Rap is a woman's sport now
Editor's Note: Daily Arts' various music writers and editors spent time celebrating the women who are — or will soon be — running rap the scene. We hope you enjoy their illuminative ramblings on the matter.
It was four years ago when a loud and foul-mouthed Cardi B began littering social media with her video blogs. She regaled us with stories of being showered with money, scamming men and leveled bombastic rants ranging from family values to the importance of personal finance. She was frank. She was bare. She held no secrets. Her videos were retweeted, reuploaded and parodied in as many mediums, languages and places as one could imagine a Bronx-based stripper-turned-rapper’s appeal could reach (a reach farther than anyone would’ve come to expect, we’d come to learn). Come 2015, she exchanged her exotic dancing gig for reality television stardom, bringing her unique brand of humor and blunt commentary to the masses of MTV’s audiences. Come 2017, she had her first major label debut single released — and the music, frankly speaking, was quite fucking great.
Some would call her rise surprising, others meteoric. Both are definitely true, but the ways in which her life has panned out thus far can only be best characterized as the truest form of a modern fairytale our generation could have the privilege of witnessing. With her charm, personality and penchant for grandeur, it’s the only way we could do rap’s Cinderella any justice.
Born to a Trinidadian mother and Dominican father, Belcalis Almanzar (Cardi B) was a product of the Bronx, in addition to spending much of her childhood with her grandmother (an occasional guest on Cardi’s videos) in her Washington Heights home. In how she speaks, in what she says and in the ways in which she sees the world, her multifaceted upbringing is quite apparent. To some extent, it’s as if the dregs of New York’s boroughs are the only places capable of producing a talent like Cardi B. The narrative of New York is that of diversity and individuality. In Cardi B, the city found its deserved cheerleader.
While Cardi B’s rather honest portrayals of her life as an exotic dancer drew the ire of a few mainstream personalities, it’s her time dancing that allowed her to build the foundation upon which she now struts around. The money she raked in gave her the freedom to leave an abusive relationship, it allowed her to support her family and it paid for classes at a local community college — and this was all before she reached her level of online stardom that catapulted her to where she is today. She made no effort to hide her time dancing from the public; rather, she made a point to stress its narrative. Cardi B’s role in rap’s zeitgeist is one of autonomy, liberation and freedom; she isn’t peddling some caricature to us, she’s living her life as she always has — a self-made, hustling, honest individual who takes no shit and finds pride in her resilience.
Cardi B’s popularity isn’t telling of where popular culture is heading. It’s an exception to our current rules rather than the forging of a new norm. For that reason, some find little faith in her staying power. But who besides Cardi B is formidable enough to take such skeptics on? She’s a threat to the status quo, and fans have been eating it up — with their appetite rarely seeming to subside. Her major label debut single, “Bodak Yellow,” has racked up over 300 million views on YouTube. She’s received recognition and blessings from some of hip hop’s most notable female rappers. She’s engaged to a member of one of the most notable rap groups today. In the age in which New York hip hop is bemoaned as dead, she has clubs blasting the sounds of the Bronx at a never-ending rate. Quite the craziest fact of them all, she’s also the first female rapper to have a song reach number one on the US Billboard chart in nearly 20 years. There isn’t anyone else on the scene paralleling her in her efforts, yet she still goes wildly lauded and celebrated. From an unlikely place came not a fad, but an unwavering tour de force.
I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that when Cardi B surfaced, I considered her no more than another run-of-the-mill internet character — someone to laugh with, laugh at and think little else of. But what Cardi B’s rise has taught me is that the music industry’s soul isn’t entirely dead (just yet). Stories like Cardi B’s go beyond the music she makes, the TV shows she stars in and the celebrities she’s involved with. Stories like Cardi B’s renew my sense of optimism for pop culture. I remember when “Bodak Yellow” went number one, our newsroom had the song blaring relatively non-stop, both on the very day and the few weeks following. It was a parade for a musician who found her place in the culture on her own terms and on her own accord. If I had to hazard a guess, my coworkers probably weren’t alone in their celebrations either. It’s best we not underestimate Cardi B. It’s probably best we learn from her, too. Not only has her rise trumped our expectations, she has no plans on leaving her perch either. In her brash, Bronx style, Cardi B says it best: “Lil bitch, you can't fuck with me if you wanted to.”
— Anay Katyal, Managing Arts Editor
Aristophanes, like so many artists today, is a product of the intersection of internet and real-world culture. She began, like so many others, quietly releasing her work on SoundCloud, while still keeping her day job. But, like very few others, her art is evocative while effortless. As her words slip and slur from her mouth, you can feel their weight, even if you don’t understand her sharp Mandarin.
Based in Taipei, Aristophanes has moved from throwing her work to the void of the internet to collaborating with the likes of Grimes and Arcade Fire’s Will Butler. Her layers of glitching sound and slithering, cutting vocals caught Grimes’s attention back in 2015, landing Aristophanes a feature on Art Angels. The song, “Scream,” introduced Aristophanes to American audiences. Her delivery — fast and precise — both compliment and foil Grimes’s shrieking chorus. “Scream” may be Aristophanes’ American entry point, but her international presence has only since grown.
“To me, music itself is a language. It has its own barrier to different people. But a barrier is not always a bad thing that we need to break. My voice and the sounds which occur in my songs could have different meaning to the people who can't understand my language, yet it's still a real experience of music. I am happy to see people making the effort to understand my lyrics, but don't forget: being unable to understand something immediately can be a filter which makes you feel something else.” — Aristophanes via V Magazine
Aristophanes is conscious of our place in time — that language is more proliferated than ever, and that the internet serves as a powerful tool of that proliferation. People have the means to easily translate her words into their native language, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they should; the work may get bogged down with imposed meaning. She wants the connection to her art to be immediate, visceral and connective; not tainted by translators yet still transmitted by technology. There may be barriers of language and culture, but, for Aristophanes, these differences need not be seen as detriments. For her, sound and emotion are a language all their own.
“If you wanna survive, you gotta have the patience for communication, and focus on your own thing without expecting support from others, especially males. You have to know who you truly are, so you can be strong through all the mansplaining, sexism and body shaming,” — Aristophanes told Bullett.
Clearly, she doesn’t mince words. Women may have to develop a different skill set to succeed in music, but that doesn’t mean they can’t succeed (see: every damn person on this list). Aristophanes is aware of this extra strength, extra work she has to put in. Instead of being weighed down by these burdens, she throws them back in the face of those who burden her. Rooting herself in her identities, she controls not only her art, but her narrative.
“I just want to share my point of view with the rap world, generated from all my identities — I’m Asian and Taiwanese; I’m a woman, a literature fan and a cat lover,” Aristophanes told Bullett.
Though her style generally leans toward the aggressive rather than the understated, Aristophanes doesn’t want to be painted as any one thing. Music is just one part of her. And that one part, of course, does not function on its own. Rather, it is a product of her other identities. She makes music from the amalgamation of all these churning, active traits. Her art, in the form she presents it to us, is about how it makes you — and all your parts — think and feel.
— Carly Snider, Senior Arts Editor
When Destiny Nicole Frasqueri, better known up and down the streets of New York as Princess Nokia, speaks into the mic during Smart Girl Club, a podcast spearheaded by Nokia in 2013, her voice is warm. Welcoming all, it crackles throughout soundcloud, inviting you to rest in front of the hearth of her wisdom.
When Princess Nokia raps into the mic during a live performance, announcing her presence on stage with a defiant war cry, her voice takes no prisoners. Doused in red light, she is the Carrie that Stephen King wished he thought of, ready to wreak havoc on all those who have crossed her.
It’s a marked contrast, yet you cannot consider the hard-edged musician who flings water at her audience without also recognizing the modest artist who creates DIY podcasts in her bedroom. Nokia does not solely exist under the confines of one label. She is multidimensional. At all times a tomboy, a model, a bruja, a feminist, a compelling queer woman of Afro-Indigenous descent — Princess Nokia is a collective of the different facets of Frasqueri herself.
She is what Frasqueri was building up to ever since 2010, when she first started experimenting with music. Under the name Wavy Spice, she released “Bitch I’m Posh” and “YAYA,” gaining almost instant attention. “YAYA” especially was riveting; titled with the Taino word for Great Spirit, it’s two-minute holistic haze of deep vocals and shifting synths celebrates Frasqueri’s indigenous roots. Record labels couldn’t get enough, persistently asking her to sign with them.
Frasqueri was unimpressed.
For her, record labels came with expectations to fit a certain role and to make music that appealed to a predetermined demographic. Instead, Frasqueri took her artistic control and ran with it, independently releasing the futuristic dreamland of Metallic Butterfly in 2014 which was promptly followed by the smooth, soul-filled suave of Honeysuckle in 2015. Frasqueri jumped from one sound to another, mixing genres and placing no restrictions on her music.
From this, there came growth. From this, there came a strong sense of identity: power in the pride of remaining completely honest, confidence in individuality.
From this, there came Princess Nokia.
Nokia’s short documentary, “Destiny,” ends with a clip from one of Nokia’s live performances. Commanding attention, Nokia faces the crowd and speaks into the mic, “A lot of people used to ask me, ‘why don’t you rap?’ or ‘why don’t you continue rapping?’ and I wasn’t ready… I’m ready now.”
In 2017, Princess Nokia dropped 1992 Deluxe. Inspired by ’90s hip hop, the album is a blueprint of New York. Each track is a different piece of the city: A series of postcards sent from local bodegas and the Green Line transit. The scrapbook that Nokia constructs is candid, unapologetic and comprehensive. As seen in the music video for “Tomboy,” camera drifting from neighborhood basketball courts to homey apartments, or as she raps about respecting the unique qualities of hair in “Mine,” from Dominican girls rocking weaves to African girls spending hours on their braids to Asian girls who “make their hair go straight as shit,” 1992 Deluxe is a celebration of New York’s diversity.
Saggy denim pants and trips to Forbidden Planet — these are grimy snapshots from Nokia’s city; chapters of her life scavenged from the cracks of the streets running from the Lower East Side to Spanish Harlem to the Bronx. A narrative that has always been, since the first release of “YAYA,” rooted in community.
In “Brujas,” Nokia honors her community of witches. Beginning with her grandmothers, she traces the path of her lineage back to the African diaspora and consequent movement to the Caribbean. Unrepentant, she reclaims her ancestry: “I’m that Black a-rican bruja straight out from the Yoruba / And my people come from Africa diaspora, Cuba.”
In “Flava,” Nokia honors her sisterhood: the girls who, like Nokia, occupy the trenches of intersectionality. The first half of the music video displays the experiences of a largely underrepresented community. No other sound but the hum of Nokia’s spoken word flows over simple shots of women of color as they talk, dance, laugh and clean. The intimacy of the clip is swaddled in reverence, as is Nokia’s voice as she states, “everything about you is magnificent. But you don’t even know it yet, so let me tell you: it’s in your edges, the texture of your hair. When you walk down the street: your stretch marks...” A serene moment in the otherwise overwhelming urban sprawl.
Princess Nokia’s vocal and unashamed awe of the melting pot of people who surround her is the most prominent aspect of 1992 Deluxe and a reflection of Frasqueri’s own conscientiousness.
Although heavily dominated by expectations as a woman and as an artist (and especially as a female rapper), Destiny Frasqueri never loses sight of everything that Princess Nokia represents, both for herself and for others. Within every detail, she constantly strives to live by what she preaches in her music. The lessons of self-love, self-respect and self-assurance are not bound by one form of expression: The tranquility of Smart Girl Club exists simultaneously next to the anger of thrown soup at a drunk racist on the train.
And yes I threw hot soup in this mans face and kicked him off off the train , and kicked in the face.
Any other racists wanna try us again? https://t.co/T6BpDMENIj
— Princess Nokia (@princessnokia) October 11, 2017
Her name is Ms. Destiny, and you can find her center stage, standing tall as she tells all the girls in the crowd that their place is never in the back. Come to the front, she says, and join Princess Nokia in the spotlight.
— Shima Sadaghiyani, Daily Arts Writer
Ask me about the history of women in punk and rock stretching from Patti Smith to Bikini Kill, and their more modern followers from Cherry Glazerr to Chastity Belt and you’ll get tired of what I have to say.
Punk, rock and most of their transfusions have become genres that flow in the crevices of my brain. They have an igniting capability, a spark for change in the exact medium I want to feel it in, and female-fronted bands in these fields make them all the more liberating.
Maybe it’s the way they strain their voices when they sing about traumas, or the way they allow their aggravation to scream fear into the faces of the world. Maybe it’s the encouragement to do whatever you want, to dress however you want, to fuck whoever you want, to be who you want and to bring “Girls to the Front,” because that’s where we deserve to be.
Until recently, I only dove into these emotions with the genres that I’ve grown comfortable with, but on the other end of music a powerful force has been changing the industry swiftly: women in rap and hip hop.
For a stretch of time these genres were dominated by Black men who exposed the world to a harsher lifestyle from drug wars to broken homes to police brutality, all with gut wrenching honesty and a trademarked ability to “keep it real.”
Then Black women pushed their way under the light and released another perspective. Women like Roxanne Shante, Missy Elliot and the duo of Salt ‘n’ Pepa came into the industry with every intention to keep it real. With songs like “Tramp” and “Brother’s Ain’t Shit” these rappers began to put men in their place. They decided that the time to be quiet and modest was over. It was time to tell the world the truth about what it was like to be a Black woman, to be proud of who you are and to say whatever you wanted. They embraced the same ideologies that thread through punk and they influenced other women to do the same.
In modern rap, the unapologetic Angel Haze perfects the translation of this angry energy into their music. Haze is a Detroit native whose music grips listeners with harsh honesty and a refusal to hold back. Haze raps about life including their personal secrets, those that are very real, but those that people tend to ignore. Haze tackles what it’s like to be Black, pansexual and agender (Haze told Buzzfeed that their preferable pronouns are they and them, which I will use in this article) in a world where each of those identities are suppressed and misrepresented.
They rap about sexual abuse they faced and the result. They display this new identity in their music moving listeners through an emotional experience including both the plummets of weakness and peaks of strength.
One of Haze’s most vivid songs, a track that adopts the title from the Eminem single, “Cleaning Out My Closet,” is a detailed exploration about the sexual abuse they endured between the ages of seven and ten. The lyrical content forces the listener to hear their story, even if they don’t want to. The listening experience becomes almost unbearable because of the song’s remorseless honesty complete with intense descriptions of what it was like to be raped.
But, Haze is not singing about their hardships to gain attention from people, they’re singing about them to raise awareness for marginalized groups and their place in the world. Their lyrics also act as words of vengeance, a “fuck you,” to all of their oppressors. They strive to let the world know that they made it through the worst, and now they’re living their best.
The song, “Impossible,” off the 2015’s Back to the Woods is the epitome of their anger and attack on the people that tried to tear them down. They spit “I got my middle finger up to white America / But tryin' to whitewash my blackness / Fuck you, you could never break me … Bitch, I’m made from the flowers / I just rose from the thorns.” They show the world that they will fight for their rightful place and they will tear down anyone who stands in their way. They curate a new feeling of freedom worth fighting for.
Haze’s brutal rapping style has ignited a different flame inside of me. Their leadership in the women of hip hop and rap are becoming a key fight for equality for non-binary gendered people and fluid sexualities. Haze is speaking for the people that have sometimes been forgotten in the larger fight for equality and progress. They are painting the experience of marginalized groups on the back of your hand for you to know and understand, and they do not hold back. Angel Haze is bringing women of color and other marginalized people to the front and plans for all of us to stay there.
— Selena Aguilera, Daily Arts Writer
SNOW THA PRODUCT
If someone told me five years ago that in half a decade we’d live in a world where major magazines would habitually print cover stories on female rappers and the American song of the summer would be almost entirely sung in Spanish, I would have been skeptical. If that person told me the Spanish language song featured Justin Bieber, I would have been slightly less skeptical, but still not convinced. With this growth in attention toward female rappers and mainstream appreciation of music not sung in English, California-raised Latina rapper Snow Tha Product seems poised for a mainstream breakout.
Throughout her decade-long career, she has released a profuse discography of mixtapes, EPs and albums that has cultivated her a strong, niche fanbase. Following her independently released debut mixtape, Unorthodox, she drew the attention of multiple major record companies and eventually signed to Atlantic Records in 2012. Since then, her music has taken many twists and turns, but never loses sight of her initial vision.
In a 2012 interview with HipHopDX, Snow discusses the importance of maintaining individuality and not getting caught up in trends. She references rap queens Lil Kim and Nicki Minaj as the go-to image people associate with female rappers and asks: “How about looking for somebody that’s different?” She clarifies that she has respect for these rappers, but asserts that artists breaking into the scene should “leave those girls’ lane alone and try something different.”
She released two versions of her Atlantic Records debut mixtape Good Nights & Bad Mornings: The first as a no feature project and the second including collaborations. In the same HipHopDX interview quoted above, she explains this as not wanting to ride big name features to success; she wanted it all on her own merit.
Since she entered the music industry, she hasn’t allowed herself to be molded into any of the usual stereotypes that could be applied to a Latina female rapper. She is first and foremost true to herself and proud of her identity. She has never released a work that didn’t feature at least one track in Spanish and openly advocates for immigration rights. In an essay she penned for PopSugar last year, Snow discusses her experience growing up with Mexican immigrant parents (one legal and one illegal) and the importance immigrants play in American society, concluding with a call for “a better path toward citizenship.” Notably, she appeared on The Hamilton Mixtape track “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done),” lending a half-Spanish, half-English verse that poignantly describes immigrants as “America’s ghost writers.”
She isn’t afraid to speak up when it comes to feminism either. During her recent concert at the Blind Pig, she called out the men from her past who called her “bossy,” noting that “most of the strong men don’t have to bark that loud.” She continued on, saying “it’s just an equality thing — treat women like men.” In a different vein, she endorses women daring to be different and finding their own “lane” in interviews as well as her lyrics (“Cookie Cutter Bitches”). Other songs highlight a subtler flavor of feminism, in which she speaks candidly about her life experiences; she radiates independence, furthering feminist causes by merely leading by example.
Despite being supportive of minority causes, she doesn’t feel pressured to constantly talk about them in her songs. She raps about her personal life (“Nights”) or just random things that bother her (“Fuck Your Phone”) or people that annoy her (“Waste of Time”). She commanded the Blind Pig — a microphone in one hand, a Corona in the other — with unapologetic confidence in who she is. She doesn’t have to further any feminist or Latinx causes in her music; her success given the adversity she’s faced implicitly furthers those causes.
Her latest EP Half Way There…Pt. 1 showcases her versatility, spanning the spectrum of heavily produced spit-fire rap to minimalist R&B. Her hooks are catchy as ever and her flows more refined. Yet her label, Atlantic Records, has yet to allow her to release a full length LP — an injustice she draws attention to on EP opener “No Cut.” She disputes the biases of the music industry, deeming it “fucking bullshit” and once again pointing out its “sex sells” mentality.
Yet, as badass women of varying images and opinions emerge in the popular eye, there is evidence that this mentality is shifting and an unconventional female rap artist like Snow is poised for widespread attention. Snow Tha Product has been creating incredible music for the better part of the decade; it appears the world might finally be ready for it.
— Jessica Zeisloft, Daily Arts Writer
Kamaiyah, a 28 year old rapper from Oakland, California, came to us back in 2016 with her first mixtape A Good Night in the Ghetto, a damn-near perfect testament to big money, big drinking, big drug use and female badassery. Ghetto champions extravagance and excess, the kind that can only be appreciated when you’re coming from little money to tons of it. Because she’s rising from a broken East Oakland home with a fifth in one hand and a baby in the other. She’s right beside Cardi B and Princess Nokia in her bombast, self-assertion and the completely unapologetic nature of her music.
“Remember when I didn’t have shoe strings / Now I pull up hop out watch that coop swing.”
In a mixtape where she’s trying to preach self-confidence, she’s also trying to paint a picture of her East Oakland home. “Fuck It Up” and “How Does It Feel” are simultaneously anthems and ballads in this regard. They’re celebratory, but also kind of sad. Because the hedonism and narcissism Kamaiyah preaches on these tracks coexist beside the poverty and violence that has shaped her. “Out the Bottle” exemplifies this best. It’s a testament to excess — in drinking, in drugs — and while it can be read as an anthem, at the end of the night when the bottle’s empty, what remains are the things she was drinking to forget. Tossing in lines like “My dad was shit back in ’84” next to lines of coke, Kamaiyah brings us back to the streets. But, remember, this is a good day in the ghetto, one when fear falls in line with forgetting.
“He don’t love me he just want me for my artistry / And I can tell so I bone him and bail.”
And while Kamaiyah attempts to capture fun in the midst of fear, her music is also inherently tied to her gender. It’s the specific brand of hip hop female rappers must wear. They have double the duty men in the industry do; in the aggressively heteronormative world of hip hop, they must simultaneously be characteristically male and female. Kamaiyah does both on Ghetto: She raises a toast with a fifth of whiskey on “I’m On” while the skits placed between songs end in everything from gunshots to a girl’s night out. Just as she’s balancing East Oakland and young money, she’s trying to negotiate female sexuality with male aggression. Songs like “Niggas,” “Fuck It Up” and “Break You Down” do exactly this: They place her at the intersections of sexuality and masculinity. And by doing so, they give her power.
I’d like to think that this concession doesn’t have to happen, that femininity doesn’t have to be sacrificed for female hip hop to be successful. But in 2017, Kamaiyah was the only female member of the XXL Freshman Class, alongside the likes of Playboi Carti and Amine. It was the year after her “need no introduction” introduction on Yg’s Stll Brazy and A Good Day in the Ghetto. It was the year after “Love and Hip Hop” star Cardi B’s Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 1 put the Bronx native on the map, and South Side sweetheart Noname released Telefone before starting on a tour with Lauryn Hill. But in 2017, Kamaiyah was the only female rapper in the XXL Freshman Class.
In retrospect, this huge oversight on XXL’s part is absurd. What the hell is Kyle doing in there instead of Cardi? PNB Rock instead of Noname? No one knows. But the thing is, a lack of recognition from a major publication didn’t keep any of these women from reaching success. Inspired and encouraged by each other’s music (Kamaiyah shouts out Cardi in her XXL profile), women started to make moves in the music industry and men took two steps back. In 2017, Tank and the Bangas won NPR’s Tiny Desk with their song “Quick,” a song that unapologetically gives women the gun, and XXXTenacion and Kodak Black faced sexual assault charges. And women like Kamaiyah were waiting to rise from their ashes with a new mixtape (Before I Wake) and more promised to come.
— Natalie Zak, Managing Arts Editor
The thing you need to know about Rico Nasty is that her block list is popping. This is important. It’s extremely important, actually, when thinking about Rico, and not just because it’s fun to watch someone steal wallets and cut people off at whim over upbeat trap production, as she does in her music video for “Block List.”
It’s important because the block list, as funny and topical as it might be, is a de facto place of power for women. Rico knows this, and she uses it as a weapon. So often on the internet, women, and Black women especially, are hassled continuously by men and trolls. We saw this with Leslie Jones, who eventually decided to deactivate from Twitter completely. They can stalk in the comments, hide their intentions behind oddly toned emojis, shame and deride women as stuck up when they don’t respond.
Don’t tell me what to do bitch
— TACOBELLA (@Rico_nastyy) November 28, 2017
There’s an odd expectation of reciprocity across the internet, and that isn’t just limited to just men harassing women. Everyone seems to expect legitimization by the often faceless people around them. It can become a strange feedback loop, as being affirmed online can encourage continued presence; and yet, your presence online, just like in the real world, doesn’t require that people pay attention to you. If you’re constantly barraging someone on Twitter, in the comments section — wherever — there’s no reason your ravings deserve the attention of others. There is a line between dialogue and simple annoyance. And while the more patient among us might write long think pieces about the trolls, the Pepe meme and Joyce Carol Oates, there’s nothing to say such things deserve that kind of patience. So Rico Nasty, a Black woman who’s tired of fuck boys, entitlement and phone calls she doesn’t need to answer, just blocks you. Because fuck you. Because at the end of the day, “bitch that ain’t my problem,” even if she just stole your man, or your wallet. Your man, of course, should have been the one to think about that, not Rico. And if you didn’t want your wallet stolen, you could have just hit someone else with that “Wanna smoke?” text.
This an absolutely liberating sense of blasé for something that frustrates so many. It’s what makes this track the incredible anthem that it is. She’s over discussion, beyond the exhausting nuance. Rico Nasty, instead, is a self-assured woman who knows what she wants, and she doesn’t mind using both brute force and clever scamming to get it. This is the attitude that draws people to rap anthems more generally, which have a penchant for capturing this feeling particularly well — Chief Keef’s “Don’t Like,” Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow,” A$AP Ferg’s “Dump Dump,” Waka Flocka’s “Hard In Da Paint” and Lil Mama’s “Lip Gloss” all come to mind. “Block List,” and much of Rico’s discography, deserves its own spot here. Each of these tracks acts as a kind of manifesto, telling you off with complete and total confidence. When Lil Mama tells you her lip gloss is poppin and makes all the boys stop after school, you don’t question it, because she never does. When A$AP Ferg tells you he fucked your bitch, there’s no time to sit down and talk it over with him. And when Rico tells you “Don't call my phone if you talking that nonsense,” you better listen up.
But despite the ease which Rico seems to deliver — she sounds absolutely carefree on many of her songs, a “happy savage,” as she’s referred to herself — she hasn’t created this music sloppily. Her recent success, gathering millions of views on YouTube with a rapidly increasing fan base, is not random. Rico has simply put in the hours; she has the dedication.
Rico, always interested in music, released a mixtape at just 14, in high school. At the time, she went by “Taco Bella.” But she didn’t really pursue rapping aggressively until after the birth of her son, whom she had at 18, right after her senior year of high school. She cites him as her biggest inspiration, the one who really got her on her feet. She first gained serious, more widespread attention with her low budget videos “Hey Arnold” and “iCarly,” both perfect examples of her infectious personality and the style of music which she calls “sugar trap” (her mixtape Sugar Trap 2 was released just a few weeks ago). “Sugar trap,” while not a perfect label for her broader originality, does begin to get at what sets her apart from the rest. She makes hard, destructive diss tracks, like “Poppin”; but she smiles all the while, having the time of her life while she ruins the haters. Rico has a way of owning the camera, and her facial expression and movements require attention. Noisey called her “The Happiest Rapper Alive,” and it’s hard not to root for that.
In an extraordinarily short amount of time, Rico has captured the attention of the industry and the rap scene at large. The popular TV show “Insecure” featured her song “Poppin,” and her commercial mixtape Tales of Tacobella, which includes “Block List” and other popular singles like “Watch Me” and “Mad At Me,” was well received critically. With her newest mixtape, Sugar Trap 2, she pushes her edges even further: The cover features an anime version of herself, and she has expressed interest in becoming a Japanese icon. It’s talk like this that shows Rico is looking to the stars, beyond the traditional realm of success. Watch for her; learn from her; steal a wallet while you’re at it.
— Matt Gallatin, Daily Music Editor
This past summer, I watched Lizzo light up a packed crowd at El Club in Detroit. Live, she grooves in the confidence she preaches, often tossing the audience quips on self-love between tracks. During “Water Me,” she had the whole crowd screaming, “I am my inspiration.” And just as she inspires herself, Lizzo inspires the best of everyone in her presence. Lizzo’s confidence creates an infectious quality to her music, undeniably satisfying in its honesty and positivity. Her fearlessness is evident in the radiant way she holds herself on stage. She’s an artist who clearly loves what she does as she pops with her music and shines under the stage lights.
Lyrically, her ethos shines through most prominently on “Scuse Me.” She preaches her her own sufficiency, singing, “I don’t need nobody else. / Scuse me while I feel myself.” During the bridge she proclaims, “I don’t need a crown to know that I’m a queen.” And yet this song only scratches the surface of her proverbial lyricism. Her music is as anthemic as the marriage between pop and hip hop can become.
The music video for “Good As Hell” most prominently showcases this anthemic quality. The video chronicles a group of African American women performing a variety of beautifying techniques at a salon and posing in front of each other and the camera wearing massive smiles. It’s a testament to the importance of support of women for each other and for themselves — support that comes in all different shapes and sizes.
Lizzo also has a willingness to expand her work to build up herself and the people around her. In 2016, Lizzo teamed up with indie-pop rocker Sad13 (also part of Speedy Ortiz) to put together a hybrid indie/hip-hop track “Basement Queens” about the power they hold over their own music, forming a dream team of two of music’s most uplifting women. Slower tracks like “My Skin” showcase her social awareness and ability to not only look inward for self-love but also how she exists in the world around her.
If Lizzo has a sonically defining characteristic, it’s her versatility. Her music ranges from pop hits like “Good As Hell” to driving hip-hop cuts like “Ain’t I.” She’s unafraid to sprinkle some R&B and soul into her music, using everything from classic piano to heavier electronic beats for her lyrics to ride on. As an artist, Lizzo refuses to fit a specific niche, opting to write empowering music over a range of genres to cater to any listener. The key to Lizzo’s music is her unifying motif of self-love.
And it’s these qualities that make Lizzo such an important hip-hop artist. Today’s political and social climates are charged with hate, with division and seclusion, and it’s been more important than ever to find art that cuts through the permeating negativity. Luckily, we have artists like Lizzo to help us push through the oppressive atmosphere of the world. Her message is simple yet incredibly important: You can’t love others until you love yourself entirely; love your body; love yourself for all your merits and flaw; and most importantly, “If he don’t love you anymore / just walk your fine ass out the door.”
— Dominic Polsinelli, Daily Arts Writer
It makes sense that Eminem was a big part of Lady Leshurr’s formative rap listening experience. If you’re into Eminem, you’ve probably tried to freestyle at one point, which means you’ve definitely wished you could be in his place during certain moments of 8 Mile.
The difference between Lady Leshurr and anyone else is that she does this whole freestyle thing, well, and — very importantly — completely out of her idol’s shadow. The 28-year-old Brit made a splash by first releasing her Queen’s Speech series in 2015, and many have since taken notice.
It takes one listen to “Queen’s Speech 4” to tell her story. Leshurr begins by “holding it down like a snapchat”; she commands us to dance. The Grime is present here. It’s always out in force for Queen Lesh, aggressively. Most impressively she navigates her way through the snares and hi-hats and string/synth-like arrangement with bars that often seem impossible to improvise. Lesh is always dishing out a proverbial, “who’s got next?”
She oozes confrontation. Each of her “Queen’s Speech” videos — all of which easily reach millions of views on YouTube — are filmed in one extended head-on shot. They’re minimalistic in the aesthetic sense, and overwhelming in the attitudinal sense; the sixth episode of the series (a Halloween edition) features the rapper in a Superwoman suit waltzing through the London Tube with almost half-assed pop-up special effects, graphics like ghosts, Pikachu and Usain Bolt.
Visually she most loudly makes the claim that she will take your culture, your comforting trope, maybe what you love, and reorient it in her own world. Satirize it. Glorify it. Dethrone it.
Queen Lesh makes sure there’s constantly noise. It takes an especially empowering form on Twitter — one day she uses her platform to preach the importance of mental health, and the next she’s posting an anti-racism PSA.
Queen Lesh is part of this hybrid of cool, fusing virally-oriented wisdoms with implicative social awareness.
Most importantly, it seems to boil down to a Black female rapper ensuring (sometimes implicitly) that we — the white male writer documenting her, definitely, and others like him — recognize and allow a platform for those spitting the most powerful forms of badassery. She makes herself heard so those who don’t typically have a voice can carry the noise.
Dear Female rappers all around the world:
YOU ARE AMAZING!!! KEEP OUR CULTURE ALIVE!!
— #OMW 🚗💨 OUT NOW‼️ (@LadyLeshurr) November 3, 2017
Speaking of noise, back to “Queen’s Speech 4.” She allows for the breaks. She plays with cadence and legitimate tensions (“I’ve got a dark skin friend that looks like Rachel Dolezal / And I’ve got a light skin friend that looks like Rachel Dolezal”) and she plays with her encyclopedic knowledge of literally any relevant entity, fitting Bruce Jenner, Rick Ross, Fetty Wap, Queen Latifah, to create a cross-national — references to her Caribbean bloodline and English childhood are included — melting pot of cultural middle finger-ness.
She exits reminding all to “Brush your teeth,” a final chirp that also sums up her place in this game. To her competitors, a condescending plea to be better. To her suitors, a warning to be good enough. To her listeners, a reminder that, next time we’re idealizing a freestyle à la Queen Lesh for ourselves, we can try to hold it down, but to no avail. Royalty isn’t for everyone.
— Joey Schuman, Daily Arts Writer