Hip Hop’s New Narrative: Embracing A Culture Of Female Empowerment And Male Vulnerability

Hip Hop’s New Narrative: Embracing A Culture

Of Female Empowerment And Male Vulnerability

Despite still being in its infancy, in the 90s, hip hop was a progressive and groundbreaking culture. It was a period when a multitude of queens reigned supreme, with resiliency and distinction, and the kings were free and vulnerable enough to growl their way through their pain like a DMX, or pour their hearts out to their mamas like Mr. Shakur, without anyone batting an eye or calling them “soft.” It was a special time. A golden era. 

But soon gold wasn’t enough. As the culture moved on to platinum something happened. For a number of reasons, the expressions from mainstream male artists became more stagnant and unoriginal – less liberated and emotional – and the female emcee became, well, damn near non-existent. With the exception of Missy Elliott, Lil’ Kim, Eve, and later Remy Ma, there weren’t any ladies making noise in hip hop on the mainstream level until Nicki Minaj arrived in 2010, and Iggy Azalea in 2014.

And although artists like Kid Cuddi, Drake, and Kanye West haven’t been afraid to fly the vulnerability flag, they’re often questioned about their manhood because of it. The mainstream artists who could do it and do it well, without anyone questioning their masculinity, were either deceased or just not doing it at all. There were no Biggie’s to rhyme about the hauntings of having suicidal tendencies the way that he did on Ready To Die in 1994. Pac was gone and so was Big Pun.

And although Pun may not be the first person to come to mind when you think of emcees being vulnerable in their rhymes, with his hit “It’s So Hard” released in 2000, he let his guard down and told us, albeit in a fun way, that being obese, famous, and paranoid about the imminent danger of street violence, was hard work. DMX was still around but he was no longer going triple and quadruple platinum the way that he was in the 90s. And although Nas and Eminem remained relevant, both extremely talented rappers took five and even ten year breaks when releasing solo projects in the 2000’s.

Kathy Iandoli. Photo: Dove Clark

So where are we at now, in 2018? Well, hip hop culture still rests comfortably at the intersection of everything popular and important, whether it be art, other genres of music, fashion, advertising, education, business, or politics. Because of this, it continues to grow, adapt to, influence, and reflect both the streets and all that is popular culture. But how does this manifest itself in today’s mainstream hip hop music? Here’s two ways.

Male hip hop artists and culture shapers like Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, and J. Cole are making it okay for men to unabashedly and publicly address misconceptions about manhood, while women like Rapsody, Cardi B, Princess Nokia, Remy Ma, and Oshun are breaking barriers, collaborating, and curating careers that allow them to embody success in individual and creative ways. To further explore these emerging themes we enlisted the help of Billboard contributor and hip hop journalist Kathy Iandoli.

Ladies First

Following in the footsteps of  Salt-N-Peppa and Roxanne Shanté, some would say that Queen Latifah’s debut album, All Hail The Queen released in 1989, and the aptly titled first single “Ladies First,” ushered in a new wave of female hip hop artists who represented a mosaic of styles and viewpoints. On the West Coast Yo Yo released three consecutive albums from 1991 until 1993. In 1994, Da Brat dropped Funkdafied and became the first ever platinum selling solo female hip hop artist.

Then two years later Kimberly and Inga, out of Brooklyn, surfaced and forever changed the game. Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown dominated 1996, with their unadulterated brand of hypersexualized empowerment anthems that women adored and men weren’t mad at either. That same year the culture was also blessed with albums by Heather B and Bahamadia, two progressive thinkers who added their not as popular, but equally as important voices to the mix.

Then one year after that The Lady Of Rage released her debut album. And let’s not forget about MC Lyte and Lauryn Hill, who both made their presence known for the better part of the decade. And of course we all remember what happened when Ms. Hill dropped The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1998 (five Grammy awards, one of which included Album of the Year).

Unfortunately and by all accounts, there has never been another era in hip hop that has celebrated and valued female rappers the way that the 90s did. Despite this, there’s definitely something brewing today. And whatever it is, it’s difficult to squeeze it into a box because it’s both mainstream and underground, raunchy and intelligent, vulnerable, self-aware, and most importantly, necessary. It’s intersectional too, and it makes sense that it is. “Going into 2018 there’s definitely more women in hip hop that are just actively out there, but not only just out there, but on the charts and making records and hitting the radio and touring and doing all the things that I think in the past were only given to one woman at a time, and now we’re on more of a level playing field,” says Iandoli, whose book Ladies First (Dey Street Books/Harper Collins) will be released next year.

Hip hop’s leading ladies, both in the underground and mainstream markets, are not sitting by idly letting their stories be told for them. “I think there’s been growth in the number of female hip hop artists over the past few years that have brought a greater awareness to the concept that there’s diversity amongst women in rap,” said Iandoli. “I think we’re starting to see it a few years earlier but in 2017, I think it really came into its own especially with Nicki Minaj still being out and about, Remy Ma with her comeback, Cardi B blowing up and even Rapsody releasing her latest project.”

When it comes to female rappers and mainstream recognition, Cardi B and Rapsody are leading the pack. Both women were the only two female rappers to earn Grammy nods this year (Cardi B for Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance for her breakout smash hit “Bodak Yellow,” and Rapsody for Best Rap Song and Best Rap Album for her critically acclaimed Laila’s Wisdom album). While Rapsody may not be as visible as Cardi B, she’s no newcomer either. The 34-year-old has been verbally sparring with the best of them since releasing her debut album She Got Game back in 2013, and signing with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation imprint three years later. While Cardi B’s message may sound a bit different from Rapsody’s, who quotes Maya Angelou on her hit “Sassy,” both ladies are using their voices to insight empowering and thought provoking dialogue. “I think their messages are both very strongly leaning upon empowerment just in two different ways,” says Iandoli. “I think Cardi B has a very unapologetic approach to stating what’s on her mind and demanding certain things of herself or other people, and Rapsody has a message that is more demanding of the world at large, society, politics, things that…attacking the system and pointing out where the inconsistencies are and urging others to empower themselves and to show who they are and bring awareness to change. Laila’s Wisdom had such empowering music but I think to just a casual listener they won’t listen to “Bodak Yellow” and hear that it’s empowering in its own way as well.”  

Jay-Z

The fact that Cardi B and Rapsody have completely different styles speaks to the type of resurgence that is taking place for and because of female rappers. While both have been recognized by the elite institution that is the Grammy’s, there are a slew of other female rappers, at various levels, making just as much noise. Take Princess Nokia for example, the New York Bruja tomboy who’s independently toured the globe and released consecutive albums every year since 2014. Although you may not hear her songs “Tomboy” or “Brujas” on the radio, you might catch an ear full of her music at an Alexander Wang show or in a Marc Jacob’s ad campaign. These are the types of moves this Princess is making without the backing of a major label. Then there’s Niambi Sala and Thandiwe, also known as Oshun, who have made a name for themselves on the festival circuit all the while paying homage to their African ancestry and using their art as activism (The group’s latest offering is a poignant number entitled “Not My President”). The hip hop/soul duo who met at NYU started off their 2018 with an 11-city tour that included three sold-out dates in Washington, D.C., Philly, and New York City. And of course there’s Remy Ma who’s had a stellar past few months, signing a multi-million dollar deal with Columbia Records and collaborating with Lil’ Kim on the menacing “Wake Me Up,” and most recently with Chris Brown on “Melanin Magic.”

So what does all of this mean? Well, it means that similar to the way that women and those who support them are saying “time’s up” and “me too” in regards to sexual misconduct and abuse in the workplace, females in hip hop are saying “time’s up” and “me too” when it comes to the way that their stories are being told and their voices  amplified as rappers, entrepreneurs, and grown ass women. And quite frankly, we’re here for it, and you should be too.

Vulnerability is the new black

Because of the parameters in which hip hop was birthed, when we explore vulnerability (or lack thereof) within the culture we must examine black male masculinity among a slew of societal ills, like: generational poverty, systemic racism, and mental health. Without a doubt, these are issues that frame the vulnerability in hip hop conversation, and furthermore, influence the way that the culture is promoted and consumed. For many of hip hop’s creators and the audience that it was invented to uplift, vulnerability, or any type of display of emotion is frowned upon. But thanks to Jay-Z’s groundbreaking 4:44, this type of toxic masculinity might be on its way out, or at minimum looked at as uncool. “With 4:44 Jay-Z has created a new branch of hip hop where you can talk about adult issues that you never really could discuss before, because theoretically hip hop was perceived as a young man’s game,” says Iandoli. “Jay-Z’s success continuing into his forties, and pretty soon his fifties, proves that he can start talking about subject that his peers and his grownup core base is going through too because issues of mental health and life challenges don’t just end in your twenties.”

Rapsody

Although Jay-Z appears to be setting the trend, it may be artists like Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt, and the often overlooked but well-respected J. Cole, who first made it okay for today’s hip hop artists to begin addressing these types of issues. 33-year-old J. Cole dropped his critically acclaimed 4 Your Eyez Only LP six months before Jay-Z’s 4:44, and Lamar’s soul-baring To Pimp A Butterfly was released back in 2015.

On “She’s Mine Pt. 1,” a two-part love letter to his daughter and wife, featured on 4 Your Eyez Only, Cole raps: “I would like to paint a picture, but it’ll take more than a day/It would take more than some years to get all over my fears/Preventing me from letting you see all of me perfectly clear/ The same wall that’s stopping me from letting go and shedding tears/ From the lack of having a father, and the passing of my peers/While I’m too scared to expose myself it turns out, you know me better than I know myself/ Better than I know myself, well how about that?” 

“I think as the mental health awareness [issue] was raised in this country and in other parts of the world, and as younger generations are looking for some thread of relatability to what they’re consuming, artists stepped up and kind of showed their vulnerable side, says Iandoli. “I think it’s helpful. J. Cole has a really significant fan base and there’s young kids that probably listen to that and are pretty thankful that they can relate to that.”

On the catchy and funky “Foldin Clothes” Cole somehow makes helping his significant other do house chores sound hip and even masculine. “I wanna fold clothes for you, I wanna make you feel good/Baby I wanna do the right thing, feels so much better than the wrong thing,” he sing raps over a menacing guitar lick.  

And while J. Cole is exposing his deepest fears and helping his wife fold clothes, Jay-Z is apologizing to the women he’s mistreated, namely his insanely famous wife and mother to his three children. On the opening track of 4:44 he raps: “I apologize to all the women whom I toyed with your emotions because I was emotionless/ I apologize cause at your best you are love/ And because I fall short of what I say I’m all about your eyes leave with the soul that your body once housed/ And you stare blankly into space thinkin’ of all the time you wasted on all this basic shit/ So I apologize”

Maybe by recognizing their own shortcomings Jay-Z and J. Cole are attempting to sway hip hop’s narrative to one that is more thoughtful, more genuine, and more considerate. “I think what it speaks to is the current state of mental health in the world and the ability to kind of reflect emotions in a way that is not seen as weakness or being soft,” says Iandoli. “People are dealing with depression and other kind of demons that in years past they kept so bottled up. Some people turn to drugs, some people unfortunately turn to suicide, and I think that artists are taking more of a stand, exposing their vulnerabilities so that everyday people can listen to their music and be like ‘oh he’s going through a similar thing as I am, he’s just like me.’” 

David Nazario

David’s career as a writer, speaker and founder of lifestyle brand Scared Of A Day Job LLC has given him the opportunity to interview and write about people like Grammy award-winning actor and rapper Common, and serve as the senior editor of an international print and online publication. David currently contributes to the Lifestyle and Business sections of Reading Eagle newspaper, and is in the process of finishing his first book, 'Why Love Is More Important Than Religion'

2 Comments
  1. Well done! Covered all bases and introduced artists that were both main stream and a bit more underground from all generation’s of Hip Hop to make good points.

  2. Amazing read! It felt like someone tightening the string, pulling this historical time we are living in together for clarity and further examination.

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