Lupe Fiasco, the Chicago-based rapper once heralded as socially conscious hip hop's new best hope —the man who would bridge the gap between the underground and the pop charts, the heir to the throne Kanye West vacated when he decided dressing like a pharaoh was more fun than rapping his AIDS conspiracies — has a controversial single. I wish I could tell you “Bitch Bad” lives up to Fiasco's early promise. I wish it was smart, catchy, well-crafted hip hop that Grandmaster Flash and Chuck D would look at and see younger versions of themselves.
Unfortunately, it's bad. It's really, really bad.
It's bad in the obvious ways that a rap song can be bad. It's bad because the beat is turgid, the chorus has all the grit of a strawberry milkshake, and the rhymes sounds like they were culled from a rhyming dictionary and then strung together by someone who had heard rap described once but had never actually heard it. But plenty of rap songs are bad in these ways.
"Bitch Bad" is bad because it ends up reinforcing the very dynamics of oppression it intends to tear down; it’s an example of a subset of socially conscious rap that takes as its subject how bad mainstream rap is. It paints a picture of a rap scene in which every woman participating is an over-sexualized jezebel who warps the young minds of her fans until they are totally incapable of self-respect. The problem with this song is that, by portraying its principal characters as powerless to the forces of media surrounding them, it objectifies them. It defines them as purely sexual objects, negating any motivations women might have to be involved in hip hop culture that do not have to do with getting laid.
In the first verse, Fiasco describes a young boy riding in the car with his Mom. A rap song comes out of the radio, and his mother begins to sing along, singing "Niggas, I'm a bad bitch, and I'm that bitch / Something that's far above average." Fiasco goes on to inform us that the song in question might also rhyme "average" with "cabbage and savage and baby carriage," because that's apparently a thing that happens. The verse ends with some of Fiasco's most tortured rapping, as he drawls:
First he's relating the word bitch to his momma, comma,
And because she's relating to herself, his most important source of help,
And mental health he may skew respect for dishonor
In case you were lost in the Tillich-like inscrutability of those three lines, I think what he's basically saying is this: Because this woman is referring to herself as a bitch, even though it is clear from the context of Fiasco’s imagined song that she means this as an honorific term, her son will not be able to respect her, and by bizarre Freudian syllogism, other women … I think.
The second verse continues the basic argument of the first, that mass media exerts such a powerful influence that any other factor is powerless to stop it. In this verse, a group of "little girls 9 through 12" watch rap videos on the internet. They watch the video, identify with the "video girl acquiescent to his (the rapper's) whims" and are taught "what makes a bad bitch." The fact that in the video for "Bitch Bad" the video girl in question is fairly obviously modeled after Nicki Minaj, one of rap's most promising female MCs, is problematic, but worse is the assertion that these girls are "young, so they're malleable and probably unmentored." The assertion that most young people are totally without positive male role models is of course patently ridiculous, but it's an assertion Fiasco needs to make if he is going to reach his thrilling third verse conclusion.
Verse three is truly tragic in the original Aristotelean sense: Suddenly, everything in the lives of the young girls from verse two, now all growed up, comes crashing down around her. The guy from verse one, in Fiasco's words "don't wanna fuck her." Because of, you see, rap music. "Nobody stepped in to slow 'em up," and now the messages of hip hop have turned them into over-sexed automatons. The girl in question self-identifies as a "bitch" as a way to assert her sexuality and independence, and the boy hears this self-identification and assumes she doesn't respect herself. Lupe puts on his most professorial flow to explain, "He caught in a reality, she caught in an illusion." And here's where the song turns from normal bad to really, problematically bad. Fiasco sides with the guy. The problem, for Fiasco, is not that men cannot respect women who are proud of their sexuality, women who display their bodies as if they were not ashamed of them. In fact, Fiasco claims that these women, even though they are reclaiming "bitch" as a term of self-assertion, are actually "all out to impress" when they dress like a "hot mess."
So for Lupe Fiasco, the problem with the depictions of sexuality in hip hop isn't that they participate in rape culture, it's not that they objectify women, it's no that female rappers have to be truly amazing to get air time while Soulja Boys is on his sixth album. It's that the women in hip hop dress in a way that makes nice boys not want to fuck them.
The idea that the messages in hip hop are a powerful social force is undeniable. But when Lupe Fiasco writes a song that makes only the most cursory attempt to explain the motives behind why women and girls are attracted to hip hop culture and then condemns this attraction by saying that it makes guys not want to sleep with them, he perpetuates the very systems he would, I assume, wish to dismantle. He defines female sexuality not in terms of female desire, but in terms of the satisfaction of male desire. The girl in the third verse is "caught in an illusion." You can tell because she can't get the boy, which is obviously the point of life.
Clearly, much of mainstream hip hop is sexist, and horribly so. But I would like to lay out another scenario than the one we see in Fiasco's song.
Let's go back to the girl watching videos. Let's say she sees a depiction of men as powerful and of women as sexual objects. Maybe she already has grown uncomfortable with the very few versions of femininity offered by mass culture. She realizes that she is not, nor wants to be, the girl dancing in the video for the pleasure of whatever rapper is rhyming “cabbage” with “average.” She decides she would rather be a rapper. She would rather control the production of her own image. She incorporates the sense of swagger she sees in rap. She incorporates the sexual assertiveness that has long been a staple of male rap performance. She writes songs from her point of view that describe female sexuality as a desire coming from within, not from rap videos. In doing so, she creates a counter narrative to the idea that hip hop culture offers nothing to it's female fans.
This narrative is not fictional. It's the narrative of Lauryn Hill. It's the narrative of Nicki Minaj. It's the narrative Missy Elliot, Lady Sovereign, and, most recently, Azealia Banks. It's a narrative that is changing, slowly, the face of rap, creating a space for talented MCs regardless of gender to express sexual desire in a way that is subjective and personal, sometimes fun and sometimes brutally hard but always individual, always their own. Women in hip hop are not just the girls in the video. They are smart and talented and not going anywhere. And they don't need Lupe Fiasco to tell their stories for them.