From U.N.I.T.Y. to the Barbie movement: A survey of female rappers

© Haitem

Acts like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Salt-n-Pepa dominated the ‘80s with a specific brand of conscious, sexually playful and meaningful lyrics. “Queen Latifah and MC Lyte were their own women and not the by-product or offspring of a male counterpart,” explains west coast rap veteran Alonzo Williams. “When the Queen and Lyte spit, they were kicking rhymes that they wrote and felt in their hearts.”

But, the ‘90s saw the advent of something far more raw. Lil’ Kim’s 1996 debut album, Hard Core, exploded the image of the female rapper with overt sexuality and unrelenting delivery. And, her sexuality-fueled fearlessness, for better or worse, seemed to change the rap game for good.

With lyrics like these from the song Fuck You, she proved she wasn’t afraid to say what other people were thinking:

“See, that’s the difference between me and other bitches/

They fuck to get they riches/ I fuck to bust a nut/ Lil Kim

not a slut/I gotta reputation to look out for”

“Being more of the tomboy with baggy pants and sitting on the stoop with the fellas rapping was more in back then than it is now,” says Ethnicity Models founder and CEO LaShawnna Stanley. “I think that Lil Kim brought that whole change about. She came out and was super raunchy and super nasty and people buy into that. It kind of evolved from there as far as other rappers coming after her. They saw that working. You know, everybody in this industry is a copycat. They see somebody doing something that works, and they go do it.”

One of the female rappers accused of most blatantly emulating Lil Kim is newcomer Nicki Minaj, who has created enough buzz to crown her the next rookie without yet releasing a studio album. Her debut, Pink Friday, is due Nov. 23, but for now, she has shot to the top of the game by aligning herself with rappers like Drake, Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane, proving that she can hang with the big boys. However, her “Barbie” style and killer bod more than prove that she’s also a pretty face.

“She came out at a time when curves – big butt, small waist, boobs – were in,” Stanley explains.

But, that’s not to say that Minaj has no skills. Employing a range of different accents and cartoonish voices, the Trinidadian newcomer impressed Lil Wayne enough for him to sign her to his Young Money imprint as its most prominent female artist.

Her musical DNA is almost completely opposite of the female rap trailblazers from the ‘80s and ‘90s, something that is seemingly not lost on Minaj herself.

“I made a conscious decision to try to tone down the sexiness,” she told Interview this spring. “I want people – especially young girls – to know that in life, nothing is going to be based on sex appeal. You’ve got to have something else to go with that.”

Stanley, who works to turn the concept of the “video ho” on its head, says that Minaj’s ambitious aspiration may be easier said than done. “Sexuality definitely plays a role in it. If you’re attractive and sexy, then people are attracted to that. I think those are the two biggest things. As we see, you can be (male and) ugly and people will still buy into it. You don’t see too many ugly female rappers,” Stanley says.

With older acts, however, we saw a wide spectrum of sexuality – and beauty – that doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Salt-n-Pepa were the cute teases, MC Lyte the asexual tomboy, Queen Latifah and Missy Elliott the butchy are-they-or-aren’t-they lesbians and Lauryn Hill, the near-flawless saint. Lil Kim and Foxy Brown didn’t leave much room for gray with their overt sexual content, and Eve flaunted her paw-printed assets as the only girl in the Ruff Ryders crew to good effect. Minaj is a seeming amalgamation of all of these “types,” with her rough raps, out-of-this-world measurements and bi-curiosity, which adds to her appeal as much as anything else.


“If I say I only stop for pedestrian and a real, real bad lesbian – did that say and then I go home and have sex with that lesbian? I just embrace all people of all lifestyles and I don’t tell them they are bad people,” Minaj told Vibe in its July issue. “And I say girls are beautiful and girls are sexy and they need to be told that, and if they don’t have anyone to tell them that and mean it, I’m gonna tell them that. But I feel like people always wanna define me and I don’t wanna be defined.”

Her resistance to the sex-bomb treatment is wise, says Williams. “A female artist needs to be aware of her sexuality, but not use it as her base for being in the industry. If she does, she only leaves herself open to be knocked off by the next overtly sexy female.”

For now, that woman is Minaj and with the inevitable success of Pink Friday, she is poised to do what no woman has done since the now-reclusive Lauryn Hill reigned supreme in the late ‘90s: stick around.

What Minaj gives her audience may align more with what they want than what they need, as the rap genre in general appears to be in flux. Acts like Soulja Boy and B.o.B. dominate radio airplay, leaving hip-hop purists shuddering at their too-easy success.

Williams thinks that women have the potential to fill the creative void in the rap industry. He says, “I would like to see more female rappers take on the concept of artists like Mary J. (Blige) by expressing real everyday issues in a positive manner, such as single parenthood, women raising boys or just give us some uplifting music from a woman’s prospective.”

Stanley is less optimistic about where the genre – whether helmed by men or women – is headed.

“As Lauryn Hill said, music was meant to inspire. Is it inspiring us anymore? It’s a little more entertainment, a little more gimmicky and (is about) what’s a beat and what’s catchy,” Stanley laments. “It’s not really saying too much. When you listen to music, you used to get chills. Nobody’s getting chills off the music that’s being made anymore. Everything makes a 360, so it may come back around and get a little more conscious, or it may have to go a little bit further to the left where it’s worse than what it is now.”

Only time will tell if the Barbie from Trinidad can save us.

©Cash Money Motown Records

text by: Joseph Isho Levinson

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