Killing Them Softly (and Not So Softly): 8 Incredible Women in Hip Hop
I love rap music. In it you find witty banter, intense imagery and nuanced love stories, all accompanied by a danceable beat. Still, like most artistic and social movements, the culture that comes along with it has some issues. Of these, misogyny is both the most prevalent and the most damaging. A lot of hip hop artists rap about money and luxury because they came from nothing, and they describe violence to tell the stories of those largely ignored by society, but there is no justification for thinking less of a person because she is a woman. At Duke's campus this is especially relevant. I appreciate that rap music is played at parties, but I hope it has a positive influence on the social dialogue of the community and does not encourage sexual violence and misogyny. I want to have a good time at parties, not hear about some dude treating a girl like she's property.
Lyrical misogyny is not as much of a problem in a vast yet incredibly overlooked part of the genre: music made by rappers who are female. Women usually have a harder time gaining respect and credibility as rappers. This is not a problem exclusive to hip hop, but female rappers receive significantly less attention than women in other genres. For instance, Pitchfork’s article about the women of grime, a British rap subgenre, calls attention to a few female artists yet tags only male rappers when listing artists in the story. As a white male I can never truly understand the adversity female rappers face, but I can certainly appreciate their art. To recognize the women who are dropping hot bars, here are eight incredible emcees, including both established acts and up-and-comers, who present themselves on their own terms.
Last year, Noname released her debut mixtape "Telefone" to much deserved critical acclaim. The dreamy production of the work perfectly complements her flow as she flits and floats melodically through her verses. Overall the mixtape sounds innocent and carefree but has a certain sadness and nostalgia lurking in the background. This is reflected in her raps. On "Yesterday" she recounts the death of her grandma and how it helped show her that money alone cannot make her whole. Instead, she enjoys her “dreams of granny in mansion and happy.” For the hook she sings, "When the sun is going down / When the dark is out to stay / I picture your smile like it was yesterday." It is a beautiful opening to the album.
On "Diddy Bop" Noname reminisces on her childhood in Chicago, recalling the nineties pop culture and brands she grew up with. The Diddy bop is a dance move that was popular when she was a kid, and she tells how she was "watching [her] happy block [her] whole neighborhood hit the Diddy bop." Besides being an endearing reflection on her past, the beat is smooth and instantly infectious.
At 22 and hailing from Oakland, Kamaiyah is helping repopularize early-nineties G-funk in the bay area. This subgenre features laid-back, deep bass lines accompanied by high, sinister synthesizers and raps about making money, partying and engaging in sexual escapades.
Kamaiyah continues this tradition on her debut mixtape "A Good Night in the Ghetto." On one “N****s”, after describing her numerous intimate relationships with men, she posits, "I suppose my sex game cold." At a deeper level, Kamaiyah describes that by owning her sexuality, she prevents being used by these men: "He don’t love me he just want me for my artistry / And I can tell so I bone him and I bail." Kamaiyah continues this style of rapping about traditional topicswith a twist on her debut single and breakout hit, "How Does it Feel." On the hook she asks "How does it feel to be rich? / I done worked all my life / Now wonder / How does it feel to just live?" Many see money as tied to material things, but for Kamaiyah, success means being able to pursue her passion—making music—and live a full life. The praise for some of her most recent work suggests she’ll be able to do just that.
At this point in rap history Lauryn Hill is an established legend. From her technically flawless rapping on "The Score" to her ruminations on love in "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" all combined with her excellent singing, Hill brought her artistic range, pop sensibility and emotional depth to hip hop that influences music to this day.
Her technique alone makes her a great rapper. She showcases this on "The Score," which she recorded as a member of The Fugees. To open her verse on "Ready or Not," she raps, "I play my enemies like a game of chess / Where I rest, no stress, if you don’t smoke sess / Lest, I must confess, my destiny's manifest / In some Gortex and sweats / I make treks like I’m homeless." That rhyme scheme is incredible. Similarly, on "Family Business" she closes the song with crazy assonances and internal rhymes: "My circle it can’t be broken open, cut throatin’, provokin’ / Record promotin’, tokin’, chokin’ on their words like smoke and…." No one raps like that anymore. The style has changed in new and interesting ways since then, but it was partly forced to change after artists like Lauryn Hill perfected it.
After recording "The Score," Hill launched her solo career with her critically acclaimed and commercially successful album "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill." Throughout "The Miseducation," Hill explores themes of love and breakups within an ongoing skit in a classroom setting. A lot of the lyrics deal with the pain and anger Lauryn felt after falling out of love. On one of the more hopeful tracks of the album, Lauryn sings about the fear and joy that came with having her first child, Zion: "How beautiful if nothing more / Than to wait at Zion’s door / I’ve never been in love like this before." Overall the album shows Hill’s artistic range and is a sharp contrast to the darker work she did with The Fugees. Hill would only make one major release after "The Score" and "The Miseducation," but just those two albums were enough to establish her as a cultural icon.
Though active as a solo artist since 2010, Rapsody has been reluctant to enter the mainstream hip-hop dialogue. Instead, she has partially shunned it with her ideology, "culture over everything," which refers to early-nineties New York hip-hop culture, even though numerous rap subcultures have evolved out of that scene since then. This period in New York is classically called the "golden age" of hip-hop because of its heady rhyme schemes, jazz-influenced production and socially conscious topics.
Rapsody is true to the old culture, usually refraining from rapping about violence and featuring lighter, jazzy beats on her tracks. On "Lonely Thoughts" from her 2013 mixtape "She Got Game," she raps "Weed / I never breath, another breed, Q, Phife, Ali Shaheed," referencing the nineties New York rap group A Tribe Called Quest. She positions herself against today’s mainstream artists when saying she is more of a classic breed, and her rhyme scheme reflects that time period in its internal exact rhymes. A little later in the song she continues this technique: "Madame I replicated the summer of Sam, damn / Kill at rand-damn. I’m like Van Damm stuck in a dam." In doing so, Rapsody’s style keeps alive the vibe of past hip hop legends into the present day.
If Rapsody has a complete opposite, it might be Young M.A. From Brooklyn, M.A has been rapping since she was nine but didn’t gain widespread attention until last year’s hit single “Ooouuu.” The song features a dark, two-step beat accompanied by raps about threatening violence, drinking liquor and succeeding sexually. These are typical gangster and street rap topics. By expressing her sexuality as lesbian, though, M.A brings an interesting twist to a genre in which anti-gay sentiments are still a problem.
M.A enthusiastically describes her numerous escapades with women. At one point she raps, "If that’s your chick, then why she textin’ me? / Why she keep calling my phone speaking sexually? / Every time I’m out, why she stressin’ me? / You call her Stephanie? I call her Headphanie [read: head for me]." There’s a lot to unpack here. Is M.A simply reclaiming the sexual domination that mainstream male rappers describe all the time or is she reinforcing the use of sex as a tool for ownership over women? Although that’s a discussion people could (and should) have, I think it would be best if this type of language was absent from the music altogether. Overall, however, Young M.A represents a queer, female voice in rap music who has the potential to release more hits down the line.
Onika Tanya Maraj. Nicki Minaj. The woman with the "pink wig, thick ass, give ‘em whiplash." For some time now, Nicki has been controlling the charts while spitting verses that are among the best of post-2010 rap. Some of her best rapping is found in her verse on Kanye West’s "Monster" off "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy." She easily outshines both Kanye and Jay-Z, delivering rhymes in multiple voices and flows. Her voice ranges from a whimsical, mocking, garish character to a deep, rough monster, and her vocal acrobatics going between the two make for the most exciting moments of the album. She also delivers punch lines throughout, including "You could be the king but watch the queen conquer," "if I’m fake, I ain’t notice cause my money ain't," and "…I’ll say bride of Chucky is child’s play / Just killed another career, it’s a mild day." The verse gained Nicki a lot of attention and established her as a force in the modern rap scene.
Nicki debuted a more straightforward, menacing style in her latest album, "The Pinkprint." Though her first two albums were more pop-oriented, on this one she shows she can top the charts with a more exclusively rap album. Throughout Nicki uses a slower flow, focusing on the delivery and quirkiness of her punch lines ("I don’t fuck with them chickens, unless they’re last name is cutlet"). "Feeling Myself" might be Nicki’s most overtly feminist song, on which she and Beyoncé celebrate their achievements as women in music. She raps, "Ain’t gotta rely on top 40, I am a rap legend / Just go ask the kings of rap, who is the queen and things of that / Nature." After almost a decade in the spotlight, Nicki is still one of the best active emcees and a major symbol for women in mainstream rap culture.
Though a bit of a novelty, grime rapper Lady Leshurr gained a lot of attention for her excellent "Queen’s Speech" video series, in which she raps about pop culture while walking and dancing. Her raps are quirky and refreshing, delivering one-liners and other banter about internet jokes. Parts of her rhymes sound like personal hygiene PSAs, with one hook being "Brush your teeth, brush your teeth." Her rapping is technically awesome, though, as she quickly rattles through her wordplay with abrupt pauses and percussive hits. On her breakout song "Queen’s Speech 4," she raps, "I hold it down like a Snapchat / Go over your head like a snapback / Uploaded a pic, double tap that." In this verse and throughout her web series, Leshurr provides a purely fun style of rap that is a welcome change from darker hip-hop trends.
It’s hard to overstate Missy Elliott’s impact on mainstream hip-hop culture at the turn of the century. She showed that a woman can release hot, sexy bangers without conforming to society’s expectations for female beauty. Often she describes her sexual escapades in lurid detail. On "Work It" she commands her male partner, "Not on the bed, lay me on your sofa / Call before you come, I need to shave my chocha." Missy has fun and expresses herself sexually without worrying about societal norms that can oppress women.
In doing this, Missy acts as an inspiration to a lot of people. This is probably best captured in Ashlee Haze’s slam poem, "For Colored Girls." The poem actually prompted Missy to visit Haze at her home and was sampled in the opening track of Dev Hynes’ last album, "Freetown Sound."
Here’s an excerpt: "If you ask me why representation is important / I will tell you that on the days I don’t feel pretty / I hear the sweet voice of Missy singing to me: / 'Pop that, pop that, jiggle that fat, / Don’t stop, get it ‘til your clothes get wet.' / I will tell you that right now there are a million / Black girls just waiting to see someone who looks like: them!"
It’s a powerful piece, especially when heard spoken. It reflects the importance of Missy Elliott and other female rappers in inspiring individuals and fueling the feminist movement.
In the future, people should encourage the advancement of women in rap by paying more attention to music by female emcees. Mainstream hip-hop is classically misogynistic, but the oppression of women is not limited to music; around the world, women are mistreated and prevented from pursuing their dreams daily because of their sex. Hopefully, by seeing female rappers continue to persevere and defy negative stereotypes in hip-hop, others will be inspired to do the same when pursuing their own passions.