Last week’s most important music was Invasion of Privacy, the first full-length release from Bronx-born rapper Cardi B. Appearing on Saturday Night Live the day after dropping her clever, confessional album, the unstoppable 25-year-old revealed a long-rumoured pregnancy.
This week, the buzz is about Queens-raised rapper Nicki Minaj, who has been hinting that she also has new music. She just confirmed that she’ll have two new songs on Thursday, one called Barbie Tingz: her love of the curvy doll is so intense that in 2012, she partnered with Mattel to design a “Minajesty” version for charity.
Cardi B. and Ms. Minaj rule the game at a spectacular time for women in rap. North Carolina’s Rapsody had two nominations at the most recent Grammys, while veteran Jean Grae released a brainy sixth album last month. Indie up-and-comers include everyone from mouthy lesbian Young M.A to local Torontonians Sydanie and The Sorority.
This might seem like the moment female emcees have been waiting for, a much deserved ascendance of talented queens. To dub this a moment, though, is to obscure both the long history of women in hip hop and the continued existence of stubborn barriers. While women’s current success is enjoyable, a male-dominated establishment continues to hoard resources and stability.
This point is being underscored as female pieces of rap’s historical puzzle snap into place. In March, Netflix released Roxanne Roxanne, a biopic about 1980s freestyle prodigy Roxanne Shanté. Her life story is full of the same setbacks as those of male legends, such as Nas, who also grew up in New York’s Queensbridge housing projects.
Beyond an absent father and ever-present criminal opportunities, Ms. Shanté contended with social ills more familiar to girls and women. As a young mother she endured domestic violence, which contributed to her disappearance from the scene.
Combatting women’s fragile standing in every industry requires them to hold high-level, behind-the-scenes positions, and rap is no exception. One reason Roxanne Roxanne was made is producer Mimi Valdes, who also drove the telling of another story of long-erased African-American women, Hidden Figures.
Minneapolis rapper Lizzo explores the need to do more than hold the mic on her podcast, Good as Hell. She speaks with female musicians about universal issues including the pay gap and balancing career with family.
One guest was groundbreaker Da Brat, who at the turn of the millennium became the first female emcee to go platinum. During the last Golden Age of women in rap, Da Brat was part of a star-studded lineup that recorded the 1997 song Not Tonight, alongside Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott and Left Eye.
The posse cut is a classic show of strength requiring a crew of at least four, and it was glorious that there were enough successful female emcees to make it happen. But soon after came the Napster-era industry crash, when artists were tossed from shrinking rosters of every genre.
Less entrenched as multipurpose writers, engineers and producers, women were more vulnerable inside panicking labels. The exception to this rule is Missy Elliott, whose ubiquity was hard won. “She had to kick in the door,” said Da Brat, after reminiscing that Missy Elliott hosted a Not Tonight sleepover.
Today, the industry is still run and dominated by men, such as Rick Ross, who has said that he doesn’t sign women because he’d be unable to keep his pants on. Less creepy but still complicit is Drake, whose most recent video, Nice for What, is studded with powerful women, but whose OVO label doesn’t include any women at all. That’s the sickening industry standard: Last year, Pitchfork found that of 15 hip-hop labels, 12 had zero female artists.
As talented tokens, female rappers are endlessly pitted against each other in fake, ridiculous cat fights designed to dilute the strength of their numbers. Roxanne Roxanne shows Ms. Shanté being given money by her supposed rival, Sparky D, after her male manager takes off with her earnings. This is still a problem: Cardi B. and Ms. Minaj have repeatedly denied bad blood between them and yet interviewers keep asking.
Let me suggest a few ways to respond to those tiring questions: For the fans, record a searing posse cut to mark this inspiring moment. For themselves, rap’s current queens should insist on writing credits, producing opportunities and equal partnerships in the labels they make hits for, to ensure their reign leaves a lasting legacy.