This is a man’s world and hip hop is typically regarded as a young man’s game. Since hip hop’s start in the 1970s as an underground genre in the Bronx, it has become one of the most popular genres. Over the years the genre has evolved, but in the 2010s especially, music listeners have witnessed a change in history — the reemergence of women in the rap game — and they have not come to play, but to win.
With the recent rise of Nicki Minaj and Cardi B, it may be hard to remember a time when women did not own the spotlight, but for much of the 2000s women rappers had difficulty reaching stardom.
In 2003 Missy Elliot won the first ever Grammy for Best Female Rap Solo Performance. Then, just two years later, the category was dropped. For the rest of the 2000s there was radio silence. Literally. It was like hide-and-seek for new female rappers — but no one was looking. Suddenly, there were no women rappers receiving commercial success.
The ‘90s were the biggest years in history for women in rap, and the golden era of hip hop at large. However, women rapper’s first breakthrough into the mainstream was in 1984 — at just 14 years old, a girl by the name of Roxanne Shanté was the first female to have her raps broadcasted on the radio.
Then came Salt-N-Pepa, Lil’ Kim, Trina, MC Lyte, Missy Elliott, Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill and Foxy Brown — just for starters. Each woman is an icon for their ability to define what it meant to be a female MC in the early years of hip hop. Between the battle against their male counterparts and the music industry archetypes were formed. One could be hypersexual or spiritual. One could be submissive or dominant. These boxes helped and hindered their careers, yet each were able to still make their personalities shine through their verses in the 1990s.
Now, after a decade of albums, singles and streams, emerged a new era with a brand new cast of women rappers. Not only was the idea of a female MC resurrected, it was redefined. In the 2010s women proved to the world that they can rap about anything they want, and people were finally listening. Here are some of the women who reshaped, reworked and reinvented the archetype of female rappers in the past ten years.
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Although Nokia began rapping near the start of the decade, her presence became known when her album 1992 was picked up and revamped by Rough Trades Records and released in 2017 as 1992 Deluxe.
Hypersexualization is an archetype of the female rapper, and misogyny is a trend in hip hop, so to hear Nokia proudly rap bars about her small breasts and fat belly in her song “Tomboy” was not only new, but fresh for listeners’ ears.
When she raps, “Missy Elliott, can’t stand the rain,” on the same song, she references Elliott’s 1997 song “The Rain.” In Elliott’s music video, she’s wearing the equivalent of black plastic garbage bags over her body. Nokia, like Elliott, is the new rapper to challenge the typical beauty standards for female rappers. She is not rapping just about her body or taking other women’s men. Instead, 1992 Deluxe is about her own journey growing up in the Bronx, her heritage, goth culture and more. This album nearly perfectly sums up the wealth of culture in New York. “Mine,” which we find halfway through this album, was recently brought back into the news when Nokia accused Ariana Grande of ripping off her bridge in Grande’s song “7 Rings.”
Each of Nokia’s albums represents a different aspect of her personality. Her 2018 EP A Girl Cried Red bleeds out emo and goth culture with a trap style production. In 2018 she reissused her 2014 Metallic Butterfly album which unfortunately did not sell as well as her last few works. However, this year she released two new powerful singles. In “Balenciaga” she returns back to her theme of fashion and not looking like the typical female rapper. She takes pride in thrift shopping, wearing “Skechers lookin’ like Balenciaga.”
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Nasty is another artist that uses punk influences in her rap, though she does wear Balenciaga. Although she may not reveal as much of her personality as Nokia does, she brings a powerhouse of a presence which is more than enough for people to remember her. Two of her first albums, 2017’s Tales of Tacobella and Sugar Trap 2, are more autotuned sonically and do reveal more about who she is as a person. However, her 2018 album Nasty blew up and proved just in fact why she is “Nasty.” She teams up with Kenny Beats to create undeniable beats with unapologetic raps about being a bad “bitch.” Nasty talks about fame, money and, most importantly, being angry. Nasty’s most influential piece that she brings to the rap game is taking ownership of being an angry black woman. The “angry black woman” is a stereotype that has unfortunately been prevalent in American history, with its roots dating back to the Jim Crow Era, but Nasty takes this and uses it as her absolute superpower and owns her anger. “I just wanted people to feel like Stage One on some like Dragon Ball Z Goku s—t,” Nasty told Stereogum when asked about her music. Many of her songs fiercely combine rock and trap. On her song “Bitch I’m Nasty” she screams and raps to herself, “Rico, calm down. Bitch I’m charged up!” On “Rage” she threatens anyone who talks about her, “Keep my name out your f—king mouth. Before you find out what we about,” a song made for a mosh pit.
Nasty is relatable for all women because anger is something that is often suppressed in most women. Her raps amplify this voice and come with power because of that. In fact, her most recent album is called Anger Management, where she is the one in control of her own anger.
Without a closer look, it is easy to pass up Rico Nasty’s sprinkled inspirational lines that pair perfectly with using anger as a tool for growth. On “Smack A Bitch,” her most popular single, she raps, “Always move in silence never question your fate.” Although the entire song is a diss track to haters, it really is an anthem to trust the process of becoming oneself. Confidence is one of the predominant archetypes in rap, especially for women MCs who have been off the radar for so long, but Nasty brings a new approach. The album’s theme as a whole is not just about stealing someone’s man and having the best body, but also genuinely loving your own work and personality. She loves the grind. She also loves to brag about how she “makes more money than your father.”
Her most recent influence in the rap game is actually on social media. Platforms such as Instagram are often places for female rappers to show off their new clothes and beautiful bodies. On Saturday, December 14, she posted over a handful of memes, causing fans to ask in the comments if she had been hacked. She addressed them in the caption of one of her latest photos saying, “No more rules.” She is part of XXL’s Freshman class of 2019, a tradition the magazine has done since 2007 to highlight “some of hip-hop’s most dynamic and iconic artists.”
Megan Thee Stallion
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Hottiesss I made the COVER OF @i_d MAGAZINE!!!!! on-stands next Monday!!! [The Get Up Stand Up Issue, no. 358, Winter 2019.] Online now in my bio ! This is one of my favorite interviews with @jeremyoharris Introduction @frankie__dunn Photography @ethanjamesgreen Fashion Director @mr_carlos_nazario Editor-in-Chief @alastairmckimm Creative Director @lauragenninger Hair @jawaraw at @artpartner Make-up #kanakotakase at @streetersagency using @addictionbeauty_official. Nail technician @nailglam at @statementartists using @youngnailsinc. Casting director @samuel_ellis
Although many of the women rappers who emerged in the 2010s have absolutely changed the game, Megan Thee Stallion brought back, owned, and surpassed what it means to be a woman rapper. She embodies everything that has been missing since Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown and Trina. Her name comes from the southern term “stallion,” a tall woman who has long legs and a fit body. Her main inspiration is Pimp C and his persona, Tony Snow. Not only was she part of XXL’s freshman class of 2019 with Rico Nasty, but she is also currently a junior at Texas Southern University studying health administration. Her mom Holly-Wood was also a rapper and became Thee Stallion’s manager until she unfortunately passed away earlier this year.
Megan Thee Stallion was the first female rapper to be signed to the label 300 Entertainment, and she is now managed by Jay-Z’s company Roc Nation. This year she has stacked up a handful of awards including BET’s Hip Hop Awards for Best Mixtape and Best Hot Ticket Performer and MTV’s Video Music Award for Best Power Anthem for “Hot Girl Summer.” She was also listed as one of the Forbes 2020 30 under 30.
Thee Stallion is raw, sexual and unapologetic about loving herself. She has brought back what the charts have not seen from a female MC since the 1990s and redefines it with her own southern sound. Although she is hypersexual like the other classic MCs, she takes it into her own hands. Not only is she rapping about her body but also how she is in control of the men around her. “I am the captain and he’s the lieutenant,” she raps in her break out radio hit “Big Ole Freak.” This past summer she announced that she was going to trademark her phrase, “hot girl summer.” “Being a Hot Girl is about being unapologetically YOU, having fun, being confident, living YOUR truth, being the life of the party etc,” she tweeted. Her song “Hot Girl Summer” featuring Nicki Minaj is her first number one hit on the Billboard Rhythmic Songs chart.
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The third and final female rapper and songwriter off of the XXL’s Freshman Class of 2019 is Whack. She is one of the most unique rappers to emerge in the 2010s and breaks the rules of the genre. Her album Whack World is filled to the brim with witty songs that are each unconventionally under a minute or so in length. Unlike any other rapper in the game right now she has projected into the mainstream using a cartoon-like feel to her songs, which makes sense, considering her inspirations stretch from MAD TV to Dr. Seuss and Sesame Street. Even with cute titles reminiscent of childhood like “Bugs Life” and “Hungry Hippo,” her quick fifteen minute album covers heart breaks and breaking hearts, her absent father and even the death of her dog.
She sounds like a kid that one would call an old soul – coping with the realities of life through sharp humor that truly can catch the audience by surprise. She does not even drink or smoke – a common theme in rap lyrics. Whack is able to capture the audience’s inner child and touch them, telling them we all need to be healed and that really, it will be ok. At one time in her life she was homeless, and worked at a carwash in order to be able to save up for a MacBook to start recording her music.
The Fader calls her “the poster child of a kind of post-clout-era artist.” She is not trying to make a radio hit yet still everyone noticed her. She was Billboard’s artist of the year, her music video for her single “Mumbo Jumbo” received a Grammy nomination, and she also made the Forbes 2020 30 under 30 list.
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“I try to exist without binding myself to labels. For me, not having a name expands my creativity. I’m able to do anything,” she told Fader. Noname is an independent rapper, singer, and songwriter who first appeared on Chance the Rapper’s mixtape, Acid Rap.
Noname is a standalone rapper in the game because she does not fit in to any of the old archetypes originally made for female rappers. Her lyrics are beautifully poetic and tell stories about Chicago that no one else is telling. These are not radio hits with repetitive chorus but unique poems that give us a window into her thoughts.
What really makes Noname different from any other woman rapper right now is her ability to talk about deep, harsh, personal and cultural realities with such a warm tone and welcoming sound. Unlike the other rappers mentioned, she is backed by a full band that plays jazzy and neo-soul instrumentals – pairing perfectly with her smooth voice. On her first mixtape Telefone she discusses issues from abortion to the pain Black women feel growing up in Chicago. Yet she makes it a point to show the beauty of being Black and that the Black community is not defined by oppression. Although her most recent album Room 25 is thematically about love, it is laced with politics – which can be highlighted in her song “Blaxploitation.” On “Prayer song,” she sings about the hypocrisy of the American dream – its not available for Black people. Her delivery is effortless and natural, proving that there is power in kindness.
Noname also breaks the hypersexual stereotype by barely ever talking about sex explicity. Her outfits can remind the crowd of a friend they may know. In her song “Montego Bae” she even makes fun of herself when she finally raps about sex and says, “and yes I’m problematic too.”
Competition between female rappers is another archetype that Noname breaks – whether it be her features or her own album she raps in a humble manner. A Complex article points out the industry often pits women rappers against one another, unlike their male counterparts that more often than not coexist. Dissing other females in songs is a pattern in most commercialized woman rap songs that is absent in Noname’s.
The most recent breakthrough for Noname was her Twitter thread, that she has since deleted, stating that she may quit music because she is tired of performing for a mainly white audience. “whats funny is most Black artists are just as uncomfortable performing for majority white crowds but would never publicly say that out of fear and allegiance to (money emoji).” In another tweet she wrote that she is, “creating content that is primarily consumed by a white audience who would rather s—t on me than challenge their liberalism because how liking Lizzos music absolves them of racist tendencies.” Her comments highlight an undercurrent of the current trend of hip hop music becoming ever more mainstream — while the audience listens to their words, they may not be doing much about systemic problems deeply rooted in our society that they discuss.
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I connected with @hypebeastmusic in NYC for their latest @hypebeaststyle #StreetSnaps, we team up to talk about finding myself through my latest record, the importance of Aaliyah to my personal artistic growth, and finding the balance in what I wear while on tour. Click the link in the @hypebeastmusic bio for the full interview and let meknow your favorite songs of mine in the comments.⠀ Photo: Eddie Lee/HYPEBEAST
Rapsody might be one of the most overlooked and underappreciated women rappers in this decade. She is not part of the commercial charts because her focus is on lyricism. Rapsody is one of only six females to ever be nominated for the Grammys Best Rap Album, alongside Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott, Eve, Nicki Minaj, Iggy Azalea and Cardi B.
As the second oldest rapper on the list, at 36 years old, she knows how to “continue hip hop’s tradition of bridging a gap between the old and the new.” Just because her music sounds and feels like old hip hop does not mean it is not important. She infused the influence of her parents’ favorite artists into her album Laila’s Wisdom (2017) and even named the album after her grandmother. Busta Rhymes said it was probably the best album he has heard in the past 10 years when it dropped in 2017. Rapsody pulls samples from older artists such as jazz icon Herbie Hancock and songwriter Phil Collins — samples that you would not see many other female rappers this decade use.
Her most recent album Eve is a concept album with each song named after an iconic Black woman. She both metaphorically and literally honors some of their legacies – from Aaliyah to Michelle Obama. She always has been a conscious rapper and takes each song to address a different topic: gender politics, Black power, the murder of Black men, Black women’s bodies, the importance of mothers, self determination and Black love. Rolling Stone calls the album a masterpiece of hip hop feminism and Rapsody a vital artist.
We hear the generations before not just honored, but come alive through her work – perfectly symbolizing her ability to bridge the gap between old and new and keep the influence pulsating through new art. Queen Latifah came back and was featured on her track “Hatshepsut” which symbolizes her ability to keep the icons at the forefront, where it all started.
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Aside from Nicki Minaj, this decade had not yet seen any other female rappers blow up the charts quite like her. That was until Cardi B. Her 2017 single “Bodak Yellow” became the song of the summer, and when she dropped her album Invasion of Privacy in 2018 it went gold within 24 hours. Cardi B has a unique story on how she made it to fame. At the age of 19 she started stripping because her professors at community college told her not to come back to class, and she needed to make money quickly to move out of her boyfriend’s house. Before her breakout single, she already had a huge internet following as a social media persona and as a reality TV star. What people have always liked about her, she said, is her voice, so it is no wonder people love her raps.
She is able to capture the different aspects of the influential women rappers with a juxtaposition of aggression and sensuality. Often times rappers are boxed in – Nasty is known for her rage and Thee Stallion for her hypersexuality. Cardi B has it all. Her intro song “Get Up 10” tells her life story of battling haters and financial issues. “Bickenhead” is an anthem about loving luxury and material goods, “Be Careful” gives us a taste of her relationship problems, and “Best Life” is about personal insecurities. She is shameless, unafraid, unfiltered, raw and does not have to exaggerate because her personality is larger than life. On Instagram you can find videos of her talking directly to her fans making jokes and quite frankly, telling it how it is.
Cardi B was the first female rapper since Lauryn Hill to get a Billboard number one hit by a solo female rapper. Cardi B is the first solo female artist to win a Grammy for Best Rap Album. Rolling Stone called 2017 the year of Cardi B. In 2018 she was one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People. At the time it was Apple’s fifth-most streamed album of all time. So far, no other female rapper has accomplished hitting number one three times on Billboard’s Hot 100 list.
The new wave of women rappers came after Cardi B became a household name. Cardi B’s fame and record success proved to the music industry and listeners alike that women can rap too.
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Even though her career began in the late 2000s releasing mixtapes, it was not until 2010 when she exploded into stardom and became the new face of the female rapper. She cut the radio silence and picked up where women like Missy Elliott and Lil’ Kim left off. This time, though, the female MC became a global phenomena.
At the time she released her breakthrough album, Pink Friday, she had no one else in the game to compare herself to and began to open the door for everyone else to come. Minaj was well aware of what she was doing and early on partnered with brands to sell products such as makeup.
Competitive nature runs in her blood, yet Minaj knows she does not have to play to win. In her first track “I’m The Best” off of Pink Friday she raps, “I hear they coming for me because the top is lonely…I’m the best.” From the start she knew she was number one. Her lyrics are raunchy, offensive and vulgar. Yet she is able to carry these lines with her “Barbie” persona. Her flow is razor sharp and her voice can range from soft and sweet to wild and manic. In some songs she purrs, and others she grunts and screams – most notably in her feature in “Monster” on Kanye West’s 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. She has numerous alter egos, with Barbie being the most predominant, that come with different accents and outfits. Although she touches upon her personal life and can become vulnerable, like on her track “Dear Old Nicki,” an ode to her former self, overall her persona can come off more constructed compared to, for example, Cardi B.
Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” also showed the world that she is a pop star, too. She sings and raps over sweet cotton candy-sounding electronic instruments backed by a tasteful hip hop beat about crushing on a guy – which became the summer of 2010’s theme song.
She made Time’s 100 Most Influential people list in 2016 and within that was named an icon. Minaj has won over 40 BMI awards, six AMA awards and 10 BET awards, and she has 10 Grammy nominations. She was the first woman to sign to Lil Wayne’s record label Young Money. She has the most appearances on the Billboard 100 than any other artist since Aretha Franklin.
Rap and hip hop at large have always been criticized for the hypersexualization of females, but Nicki Minaj was “in charge of her own objectification.”
Across all genres, sexism and misogyny are deeply ingrained within the music industry. To play the game and stay afloat in the industry, 1990s rappers like Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown knew they had to be hypersexual and market themselves in a desirable way. In 2015, Ava DuVernay, an American Film writer, producer, and director tweeted,“To be a woman who loves hip hop at times is to be in love with your abuser.” For women to continue to rap about their bodies and sex could appear hypocritical or selling out. However, it can be argued that it is empowering and brilliant. Women in the 2010s took rap back and used their own voice to talk about themselves. Now more than ever do we have such a wide variety of women rappers that the old archetype of female MCs are becoming diluted and slowly a thing of the past. Women returned back to the top of the charts and plan to remain there. In this decade, they showed us that a female rapper owns her power and uses her voice and autonomy to show the world she is back, this time to stay.
Header Image by Natalie Wade, 14 East