Orange Is The New Rap: Breaking Through Hip Hop’s Glass Ceiling

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The age of difficult men is over. Four years into the new decade and it’s starting to gain an identity. With the rise of the internet comes the thousands of new voices breaking up any kind of monotonous worldview, and America is slowly (very slowly) seeing the unraveling of a phallic-centered pop culture. The signs are all over. After a decade of being forced to play by the rules of the patriarchy, women are breaking through and asserting their artistic force, whether it’s on TV with Shonda Rhimes “TGIT” and Jill Solloway’s Transparent, film though the incredible box office successes of “Gone Girl,” “Lucy,” and “Maleficent,” or pop music’s total domination via Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and Lana Del Rey. Hip hop, once (wrongly) criticized as being one of the most misogynistic streams of mainstream media, is leading the revolutionary charge. From all across the country, more women than ever are making great rap music, and helping push the genre further into the 21st century.

Who else would be leading the charge than the woman who helped start it all. Nicki Minaj is the biggest female rap star the genre’s ever seen and her success at the beginning of the decade broke the gates open for the flood of new artists we’re seeing now. Nicki’s always been talented, but her tendency to skew more pop hasn’t made her a central figure within hip hop’s universe. Earlier this year I wrote about her reputation as the rap game Charizard and voiced concern that her latest songs, while seeming to be the hardcore rap that everyone wanted, were actually diminishing the creativity that made her so fixating in the first place. Boy was I wrong. Nicki has been an MVP candidate all year, rolling out her new album The Pinkprint with an incredible string of promotional singles and guest verses showcasing her world class talent and revolutionary fervor. She’s displaying a virtuosity that very few rappers can match, destroying street rap, stadium pop, and sultry R&B in equal measure. But her coronation as the queen of rap came not through the standard industry gatekeepers but from the Queen herself. Landing on Beyonce’s remix to the feminist anthem of the century was not only an artistic high point but a political statement.

To really understand the delicate political and cultural alchemy Nicki is accomplishing this year is to look at her own solo work. Each of her singles for The Pinkprint has completely flipped typical rap narratives on their head. “Anaconda,” one of the most divisive and popular songs of the year, is the loudest of her statements. Her ode to her powerful booty caused a lot of controversy over the graphic sexual nature of the video, but look for more than ten seconds and the radical commentary is self-evident. Sampling the ultimate ode to big butts, Nicki flips the script and reclaims her own sexuality, in turn objectifying each of the poor saps she encounters in the song. In an era where black female bodies are seemingly used as props and jokes for Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift, Nicki plants a flag for her own identity in a time of rampant cultural appropriation. The music video separates her sexual flamboyancy from any kind of male gaze, taking place in an all female Amazon jungle. And if there was still any doubt of the political underpinnings here, she leaves the audience with some clues. Check out the smoothie scene, where after successfully making the banana a phallic representative, she cuts it up in maniacal rage. Or more importantly, at the very end, when she invites the biggest rap star on the planet to be her sexual object, giving Drake the bluest balls he’ll ever experience.

It might be strange for America to see a female pop star be so forthright about her sexuality (even though Madonna and Lady Gaga get labeled as eccentric), but for rap she fits right in. Hip hop is used to rappers calling themselves pretty, bragging about their sexual prowess, and talking about how fly they are. Even 2Pac knew that taking off his shirt was a good look. Nicki is just switching the dynamic and giving no quarter to anybody. And don’t forget how good “Anaconda” is. What’s remarkable is the level of detail packed into the song. The boys she’s taking advantage of, Troy and Michael, are given much more detail than any of the fictional love interests in, say, a J. Cole or Drake song. “Anaconda” dismisses her critics, hyper masculine hip hop stereotypes, and the peanut gallery in one fell swoop. Everyone complaining about the click-bait single art ended up reduced to the chorus: “Oh my god, look at her butt.”

Nicki Minaj has surrounded herself with a whirlwind of controversy. Every new song, magazine shoot, and quote is put under the microscope, seeing whether she’s living up to her unwanted role of feminist icon. Hopefully The Pinkprint will live up its name and Nicki is bearing the slings and arrows of a world who’s refusing to acknowledge her artistry, because there is a flood of great young female rappers who don’t have any time for clever political tactics. There are way too many to talk about in one article, but these are some of my favorites. Chicago has a huge flood of great rappers and a large percentage of them are female (with great names! Sasha Go Hard! Katie Got Bandz!). But the one with the most promise is Tink, who blends rap with R&B with great instinct and has the most potential to be a crossover success like Nicki. Her mixtape from earlier this year, Winter’s Diary 2, was an intimate affair, skewing more R&B and dealing with emotional breakups and gender relations. But her upcoming album should get you salivating, as she’s put in work with fellow Chicago sex savant Jeremih, Timbaland, DJ Dahi, and even rock group Sleigh Bells.

The biggest breakout star of this year might be Detroit rapper Dej Loaf. By adding a melodic sensibility to Chicago’s blunt drill music, “Try Me” was a genuine street hit. Her new tape Sell Sole is one of the best of the year, mixing her unique sound (shaped by producer DDS, who handles most of the project) with some fine lyricism. More than any other female rapper, Dej seems beholden to no artistic norms, gender or racial, and instead paves out a clear identity for herself. She threatens enemies and entices lovers with the same nondescript tone. Sell Sole oozes sensuality, which is a hard line to strike in a genre that’s fixated on promiscuity.

But the biggest challenger to Nicki’s crown is also the most unexpected. When Azealia Banks first arrived three years ago, she was hyped as the first artist in the new world that Nicki had opened up. But she’s spent the following years in label purgatory, burning bridges and self-sabotaging her career. But the Harlem ice princess has finally been given the rights to her debut and Broke With Expensive Taste is a schizophrenic tour de force, bending genre and breaking boundaries. Even if The Pinkprint can’t live up to the hype, there’s still been one groundbreaking female rap album that can be held up as a torchbearer.

All of these artists are pointing towards a future where women are no longer relegated to the margins of hip hop. They don’t have to fit in to the boxes of “hook singer” or “that one girl in the crew” or “hyper lyrical lesbian” or “horny sex kitten who has her lyrics ghost written by a famous rapper.” They can be simply themselves, just like any rapper can. But it’s a long road ahead. One needs only to look at the youtube comments to see how quickly these rappers are based on their looks rather than their talent, or how quickly they are dismissed because they don’t fit into pre-existing paradigms. I talked to a rap friend about Nicki and the first thing he said was “Man, I hate Nicki Minaj. Her ass isn’t even real!” as if that’s the first thing he judges in other rappers as well (spoiler: he doesn’t). Hip hop’s new decade has been marked by the widening of the inclusive circle. More people make and relate to music from all backgrounds than ever before. There’s no reason it should stop growing at the gender line. Girls deserve better than Iggy Azalea.

Now can someone please get Queen Latifah on a remix!

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