She's in cut-off shorts with her booty hanging out — a crop top with under-boob and heels, and her face is full of dark eye makeup and red lipstick. There are 10 of her, writhing around, touching themselves seductively, pouring champagne and licking their lips. All of them surround one man, and he's spitting rhymes about how little they mean to him as human beings. It's a bad cliche about hip-hop that rings all too true: aggressively misogynist, offensive both visually and lyrically. But in the deep recess of the hip-hop world, something is stirring. And it's the voice of those women.
While in the past, lone rappers like Missy Elliott and Salt-n-Pepa declared war on the way it was, pioneering feminism in hip-hop, now we're beginning to see the entrance of women to the hip-hop scene en masse, and they have a very clear message: It's a woman's game just as much as it is a man's. From Top 40 artists like Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. to lesser-known cult favorites like Jungle Pussy and Brooke Candy, these women are using their songs and music videos to turn deeply entrenched, sexist hip-hop tropes on their heads. Young, brash and ready to take on the status quo, these female rappers are changing everything you thought you know about hip-hop music.
The portrayal of women as gold diggers is a tired mainstay in male-dominated hip-hop. Kanye West's "Gold Digger" is an obvious ode to hip-hop's insistence that women are only concerned with money, and are willing to sacrifice their dignity to take it from men. This also promotes a dangerous stereotype that women are either incapable of — or unmotivated to — work for money. Ultimately, that means a woman is only worth what a man deems her to be.
In her video for "Kilo," Chicago rapper Tink aggressively rejects the gold digger stereotype. Sitting behind a large desk, dressed in a sharp blazer and large gold jewellery, she appears in charge of her business — a position male-driven hip-hop has been unwilling to give a woman, despite the fact that 46.9% of the labor force in the U.S. is made up of women, and many consider women to be better bosses. She raps, "I'm a self-made bitch don't need no fucking hero," spitting about hard work, independence and the entrepreneurial woman as her own breadwinner.
Male-led hip-hop videos generally portray women one way: as sex objects. With harems of semi-naked women writhing around men (who are always batting way above their average), hip-hop traditionally has a very one-dimensional notion of a woman and her role in a man's life. They're ornaments. In hip-hop, the woman exists only for the man's sexual pleasure, and one of the more disturbing examples of this is Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit," in which he raps, "Bitches ain't shit but hoes and tricks / Lick on these nuts and suck the dick / Get's the fuck out after you're done / And I hops in my ride to make a quick run."
In her video for "Lookin Ass N****s," Nicki Minaj blatantly challenges that model. In the middle of a barren landscape, a lone pair of male eyes watches her dance in a provocative dress. She's an idealized beauty, much like we've seen in hip-hop videos before, but Nicki is claiming this sexuality as her own. Minaj is in control — she fires a gun into the distance, rejects male dominance and reclaims her own body all under the gaze of a man's eyes. She raps, "I don't want sex, give a fuck about your ex / I don't even want a text from y'all n****s."
Unfortunately, rap music has a long history of promoting domestic violence, through both the beating and killing of women. In "One Less Bitch," N.W.A. spouts, "The bitch tried to gag me. So, I had to kill her. Yeah, straight hittin' / Now listen up and lemme tell you how I did it / Yo, I tied her to the bed, I was thinking the worst but yo I had to let my n****** fuck her first yeah / Loaded up the 44 yo, then I straight smoked the hoe." In straight male rap, alpha males claim power by enacting violence against women in relationships, as if it were the only way to control one's "belongings."
Old-school underground rapper Jean Grae's "Kill Screen" offers some challenging and thoughtful visuals. Much of the video is shot from the perspective of a woman in a dysfunctional relationship. As she tries to escape a violent man, we see everything from her perspective, until the scene falls black with the sound of a gunshot. The last sound comes from a video game, a chilling reminder of how often this sort of violence is trivialized in pop culture.
It seems a lot of male rappers are self-anointed, glorified pimps. Perhaps a more troubling trope than the idea that women are only good for sex is the slightly less prevalent idea that they should be sold for sex. Even loving husband and father Jay Z considers himself a pimp, as in his song "Big Pimpin'": "I'm a pimp in every sense of the word, bitch / Better trust than believe 'em, in the cut where I keep 'em til I need a nut / Til I need to beat the guts. Then it's, beep beep and I'm pickin 'em up / Let 'em play with the dick in the truck."
Jungle Pussy, on the other hand, is a female rapper who feels just as entitled to be her own pimp. Repurposing imagery usually designed to reduce and control women, her video for "Cream Team" opens with a pair of breasts in close-up, with cream being poured all over them. The rest of the video features a ton of over-the-top sexuality — she's in racy outfits, pouring champagne and rubbing herself with money. But the difference here is that she controls herself, and even the other men in the video. She raps, fearlessly, "Flexin' never fucking, creaming off this pussy muscle hard." Jungle Pussy makes it clear that she's pimping her own self out, making a living off her sexuality (cream is a reference to WuTang's "Cash Rules Everything Around Me"). Because sex work isn't a problem — coercive sex work is.
Rap is no friend of the LGBTQ community, even with the recent popularity of amazing LGBTQ rappers like Le1f and Mykki Blanco. Slurs like "faggot" are commonplace when talking about gay men, and homosexual behaviour between women is only acknowledged as a sex treat for straight men. Rappers like Eminem spit lyrics like "My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge / That'll stab you in the head / Whether you're a fag or lez / Or the homosex, hermaph or a trans-a-vest / Pants or dress — hate fags? / The answer's 'yes'."
Back in the real world, Azealia Banks's "212" was controversial when it was first released for its crass languages and bold references to lesbian/bisexual oral sex, overtly stating, "Now she want to lick my plum in the evening / And fit that tongue to deepen / I guess that cunt getting eaten." The video is just as blatant — shot in black and white, she shows woman-on-woman sex acts as completely free from straight male fetishization.
Hip-hop is one of the worst promoters of rape culture, often omitting the question of a woman's agency when it comes to sex. In "Pop That," Rick Ross came under fire for his lyrics, "Bitches know I'm that n***** / Talking four-door Bugatti, I'm the life of the party / Let's get these hoes on the Molly." Just your average rap about drugging a woman so she'll sleep with you.
Angel Haze bravely took on hip-hop's rape culture with her song "Cleaning Out My Closet." In it, she describes in heartbreaking detail her rape as a child and its consequences in her adult life. The point she is making is clear: There's a horrible reality to what many flippantly consume as entertainment. In the song she says, "Imagine being 7 and seeing cum in your underwear / I know it's nasty but sometimes I bleed from my butt / Disgusting right? Now let that feeling ring through your guts."
Straight male hip-hop also has a way of idealizing what a woman should look like. It's an idea that gets reinforced with almost every rap video, and it sets a completely absurd standard for feminine beauty. Nelly's song "Thicky Thick Girl" dismisses every other part of a woman (personality, intellect, emotion), opening with the line "See you could be a lady or a bitch girl / Still, you're thicky thicky thicky thick / Lookin' like a lolli-pop waitin' for the lick girl," reinforcing the stereotype that the only thing a woman needs in life is her looks.
In her video for "Batches and Cookies," Minnesotan rapper Lizzo rejects the idea of the perfect female body and celebrates her own natural shape. With imagery of "normal" women twerking, partying, joyfully eating donuts and generally having a great time, Lizzo proves that objective beauty standards are ridiculous. These women are all undeniably sexy and self-possessed, even though they don't fit a fantasy body mold.
The double standard for men and women's sex lives permeates most of our collective consciousness. It's held up in stark relief in hip-hop culture. Men are enthusiastically celebrated for the number of women they bed, whereas women are branded "sluts" and "hoes" for being promiscuous. Snoop Dogg, on his track "Ain't No Fun," raps, "Before ya opened up your gap / I had respect for you lady / But now I take it all back," summing up the paradigm perfectly.
Brooke Candy has emerged as a female rapper who shamelessly promotes her own sexuality, and actively works to erode the double standard. Depicting women twerking in scanty outfits, Candy's video for "Das Me" puts men in the subservient role, as she dictates their behavior as part of her posse. Shocking people on the street with her crude dance moves and extravagant style, she raps, "A slut is now a compliment / A sexy-ass female who is running shit and confident." Brooke Candy surrounds herself with male and female dancers the same way a man might, declaring that it's perfectly fine for women to be as openly sexual as they like.