Blame it on the Bible, but for most of recorded history, it’s been ingrained in our culture that there are only two kinds of women: the whores, who always say yes when you knock on their door at 3am for a quick nut-busting sesh, and the virgins, who always say no until after you wife them up, at which point it becomes their job to open their legs at 3am for a quick nut-busting sesh.
Why did a group of men (and let’s be real, no matter what you believe about the word of God, our celestial boo was not the one to put pen to paper) get to decide this about women and ensure the brainwashing of generations? If I had to guess, it was probably because one too many ladies declined to give those posted up corner boys’ catcalls the time of day, but since time travel isn’t a thing (unless you have a hot tub), I guess we’ll never know.
But real talk: why spend two paragraphs hashing out ancient history? Because thousands of years later, when rap was blowing up in the early 1980s waaay up in the South Bronx, not much had changed in terms of how popular culture chose to depict women. Rap, as an aural component of hip hop culture, was as much a celebration of black culture as it was a rebellion against the forces that sought to control it; and because we live in the world we live in, the culture in question was inherently masculine (because let’s be real, it doesn’t matter what the colour of your skin is, the answer to ‘who run the world?’ is not girls). From the streets to the bedroom, rap music gave black men a freedom and authority that greater society denied them. Consequently, anybody who sought to limit that freedom and authority would have to be put in his or her place, and as the genre’s popularity grew, the females increasingly found themselves drawing the most heat. Before too long, female objectification and sexualisation in rap songs became as commonplace as seeing a pair of tennis shoes slung over an electrical wire. Bad for the neighbourhood, but they made the bullies look tougher, and honestly, after a while, you just came to expect and accept them as part of your hood’s decor.
Of course there were always some female MCs running around, but with the exception of the Funky 4 + 1’s MC Sha Rock, women weren’t being taken too seriously, and they certainly weren’t getting record deals. Instead of focusing on calling out the bullshit, the early women of hip hop were convinced that the path to success could be theirs by taking the higher road: keeping their heads held up high and making their shit shine like they had eaten diamonds for breakfast. Turns out, that approach didn’t work, but you know how the saying goes: well-behaved women seldom make history. What women needed were some female MCs who could be loud and aggressive enough to make themselves be heard and disrupt the mainstream rap agenda; what women needed were some goddamn Queens.
Enter: Salt-N-Pepa. Heavy on sass and sexual appeal, Salt-N-Pepa made history with the release of their 1986 debut album Hot, Cool & Vicious, becoming the first female rap act, group or solo, to go platinum, thanks to the infectious sex romp ‘Push It’. While they’ll never go down in the history books as being the illest spitters in the land, their take on female sexuality, namely that wanting and actually having sex didn’t make you a ho, it just made you a human being, disrupted the narrative that their masculine mainstream peers were selling (even going so far as to do the unspeakable and call out men for their trampy behaviour). And to be honest, it didn’t hurt that their music could spur on spontaneous dance parties and was capable of bringing even the moodiest cat out of a funk.
Throughout their reign, Salt-N-Pepa created one of two basic formulas that female rappers have adhered to in their quest for Queendom: preach empowerment, but keep it sexy, and above all, keep it fun.
The other basic school of thought, as pioneered by Queen Latifah, rap’s second monarch, was to turn down the sex, and put the focus on the political. Salt-N-Pepa may have convinced the women they weren’t hoes, but men weren’t getting the picture and rap music’s misogyny remained unchanged. Taking a more aggressively feminist stance, with songs like ‘U.N.I.T.Y.’, which tells women ‘you got to let him know/you ain’t a bitch or a ho’ and ‘Ladies First’, in which Latifah spits, ‘Some think we can’t flow/Stereotypes they got to go,’ Latifah didn’t let anything get in the way of her message. However, while journalists and feminists had nothing but love for her, much like her predecessors, Latifah’s bark didn’t do much to make the old dogs learn new tricks, and failing to supply the rebellion her preaching promised, Latifah woke up one morning to find her throne occupied by some other woman. Reign terminated.
But that’s the way it works. You can only hold public consciousness for so long, especially as a pop culture figure. Queens who fail to live up to their promise find their once-loving public all too ready to pick at their crown, piece by piece, until there’s not even enough gold left to buy a one-way ride on the subway. Survival of the fucking fittest, man.
As time moved on, history gave us the funk, bounce and marijuana-fueled stylings of Da Brat, the inspirational, educational and neo-soul sounds of Ms. Lauryn Hill, the in-your-face sexuality and hard-hitting flow of Lil’ Kim, the sample-based mix of digital and stuttering rhythms of Missy Elliott, and the over-the-top sexuality, bombast and theatricality that marks the reign of current rap-pop monarch, Nicki Minaj. Each disruption of power brought a new energy and a new sound to the throne, helping rap move forward with the zeitgeist of the times, although for all their messages of empowerment, each Queen has ultimately failed to change rap’s boy’s club mentality.
Of course, at the same time, each disruption of power also represented a swing of the pendulum from an emphasis on a buttons-undone brand of fun to a more buttoned-up focus on flow (more often than not, with political undertones in tow). Much like in politics, liberal values can hold sway for only so long before a conservative wind starts to blow. Ah, the balancing act of time. While this isn’t to say that a Queen can’t be sexy and spit bars (or for that matter, spit bars and be fun), tell me this: when you think of Lil’ Kim or Nicki Minaj, what do you think of first, their lyricism or their asses? Queens may be queens, but not even royalty can avoid being labeled and put into a box.
While we’re speaking of Queen Minaj, with her reign entering its fifth year of dominance, it looks like her days of twerking on the throne are finally coming to an end. Sure, she still pulls out all the stops from time to time (her verse on Young Money’s ‘Senile’ comes to mind), but without any real competition, our favourite Barbie doll has gotten lazy. Or, maybe lazy is too harsh of a word. Maybe, it’s more apt to say that Minaj has just been a little distracted recently; after all, it must be hard to keep your feature writing game on point when you have so many other products to endorse (on top of her rap career she has a budding acting career, a line of inexpensive and sickly sweet Moscatos, a perfume line, a clothing line sold exclusively at Kmart, and a nail polish line). Maybe it’s just that Minaj’s empire has gotten too vast for her to manage without sacrificing some of her greatness, if not grandeur.
Either way, despite the fact that she’s still making money and breaking the internet, or at least Miley Cyrus’ Instagram feed, Nicki’s shtick is getting old, and her adoring public is ready for a change. As the ‘Pussy, Money, Vacation’ style of rap she’s come to embody continues to find itself slowly displaced by a more personal, political and funkadelic set of flows, it’s doubtful that Minaj can change with the times, even if she wanted to.
So, who will be the next queen to sit on the throne?
In a way, there’s no point in conjecturing. Artists get discovered or implode overnight, promising albums wallow in purgatory only to disappoint on delivery, and the most well-crafted artifices crumble when put under a spotlight. As much as we can analyse the past as a means of predicting the future, there’s only so much we can ever get right.
Should we be aware of the limitations of extrapolation? Duh. Should we let those limits get in our way, and stop us from making an educated guess? Hell fucking no. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, and my mind is putting all of it’s money on Tink, our Rap&B Queen of 2016.
In a game where only the young strike gold, Chicago local Tink, not yet twenty, has time on her side. Equally at home with effortlessly confessional r&b (‘Treat Me Like Somebody’) and dexterous rap (‘The Ratchet Commandments’), Tink’s real genius comes in her ability to combine the two in a genre she likes to call rap&b (‘Don’t Tell Nobody’). With five self-released mixtapes under her belt, and a debut album coming out sometime this year, Tink’s already linked up with Timbaland and has recorded with national artists like Jeremih, Kelela and How To Dress Well, in addition to some Chi-town names like Sasha Go Hard and Lil Herb.
In addition to all of her musical virtues, Tink is no stranger to speaking her mind. In an interview with Kyle Kramer for Noisey last year, Tink called out the superficiality of rap with no ‘deeper message than just “turn up in the club,”‘ and feels that as a female, in a genre where men sing about hoes not being loyal with full impunity, it’s her job to speak up. She’s been similarly outspoken when it comes to the police climate in this country, as her track ‘Tell the Children’, released the morning after a St. Louis County grand jury failed to press charges against Officer Darren Wilson, makes undeniably clear.
Tink doesn’t just want to be the hottest female rapper; she wants to be the hottest rapper. She demands self-respect without being whiny and she’s feminine without resorting to stereotypes. While some of her songs are stronger than others, it’s hard to find one that’s outright bad. Even Minaj can’t say that about her ouevre.
She’s political, she’s personal, she spits, she flows, she isn’t afraid to speak her mind, she’s all about gender equality, and the Internet can’t stop buzzing about her. Tink isn’t just a rapper in contention for the throne; she’s the rapper to beat.
All talk of queenship aside though, if female rappers are ever going to change the way they’re perceived and valued in rap, instead of continuing to live in the era of one monarch to rule them all, we need to live in an era of many Queens. It’s time for a rich sisterhood of female artists to thrive in the mainstream. True, that’s all easier said than done, but if women can change the way a relatively new male-dominated world can work, maybe there’s hope for the rest of the world, too.
All hail the Queens.