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Jackson Howard: Where have all the femcees gone?

By Jackson Howard, Daily Hip-Hop Columnist
Published October 3, 2013

The first verse on the introduction to Snoop Dogg’s landmark debut album Doggystyle is aggressive, witty and rapped with force. Here’s an excerpt:

“Never will there ever be another like me / You can play the left, cuz it ain’t no right in me / out the picture, out the frame, out the box I knock em all / Smack em out the park, like a friendly game of baseball / Grand, slam, yes I am / Kickin up dust and I don’t give a goddamn!”

Do you know who rapped that? It wasn’t Snoop, Dr. Dre, Daz, Kurupt or Warren G. Instead, it was a rapper by the name of Lady of Rage who, in the early 1990s, was considered such an incredible lyricist that she — not Snoop himself — was given the honor of rapping the album’s first verse. There once was a time when female emcees (femcees) were not only given the same respect as their male counterparts, but actually achieved similar levels of commercial success.

Today, however, the story couldn’t be more different. Since 2005, only one female rapper has attained as much success and acclaim as her male contemporaries: Nicki Minaj. Every other female rapper of the past 20 years has either stopped recording or faded into oblivion. What happened to the female emcee? Why, since the early 2000s, have female rappers been on the steady decline, both in numbers and in record sales? And, last but maybe most intriguing, why does it seem like the American public has lost interest in female rappers? There is no definitive answer. However, if we look back at the history of femcees, some clues emerge.

Between 1988 and 1989, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Roxanne Shanté exploded onto the scene with three classic debut albums. These rappers relied on their lyrics — not their bodies — for success, and preached predominately feminist messages in their songs, highlighted by Latifah’s classic “Ladies First.”

The 1990s, though, were the real height for female rappers. Almost every hip-hop label or crew during the decade boasted a femcee on its roster at some point: Lady of Rage and Storm on Deathrow, Lil Kim on Bad Boy, Eve on Ruff Ryders, Remy Ma on Terror Squad, Da Brat on So So Def, Rah Digga on Flipmode and Foxy Brown — who actually started solo on Def Jam — later on Roc-a-fella are just some of the many female rappers who had prominent positions in some of rap’s most storied crews.

These women were not just placeholders, though. Da Brat, Foxy Brown, Lil Kim, Eve, Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill all released platinum albums in the 1990s, while TLC, featuring the talents of the incredible, late rapper Left Eye, sold a whopping 21 million records. What is important to note, in addition to the record sales, is these artists’ subject matter. While the lyrics had certainly shifted from feminist pioneers like Latifah and Lyte in the late 1980s to a more party-centric and sexed-up approach, by no means was sex the only subject matter for these women. It was, as it was for men, just another aspect.

No two rappers demonstrated the unimportance of blatant sex appeal in their raps as did Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill, two of the most successful and talented artists — male or female — of the past few decades. Missy’s groundbreaking debut, 1997’s Supa Dupa Fly, pushed sonic boundaries with the help of a then-up-and-coming producer named Timbaland and proved that female rappers didn’t have to exude sex to be successful. Hill’s magnum opus The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill went eight times platinum and won five Grammys, including Album of the Year. Even more remarkable was the fact that the album centered on themes of love, race, class and religion, not necessarily the makings of a pop smash, especially from a woman rapper. With the successes of the aforementioned women and the revolutionary projects put forth by Hill and Elliott, it’s clear that the ’90s — specifically the latter half — were the femcee golden age.

The 2000s, however, were the beginning of the end. As more female rappers focused solely on sexual and degrading music (Khia, Trina, Jacki-O, Foxy Brown, even Missy in later years), the lyrical standard for women began to fade. Lady of Rage, Da Brat, Rah Digga and Three 6 Mafia’s Gangsta Boo (among others) fell off the map by the mid-2000s, while, maybe worst of all, Lauryn Hill completely stopped making music, plagued by personal and legal troubles. Eve released a platinum album in 2001, a gold one in 2002 and then not another until this past year, while Lil Kim (before going to jail) and Missy Elliott both released their final projects in 2005.

What went wrong? One theory could be that the three most admirable and successful femcees — Eve, Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott — stopped putting out albums for a variety of reasons, leaving their fellow rappers with no leadership. Another theory is that in the mid-2000s, rap as a genre was in a serious crisis (Nas named his 2006 album Hip-Hop Is Dead) and lyricism was no longer appreciated. However, I believe that what ultimately set back female rappers is, unfortunately but not unexpectedly, the increasingly sexualized nature of their raps, certainly influenced by being women working in a genre that has a history of promoting misogynistic and degrading sexual content. Simply put, their subject matter has been limited to only matters of sex. For many femcees, it was either sex up or fade out, and the few who continued to sell records were those who kept their sex appeal at embarrassingly high levels.

Just look at Trina’s first verse from her aptly titled song “No Panties,” released in 2002: “Look boo, what’s the deal? / You got my cash so you can stick it here? / I know you be packing the steel / But I can’t suck your dick and get my lipstick smeared.” Subtle is clearly not in Trina’s vocabulary.

Nicki Minaj is a great example of this pressure. Discovered by Lil Wayne as a hard-spitting battle rapper out of Queens, N.Y., Minaj is now an overly-sexualized, self-professed “Barbie” who seems to turn on her lyrical abilities — of which she has plenty — only when forced to. Today, major crews like Rick Ross’s Maybach Music, Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music and Jay-Z’s Roc Nation lack female rappers, and though there is hope with young rappers such as Azealia Banks, Jean Grae, Angel Haze and Rapsody — artists who aren’t as pressured by rap music’s pre-existing standards into over-sexualizing themselves through sacrificing their lyrical content and personal integrity — the window of opportunity for female emcees appears discouragingly small.

“A woman can bear you, break you, take you / Now it’s time to rhyme, can you relate to / a sister dope enough to make you holler and scream?” Queen Latifah asked on “Ladies First,” and until the rap game and the American public begins acknowledging female rappers again for their lyrics and not their bodies, ladies will continue to be second.