Over the past few years, it seems like each summer brings us a new it-girl in rap. Coi Leray, Flo Milli, GloRilla, Ice Spice, and Latto have all seen their fortunes rise precipitously with what seems like just one song. Often, it seems like they appear from nowhere overnight and the next day, they are everywhere. This is, in my humble opinion, a good thing. It’s good for them, it’s good for rap, and it’s good for the health of the music business as a whole.
Unfortunately, you can’t turn on a light without casting a shadow. And nasty things breed in the darkness. In the case of rap’s new it-girls, the rancid flip side has been a lot of men — and it’s nearly all men — who suddenly have a lot of opinions on what women should be rapping about. And, considering the audience that these women have found in their peers, what kind of rap women should be listening to. I’m sure you’ve seen the posts on social media or outlets that cover hip-hop.
In December, Hitmaka whined about the prevalence of “p*ssy rap”; in 2019, it was Jermaine Dupri comparing breakthrough female rappers to strippers. On Twitter, seemingly every third post about Coi Leray or Ice Spice or Megan Thee Stallion is the same corny, tired, and thoroughly overused “joke” about how much better their music sounds on mute. It’s exhausting for me and I’m just a guy who writes about rap for work; I can only imagine how tiresome it is for these women and for their fans.
As has been rightfully pointed out time and time again, there is a double standard in hip-hop. Men brag about their “magic sticks,” boast that they shouldn’t have to “f*ck for free,” and demand, near constantly, for women to bend it over, touch their toes, and/or bust it open for a real n****. Which… is fine, I guess. To be honest, I’m a little over it. It’s kind of boring at this point. If the goal in rap is to be the best rapper, to be the most creative artist, you would think they’d all try a little harder than just repeating the same cliches for the past 20 years.
Mind you, in those 20 years, there were only a handful of women flourishing in rap and only about two or three regularly charting on the Hot 100. That all changed in 2018 when Cardi B showed up to kick the gates off their hinges with “Bodak Yellow.” Suddenly, labels could see value in supporting female rap artists again. Fans realized that there were more voices in the conversation waiting to be sought out. And more young women realized that there might be a future in those notebooks they were filling with rhymes.
The difference for Cardi, aside from access to streaming and the recently-revamped Billboard chart counting procedure, was that Cardi wasn’t rapping to impress rap dudes. Women have been trying that for decades and only getting as far as forum love and regional tours. As it turns out, men are great at saying they want one thing, but not actually seeking out or supporting it. Instead, Cardi rapped about the stuff she wanted to, from the perspective of a “regular degular chick from The Bronx.”
That was the formula that cracked the code, and soon, it seemed there were dozens of women in rap applying it to their own regional takes. City Girls brought Miami flavor, Saweetie represented for the Bay Area, and Megan held it down for the Houston hotties. Their successes became beacons for the legions of unknown, aspiring rappers who took the baton and ran with it. And while, yes, the formula calcified a bit and became too… well… formulaic, we still got standouts each year all approaching rap their own way, and most importantly, having fun with it.
So why is that such a problem for so many men?
Well, for one thing, rap is nearly 50 years old, and for nearly all of that time, was widely considered “a guy thing.” Men were centered; many of the performers were men, true, but as pointed out in Clover Hope’s excellent history The Motherlode, many female performers were left out of the history books, overlooked, and forgotten about — especially when their performances didn’t center men. Many of the women who flourished appealed to men in some way; MC Lyte “rapped like a dude,” Salt-N-Pepa brought sex appeal, and Queen Latifah was one of two women in the Native Tongues crew, a position that would come to be the standard during the “first lady of the label” era exemplified by Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, Eve, Rah Digga, Shawnna, and Amil (Nicki Minaj lands on the tail end of that movement as the sole female rapper on Young Money).
However, starting with Cardi, women’s concerns — mainly turning up at the club, but also dealing with f*ckboys, hustling sugar daddies, and flipping transactional relationships to their advantage — are at the forefront of women’s raps. Rather than writing punchlines and boasts as men would write them, women boast “how can I lose when I’m already chose?” to men’s chagrin. Rap always offered ostensibly masculine fantasies to indulge fans’ interests but now the fantasies place women in positions of power and leave rap’s core audience — which has always been average, slightly dorky dudes — out of the conversation entirely. (Or so they believe; it seems many men can picture themselves as drug kingpins with trophy girlfriends, but never considered those paramours’ perspectives.)
The carefree Black boy archetype is a thing that has risen in prominence in the past few years. Well, I would argue that today’s female rappers represent the flip side of that coin: the carefree Black girls. But in releasing themselves from the concerns that historically plagued Black women, they’ve highlighted some truths that make men very uncomfortable. While we have labored for the last 100 or so years under expectations of stoicism, criminality, and hypermasculinity, women have often borne the brunt of the negative effects carrying or living down to those expectations have caused us.
What rap’s it-girls — the carefree Black girls — are doing is rejecting the twin roles of matron and mule for Black men’s anger, spite, and frustration at being sidelined in America’s racist system. They’re carving out their own chunk of joy and respite, be it material — handbags and shoes, trips to exotic locales — or spiritual — dismissing noncommital men, demanding the world from their partners. A generation raised on pimp perspectives is only going to see affront in hearing about women taking control of their own destinies.
But maybe we shouldn’t; after all, in their liberation, there’s freedom for us too. Why are we relating to pimps and criminals? And why would we rebuke women embracing sexual freedoms that we would ultimately only benefit from? It seems to me that the narrative that truly needs rejecting is the restrictive one in which we are all constrained to minimizing, flattening roles of men as gangsters or hypermasculine fantasy tough guys and women as demure coquettes solely catering to men’s desires.
It’s been said that rappers shouldn’t be role models — but that was the rappers of old, the ones who demeaned women and destroyed their own communities (at least, lyrically. We all know we shouldn’t take these rhymes at face value). But these carefree Black girls who dance when they want, say what they’re thinking, pursue their goals with a vengeance, and won’t settle for less than they feel they are owed are the perfect role models for a generation that has been learning to grow beyond what has been to what could be.