Let’s call it the Nicki Minaj effect. After a forceful coming of female emcees in the mid- to late ‘90s (Lauryn Hill, Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Eve, Rah Digga), the ladies who rap almost entirely vanished from the front line of mainstream Hip Hop for a spectrum of justifications: incarceration, label woes, general discomfort in being under the public microscope.
The Return Of The Rap Star Woman
Reestablishing that female voice in mainstream Hip Hop hasn’t been a smooth reclaim. For one, women who rap face different expectations than men. They’re subjected to a certain mold, using sexuality as an attention grabber. The precedence set before them may have seemed and been liberating at first, but it’s in fact made it harder for those who came later. Superficial beauty coupled with a sharp pencil isn’t nearly as effective as initially thought. Wide scale audiences have already seen sex used as a weapon. It’s become a tried, transparent trend that’s been manufactured and replicated across genre lines to a numbing point.
Which is why Nicki Minaj is a curious case. At the onset of her career, she had it all - the body, the lyrics, the co-sign - but she instead predicated her image on eccentricities: alter egos, accents, rhymes about being an alien. It’s that embrace of the bizarre that made her such a captivating figure and pushed her into pop territory, where weird is welcome. Regardless of how her music has evolved, she came from a place that took a tired template and mutated it, taking chances rarely seen across the gender divide.
Her effect on mainstream culture has rippled through the Hip Hop community. While some refer her ascent to the top of pop’s ranks as “bullshit,” it’s cracked the back door open, and even inspired the demand, for a stronger female voice in mainstream Hip Hop. Vastly talented emcees such as Jean Grae, Bahamadia and Invincible have stayed active and earned their respect over time, but since the start of 2012, a crop of newbs including Azealia Banks, Kitty Pryde and Iggy Azalea have pilfered pages from the Minaj handbook and used otherness as a catalyst to accrue mainstream attention.
Banks has hugged her strange tightly. Once a hopeful emcee signed to XL Recordings, the Harlem, New York native contemplated quitting Hip Hop before unleashing the Rap kraken with “212,” a mammoth dance record that smacked listeners square across the melon. Over a Lazy Jay-helmed beat, the 21-year-old declares alliterative warfare, sarcastically capping verses with perpetually satisfying punchlines (“I’ma ruin you cunt” and “I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten” quickly became colloquial staples).
It’s what came after that shows just how far Minaj’s effect has reached. At the end of May, Banks dropped her debut EP 1991, a concise four-track collective of house-kissed fare with a Hip Hop core. It’s Rap that’s particular to her persona, pulling musical inspiration from acts popular during her adolescence (Dee-Lite, CeCe Peniston) and cutting it with dexterous rhymes that mirror Purple Haze-era Cam’ron. And her image is unapologetically sheen. In the video for “Liquorice,” she hits the desert in a cowgirl getup, brandishing a bat. She seductively slurps an ice pop. It’s dangerous, and satisfyingly sexy.
But then she drops “Nathan,” a knocking wig-pushback with the gruff Styles P, from her upcoming Fantasea mixtape. It’s the type of stuff meant to vibrate window frames as cars roll down the block, blasting at volume 10. Banks is an artist who can casually traipse the divide between stylized and street - a Minaj cornerstone that made “Roman’s Revenge” stand tall next to “Your Love.” She’s taking that chance by being other; her talent is shaking hands with her identity. And it’s hard to discern which inspires the other.
While Banks has translated her Internet fandemonium offline, Kitty Pryde, a rapper from Miami, Florida, continues to tickle the blogosphere with her giggly sweet-talk. After piquing Rap sites and beyond with her breakout tracks “Justin Bieber” and “okay cupid,” the ginger spitter released her haha… i’m sorry EP last month to moderate fanfare. It’s refreshing and lyrically assembled, introducing her as a disciple of Lil B’s free-associative leanings combined with the tee-hee remove of tween bop. There’s the drawling, doe-eyed affectation of the Sela-helmed “ay shawty: THE SHREKONING”; the acid-spiked “give me scabies”; the funhouse bounce of “orion’s belt” featuring Riff Raff; the “YouTubeable”-coining “smiledog.jpg”; and, of course, the inaugural “okay cupid.”
Pryde is the type of rapper whose rhymes are birthed from naiveté, but her songs suggest potential: her well-crafted couplets about swigging Bud Light Limes and e-romance are delightful and, at face value, unexpectedly strong. Though she’s intentionally mum about her age, Pryde, who refers to herself as the “Rap game Taylor Swift,” reps for the Facebook generation. She’s the type of rapper who lensed the music video for “okay cupid” in her bedroom not because she wanted to cast an adorable digital spell, but because she probably just spends a lot of time there. It feels genuine to her person, and that honesty has made her a candidate.
Then there’s Iggy Azalea, who was casually inducted into a top Hip Hop social strata after T.I. signed her to his Grand Hustle imprint. The saucy Aussie mounted considerable buzz with viral anthems “My World” and “Pu$$y” (where she casually boasts that her junk is “the illest on the planet”). She raps like a straight-up thug, a style offset by razor-cute looks. The combination is contradictory but satisfying, and has become her signature. She’s that emcee who inked a modeling contract with a top agency long before her debut album The New Classic, which will be executive produced by T.I., releases. It’s high fashion rap with black hoodie tint.
How Nicki Minaj & Her Success Has Inspired Comebacks
Even beyond the latest crop of female rappers, it’s no coincidence that 2012 promises a resurgence of those from years past. Earlier this week, Eve gave an interview to Time.com where she explained how label woes prevented her from swimming with the mainstream current. She’s hoping for a fall release of her oft-delayed album Lip Lock, which will mark her first studio LP since 2002’s Eve-Olution. Missy Elliott is back, too. After years of promising Block Party, the veteran emcee has been dipping her toes back into the pool, stealing the spotlight on M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” remix alongside Banks and Rye Rye and debuting new material at Hennessy’s Wild Rabbit launch. Lauryn Hill has been going strong on the touring circuit, as has Lil’ Kim, who broke bread with Elliott and Eve during a New York City, New York stop on her “Return of the Queen” tour. And Lady of Rage is still kicking up dust.
Some have accused Minaj of jumping the shark by outright pandering to pop tastes - a back-turn on those who put her on their shoulders - but it’s in effect blurring a gender divide that’s long plagued Hip Hop. If a man can doit, then so can a woman - and what if she can do it better? Even in 2012, isolating gender from Hip Hop is an impossibility, particularly in critical discourse. Some female rappers have outright acknowledged this. There’s this line, for example, that’s looped in my mind for years. During a freestyle alongside her former partner-in-rhyme Fat Joe, the currently incarcerated Remy Ma growls, “Shit, I spit, as if I had a dick.” The gender politics at play in that one line are expansive, but there’s realism to her aside. The game is perpetually washed in testosterone: for every female rapper who cracks even the middle ranks, there are dozens of male emcees claiming mimetic success. Women are expected to be one of the boys in order to attain that same level of notoriety, or have a stamp of approval from one of Hip Hop’s elite to get there. It's a backwards system that's getting reversed.
So far this year, that injustice has been diminished. Female rappers including Lola Monroe, Nina B and Paris are finding their footing in one of music’s most misogynistic genres, and they’re doing it without having to chance their credibility. Minaj may be in a position of power among the Hip Hop elite, and there's no need to dole all of the credit for steamrolling. But some? Certainly.
Steven J. Horowitz is HipHopDX's News Editor. He has written for VIBE, RollingStone.com, Billboard and is Associate Editor for YRB Magazine. He is a New Jersey native and lives in New York City. Follow him on Twitter at @speriod.
RELATED: (Halftime 2012) Cyber Thugs: How Twitter Became Hip Hop's New Source Awards, DIY Hip Hop - 7 Hip Hop Crews Reinventing The Industry Wheel In 2012, Punked: Why Dissing Drake Is Trendy (And Sometimes Justified) In 2012, Sneak Preview: The Music Industry's Embrace Of Free Streaming Albums