2020 saw an unprecedented increase in representation for women in hip-hop. Newcomers like Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion topped the charts, bringing with them longtime vets like Nicki Minaj and current queens like Cardi B. Meanwhile, Chika, Flo Milli, Mulatto, and more had tremendous breakouts. Even Noname had a moment, thanks to her incisive clap back toward J. Cole’s finger-wagging “Snow On Tha Bluff.”
But while more women than ever made it to the charts, covered our favorite magazines, and dominated our playlists, the music industry as a whole still continued to fail women in rap in a variety of ways that undermined the celebration of this fertile era of growth. From continuing to stoke non-existent beef to failing to recognize women on the highest-profile platforms to straight-up glossing over many of the women who dropped stellar projects this year, critics and the public proved they need to look beyond the surface and truly appreciate the work being done by women in hip-hop.
First, let’s address the element in the room: The double standard that has permeated hip-hop culture since its inception in the ’70s and apparently continues unabated into our modern context despite the increase in female talent in multiple arenas at nearly all levels of the industry. Hip-hop — both the music and the culture — has always been a microcosm of our society, so it’s no surprise that as women have made strides athletically, economically, and politically, there will always be someone seeking to hold them back to maintain a crumb of privilege.
Just days before this writing, one of the most prolifically filthy and explicit rappers the genre has ever produced fixed his silver tongue to worry about the potential effects of the Cardi B hit “WAP,” placing himself on the same side of the debate as trolls like Ben Shapiro. When Snoop Dogg said, “I just don’t want it that fashionable to where young girls express themselves like that,” he apparently forgot that he was responsible for songs like “Ain’t No Fun (If The Homies Can’t Have None)” himself.
Then, there was the Megan Thee Stallion shooting incident and its fallout. While Tory Lanez’s male collaborators like Jack Harlow shrugged in apparent apathy after he was indicted for shooting Megan in the feet, Lanez’s own fan brigade launched a vicious anti-Stallion campaign that saw them question her story, counter-claim abuse on her part, and even call her a man. Remember that when 50 Cent was shot 20 years ago, this culture practically turned him into a rap deity. There are some who question whether Megan was even shot, despite her Instagram post from the operating table as she was having bullet fragments removed from her heels.
That same cavalier, sexist attitude extended to the treatments of women like Chika, Doja Cat, and Noname, who were all ridiculed or questioned, barely afforded the benefit of the doubt, and whose accomplishments were downplayed by male rap fans who protested that men deserved the accolades they did accumulate. Chika’s presence in the 2020 XXL Freshman Class was slated while fans disparaged her physical characteristics, body-shaming her by comparing her to Gunna. Doja Cat, whose old, self-questioning song was resurfaced, got dragged by fans for supposedly participating in racist chat rooms on the slimmest of evidence — the word of jilted fanboys disappointed when she reneged on her promise to “show my boobs so hard” if her song “Say So” reached No. 1 on the Hot 100.
Even 53-year-old rap legend Nas joined in, rapping a dashed-off reference to the controversy on his new album. Nas, who spent a good 80 percent of the songs on his album living in the past, made only seven other recent pop culture references on the entire album — one dedicated to berating Gayle King for holding men accountable for past actions. He also never quite got around to discussing the accusations against himself for abusing Kelis, but was still praised for returning to form on The King’s Disease.
Meanwhile, despite the impressive accomplishments of all these women, there were no female rappers even nominated for the 2021 Best Rap Album Grammy — the second time in two years after Rapsody and Cardi B were at least included in the discussion in 2018 and 2019. I guess Cardi’s win was supposed to retroactively cover all the previous years’ women who got overlooked with some credit left over for the next few. While fans rightfully made a fuss over missing contemporary favorites like Lil Baby’s My Turn, the fact that Flo Milli and Mulatto were left out should raise just as many hackles.
But even if they’d received nods, it would still not be enough to address the dearth of critical coverage of women who hadn’t yet charted at major publications. Doja, Megan, Noname, and more all got plenty of attention, but where was similar love for Che Noir, Chika, Lyric Jones, or Sa-Roc? All four released excellent projects this year — and in Che Noir’s case, several — but many major music publications completely overlooked their work in favor of pursuing coverage of favored headline mainstays, despite providing plenty of coverage to other emerging underground acts — notably male ones. When they did, it was in the context of their co-signs from established male acts, like Phonte Coleman executive producing Jones’ Closer Than They Appear or Che Noir’s proximity to Buffalo label Griselda Records, despite not being signed there herself.
Then again, maybe they are just supplying the demand. The fact remains that media outlets tend to print what gets the most engagement. Any given writer or team only has so much bandwidth to devote to surfacing new and rising talent. Maybe the reason they can’t dedicate as many resources to these acts is because fans only allow enough attention for a handful of female rappers at a time — and no guarantee they’ll even accept these new artists if they do pay attention to them. Look at how they treat Chika and Lizzo, two women who don’t offer up the same presentation men claim women should be pursuing. Look at how widely ignored Che Noir and Lyric Jones and Sa-Roc’s stylistic forebearers like Jean Grae and Rapsody have been, even among female-focused Twitter accounts like Female Rap Room and its spin-offs.
Cardi said it best: When she made “Be Careful,” offering a personalized glimpse behind the glammed-up facade, fans rejected her. When she made “WAP,” she went No. 1, broke records, and stayed at the forefront of the conversation about women’s new dominance of rap for weeks. When rap fans bring up Noname and Rapsody, it’s usually to chastise women for being too raunchy, then they berate these paragons of virtue for being too outspoken about topics like the commodification of Africa and the toxic effects of capitalism. They get flattened into pro-Black, respectable caricatures of themselves, despite Chika’s defense that they can be just as filthy as the women they get juxtaposed against.
And while fans, critics, and fellow artists hold much of the responsibility, nothing absolves labels of their tendency to chase past successes and put the mantra “sex sells” at the forefront of their marketing strategies. Since Cardi B blew up, nearly every female rapper to receive a deal has operated from the same blueprint. There’s nothing wrong with that blueprint, by the way, but when there are dozens of nearly identical versions of the same sexed-up ideal, what incentive do fans have to choose any of them — especially when labels barely support them unless they get a viral hit, and even then may still shelve them?
Dej Loaf, Dreezy, Kamaiyah, and Tink were all XXL Freshmen at one point, yet most of them have since departed from their major label deals in favor of independent careers. They’ve flourished, releasing fiery works of art on their own terms, but those works have, again, been largely ignored by mainstream music publications. Kamaiyah dropped three separate projects this year alone, earning her the lion’s share of the blog coverage, but fans haven’t buzzed nearly as much as they had for drama-centered artists like City Girls, whose reckless tweets and “off-beat” flows have drawn almost as much attention as their actual album. For what it’s worth, even the narrative that Yung Miami can’t rap seems based more on taunting her into a response as much as anything else.
Despite all of the strides that have been made in securing representation for women in hip-hop, there is still a long way to go. Not only is the battle against long-entrenched attitudes that make it difficult for any woman anywhere to succeed at anything, but it’s also against the complacency that allows us to look at how far we’ve come and tell ourselves it’s enough. In truth, there is no “enough,” no benchmark for the culture to reach when we can argue that everything is truly equitable. The end goal should be the process, to be constantly re-evaluating whether we’re doing all that we can to pursue the ideal that everyone is getting a fair shot.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.