brother was murdered by the Bloods, he rose from struggling high school student to USC basketball star, all in front of documentary cameras. Then he flipped his image from tragic to comic. He gifted himself a nickname: Swaggy P. In interviews, he echoes Allen Iverson's style. (Explaining his technique after one 29-point game: "I just gotta do what I gotta do, when I gotta do it, you feel me?") He requires Lakers rookies to call him Daddy Swag and recently floated another pseudonym for himself, I.D.M. for "I don't miss." But on sports Twitter, where embarrassing Vines and ludicrous boasts travel further than steady workmanship, part of Young's appeal is that he does miss, sometimes embarrassingly so: YouTube highlights include "Nick Young celebrates 3-point miss" and "Nick Young worst layup ever." Teammate Robert Sacre once declared him "the Screech of the NBA."
Azalea's swagger doesn't fit so easily into a beloved archetype. Born Amethyst Amelia Kelly, she is poised and polite offstage, with an Australian accent and a dorky smile. But as Iggy, she strikes runway poses and raps with an accent from the ATL. "I love the fact that I don't rap the way I talk," Azalea, 24, told The Guardian. "I think it's completely hilarious and ironic and cool." Critics disagree. Many musical stars are defined by reinvention -- 2014's top pop artist was a retooled country ingenue, and Canadian child star Drake didn't start at the bottom -- but Azalea slipping into hip-hop skin is an appropriation too far.
When Azalea's "Fancy" became the song of the summer, the backlash began. Social media sleuths found racially offensive jokes she'd tweeted years before. Footage of Azalea biffing a freestyle attempt resurfaced, reinforcing rumors that her lyrics are ghostwritten by mentor T.I. She's been hounded by a line, a riff on a Kendrick Lamar lyric, in which she refers to herself as a "runaway slave master." Azealia Banks mockingly rebranded her Igloo Australia; Snoop Dogg prefers "fake wanna b black bitch." Many people believe even her butt is fake.
Dating an NBA star is one marker of hip-hop authenticity, but for all the think pieces that accuse Azalea of trying on blackness like an accessory, few challenge her relationship with Young, and she doesn't use him to earn cred. Beneath all the posturing, their affection seems real: "You can really get to know someone in Target," Azalea blushingly told a morning-show DJ about their first date. "Like, what kind of quilts are you into? What's your favorite movies? What kind of snacks you like?" Young is protective, wading into Twitter beefs and reframing disses as compliments: "Iggy is doing big things, and it's scaring a lot of people," he told reporters.
And there is a kind of authenticity to Azalea. Rap music is a leading American export, so of course a white girl in rural Australia would grow up obsessed with rap culture and the music business would exploit a look that increasingly lines up with its audience. Azalea once described her personal style as a mix of Grace Kelly, Gwen Stefani, the Spice Girls and The Nanny. She picked her stage name by pairing her pet dog and the street she grew up on, the game American kids play to pick their "porn name." In the "Fancy" video, she spoofs Clueless, stepping into the iconic wardrobe of Cher, the misunderstood blonde with the black best friend.
When Young and Azalea first got together, a morning DJ razzed Azalea over the fact that she was slumming it with a guy on a two-year, $2.3 million contract. Now Young is floating on a four-year, $21.5 million deal, but his real asset is the cultural capital money can't buy. He will always be seen as the guy who reinvented himself to succeed against the odds and Azalea the girl who transformed to more expertly exploit her privilege. This winter the couple embarked on their first business collaboration, and it's a perfect fit: They're modeling the designer knockoffs of Forever 21.