Cardi B, success story of 2017, stands poised to topple Taylor Swift as the artist with the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
If “Bodak Yellow” were to top the chart, it would be the first time a solo female rapper has done so since Lauryn Hill debuted at No. 1 in 1998 with “Doo Wop (That Thing).” Yes, that’s a 19-year gap. She’s done this without a label (“Bodak Yellow” dropped before Cardi B signed to Atlantic; the song’s rise has been all organic from day one), without a feature from another top artist, and without a gimmick, just pure hustle, and the heartfelt support of fans that just happened to include some of the biggest celebrities around, like Idris Elba and Janet Jackson.
Let’s think about that for a second.
In the time since Hill topped the chart, Missy Elliott dropped six studio albums, including Under Construction, which contained her most successful hit to date, “Work It.” Somehow, “Work It” only ever made in to No. 2 on the Hot 100.
In that time, Lil Kim released three albums (sorry, but we’re not counting Ms. GOAT, Black Friday, or Lil Kim Season here), and the closest she got was No. 2 as well, albeit with a tremendous boost from 50 Cent on “Magic Stick.”
Nicki Minaj, currently reigning queen of the charts in hip-hop, hit No. 2 as well with “Anaconda.” Hate it or love it, Nicki’s most popular song by far featured an interpolation of a rap classic, piggybacking off the 20 year-old popularity of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.”
So far, it seems a solo female rapper has only ever been “good enough” for No. 2. We won’t get into all the reasons why (but come on, it should be pretty obvious to anyone with a basic knowledge of hip-hop history and American culture), but it’s been a black mark on the culture.
While a Cardi B win won’t magically cure racism and sexism in America, it will make a statement, one that we by and large failed to make this past November: Women are good enough.
In a male-dominated genre like rap music, where the surrounding culture revolves around masculine stereotypes and interests, the idea that a female rapper was somehow inferior pervaded the undertones of every aspect of the music and the industry.
Women are segregated into their own category at award shows, as though rap music is the NBA and female rappers are less physically equipped to bang with the seven-footers in the post and so end up relegated to their own league.
Women are used as props in music videos by male rappers to prove their virility and sexual appeal , or as “muses” in their songs to demonstrate their sensitivity or vulnerability, then discarded in favor of Neanderthal-ic “bros over…” bonding sessions.
Cardi B is, like many of her forebears (and now peers), bumping up against the glass ceiling of the music industry even now, and has the best opportunity of anyone in a long time of smashing through, validating hip-hop, black women in entertainment, and female rappers all at once.
She can break new ground; unlike Kim and Nicki, her take on hip-hop doesn’t have to be overtly raunchy to achieve pop appeal. While she doesn’t shy away from sexiness — she boldly embraces her past as an stripper, after all — “Bodak Yellow” hardly relies on the twerksome antics of Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda.” The highlight punchline is about Cardi fixing her teeth when she gets the bag, rather than Kim’s turning a Sprite can inside out.
There’s nothing wrong with selling sex, of course, but it seems like America on the whole will only allow black female performers — especially rappers — to sell when sex is involved. Even “Work It” contemplated Missy’s addressee’s “equipment” and how well-endowed he may or may not be.
With “Bodak,” Cardi bypasses men’s approval and the need to appeal to their sensibilities or sublimate the over-the-top, uncompromisingly outspoken personality that made her a star on Love And Hip-Hop to transfer that star appeal to her rap career.
She threatens, she cajoles, she preens, she brags, she confesses — in short, she does all the things that men do on records, but that for some reason, women in hip-hop have been punished for doing for the last two decades.
When Lauryn Hill went platinum and won a truly astonishing array of Grammy Awards for The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill in ’98, she was praised for being different from other female rappers (“other female rappers” here being sexpots Foxy Brown and Lil Kim), and for being insistent on her artistic vision without selling sex — which seems like more of a derogatory way of putting down those other female rappers than genuinely praising Ms. Hill.
Cardi isn’t “different,” and isn’t trying to be; she consistently describes herself as a “regular, degular, schmegular girl from the Bronx,” and isn’t having all the forced beef and nonsense that seems to follow female rappers in the post-Fox/Kim world. She wants to work with everybody; she looks up to Nicki and praises her in interviews without taking shots to score points from thirsty fans who prefer drama over creativity.
A whole generation of rap fans has been asking “where are all the female rappers?” even as dozens of female rappers have been asking themselves “where are all the fans?” A win for “Bodak Yellow” proves that women can succeed in hip-hop, on whatever terms they choose, shattering that glass ceiling on their ambition and lighting the path for hip-hop to finally become more accepting of different perspectives. It may not make rap an equal playing field overnight, but it will bring us closer than we’ve been in a long time, and that’s worth rooting for.