The Future of Rap
As their male counterparts turn depressive and paranoid, it’s the women who are having all the fun.
Like American men in general, our top male rappers appear to be in crisis: overwhelmed, confused, struggling to embody so many contradictory ideals. As a result, the art is suffering, too. If the music were any more existentially morose, or stylistically comatose, mainstream hip-hop made by men might be headed the way of hair metal or disco. The narcotized indolence is everywhere; the recounting of opioid abuse is so blasé (the Percs, Xans and Oxys) that these pillbox litanies leave you wondering if the Sackler family sponsored a wing in the rap museum. And then there’s the sense of foreshortened future that’s baked into the genre but has been amplified as gangsta rap branched off into trap, drill and other grittier subgenres. Many of the male rappers are documenting social strife and commenting on the violence that comes with being young, Black, famous men. This thread can be moving and also heartbreaking. When listening to these songs, it is impossible to not ache for their makers, to be afraid right along with them. But the music bears the weight of all that anxiety and grief. Even the occasional Drake smash is not enough to disturb the disquiet.
Take a look at the aesthetic, and macho rap has painted itself into the corners you would find in the restaurants of Mafia movies, where honchos sit facing the door. It’s as if every uber-masculine hit record could score the last half-hour of “Goodfellas,” a keyed-up sequence that ends with the protagonist in police custody. This paranoia has even found its way into the production: Listen to any trending song on the radio, YouTube or a streaming playlist, and it feels as if gunshots are hip-hop’s most frequently used Foley effect. Many men in rap have a target on their back, so they have every right to be defensive: They witness their families and bandmates dying, their peers faltering. They know the government can use their lyrics against them in court. You get the sense that the music is simultaneously bulletproof and already on life support.
JT and Yung Miami, a duo known as the City Girls, were among the rappers the magazine photographed at the Rolling Loud festival in Miami last month.
Something elemental seems to have been lost. Black music, from blues to jazz to proto-rock ’n’ roll to soul to early hip-hop, has consistently been distinguished by its sense of humor, by its playfulness. Just as joy is an important survival mechanism for oppressed people, it’s essential for the sustainability of any popular art form. Rap has gone through different periods in which the fun ebbs and flows, but the serious acts and the free spirits were always in balance: the Fat Boys and P.M. Dawn alongside Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions, A Tribe Called Quest and the Wu-Tang Clan, Da Brat and the Conscious Daughters. Before Tupac Shakur became a martyr, he was once a member of Digital Underground, wore elaborate costumes and did the Humpty dance.
There’s still plenty of levity to be found, in countless regional and indie scenes that don’t figure into radio airplay or Spotify playlists, but mostly you find it on the other side of the gender divide. And it feels as if there are more women rapping than ever before. There are, of course, the household names, who all incorporate some degree of sex-positivity, playfulness and exuberance into their music: Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat, the City Girls. But there’s also a class of upstarts: There’s Coi Leray, whose hit “Players” reached No.9 on the Billboard Hot 100. There’s Latto, who recently scored her first Billboard No.1 hit in late July, for “Seven,” a duet with the K-pop star Jung Kook. Three of Ice Spice’s singles released this year have peaked in the Top 10: “Barbie World,” “Princess Diana” and “Boy’s a Liar, Pt. 2.”
Not only is this music popular and crafty, but it has vitality and comedy in spades. Listen to the opening of Sexyy Red’s “Pound Town,” the lyrics of which are too explicit to print here but involve a colorful description of her groin area. Eat up the excellent comedic timing of Ice Spice on the chorus of her viral hit “Munch (Feelin’ U),” on which she sounds like a sped-up Rodney Dangerfield delivering one-liners: “You thought I was feeling you?/That [expletive] a munch/[Expletive] a eater, he ate it for lunch/Bitch I’m a baddie I get what I want.” On the chorus of GloRilla’s “F.N.F. (Let’s Go),” the Memphis spitter spells out her romantic situation for the listener in a lively language spree: “And I’m S-I-N-G-L-E again/Outside hanging out the window with my ratchet-ass friends.”
MAIYA THE DON
“We’re making the people move. Men forget that women like them. You know? Everybody wanna talk about gang, gang, gang. Women like you, hello? Take a moment to be sexy! Hello? Take your shirt off! The boys is forgetting to take their shirts off, but the girlies never forget.”
There is currently a panoply of women, unattached and free, making music that they want to listen to — and finding that the appeal crosses gender lines. Last month, none other than Lil Baby, one of the best-selling and most-acclaimed rappers of this generation, put it plainly to the website Complex: “Females,” he said, are, “like, running the game right now.” One of these women is Flo Milli, whose “uplifting, confident, bad-bitch music” — her words — made her a star. When I asked her if she had any thoughts about the resurgence of interest in women’s hip-hop, she told me: “Girls are just blowing up now, because we’re putting more energy into the bars. We’re not on that killing [expletive] that they used to be so obsessed about. At the end of the day, nobody’s trying to be living like that forever.”
She adjusted her hair and divulged her theory of what separates the men and the women. “They got it easy — all they gotta do is get a haircut and a chain, they good,” Flo Milli said. “We gotta spend way more bread, put way more energy into our performance, hire dancers, just put a lot more into everything than they do.” It was like that old line about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire — she did everything he did “backward and in high heels” — only in this case you could add a kaleidoscopically colored diamond-and-platinum chain to the outfit. Oh, and a custom-made costume. Plus a delicately drawn face full of makeup. And a killer gel manicure.
From the beginning, in the 1970s, female rappers were right alongside the men, making convivial club and party music to soothe and stir Black and brown communities: Debbie D, Lisa Lee, Sha-Rock, Mercedes Ladies, the Sequence. In the mid-’80s, the dynamics shifted slightly, when UTFO released “Roxanne, Roxanne,” a comical torch song dissing a woman who rejected the men’s advances. As legend has it, they were supposed to make an appearance on a radio show, and when they canceled, a 14-year-old girl named Lolita Shanté Gooden went to the radio station and offered to make a response track. The song was called “Roxanne’s Revenge” and was full of jokey barbs about the group, with Gooden playing the role of the fictional Roxanne: “You gotta be cute and you tryin’ to be fly/But all you wanna be is Roxanne’s guy/Because I turned you down, without a frown/Embarrassed you in front of your friends, made you look like a clown.”
The track became a surprise hit, and Gooden came to be known as Roxanne Shanté. As Clover Hope writes in “The Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip-Hop,” the song sparked a phenomenon, inspiring “a legendary wave of response records.” By some estimates, more than 100 songs were released, with a range of rappers playing characters mentioned in the initial back-and-forth (Roxanne’s parents and siblings, etc.). Those inventive rivalries became known as the Roxanne Wars, which some consider to be the first recorded beef in rap history. In fact, two of the biggest female acts of the 1980s, M.C. Lyte and Salt-N-Pepa, were drawn into the business to capitalize on the popularity of the phenomenon.
The gimmicky “response record” trend created a groove into which female rappers fit for a long time. In the “mob wife” era, from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, when hip-hop’s male headliners were obsessed with crime flicks like “The Godfather,” “Scarface” and “Casino,” they fashioned themselves into rap mafiosos, and the women signed to their labels were styled to look like gangster’s molls. And, like accessories after the fact, those women acted the part. The response records continued (“No Scrubs” versus “No Pigeons”; “My Neck, My Back (Lick It)” versus Too Short’s unprintably titled retort), as did rap’s battle-of-the-sexes duets (“Get Money,” “Crush on You,” “Chickenhead,” “Can I Get A … ”). On wax, gender conflict was made into entertainment, but real-life disparities persisted. In an interview with the music journalist Brian Coleman, M.C. Lyte, the pioneering Brooklyn rapper of the 1980s, explained the dynamic: “Every woman who has been able to stay in the game has come from a certain camp. Men who come out and make it put their stamp of approval on these women, like Eve from Ruff Ryders, Foxy from the Firm. You don’t have to have it, but it’s definitely a selling point.”
All of the women broke this paradigm, in their own ways, pushing back against their miscasting. Some, like Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill, rejected this role entirely. Nicki Minaj had to chart a course essentially all by herself. But everyone had to make her resistance highly salable in a market that had pigeonholed women as music-video models, little more than blowup sex dolls: to be seen and fondled (and even passed around!) but not heard. The vanguard of this new generation, Cardi B and the City Girls, figured out how to take that sex-object status and turn it on its head. They ushered in a wave of female-dominated hip-hop, with a focus on manipulating men out of their money. This has produced a cohort of women who, like Nicki Minaj, style themselves after Barbies (Kash Doll, Asian Doll, DreamDoll) — a funny counterpoint to the men who rap like personified action figures.
A result is that this moment of redress for hip-hop’s high-commerce, low-parity period comes in the form of unabashedly frank music about sex, tracks that even Lil’ Kim might blush at. The paradox is that it’s oddly wholesome for how vulgar it is: It’s so surrealistically lusty that it’s invigorating, enlivening even. Who knew how many synonyms there were for lubrication? For stimulation? Like good sex, raunchy rap is only fun if all parties are completely enthusiastic, and this music provides necessary female perspectives to match what the men make. These women’s output downgrades the men’s sex raps into something like fan fiction — noncanonical and maybe even a little fantastical.
It isn’t all just “Pound Town.” Fousheé’s viral 2020 hit “Deep End,” for example, was inspired by the racial reckoning of that summer. And it contains a little joke on nitwits who would discount her because of her gender, delivered in a cutesy sing-songy whistle on the bridge: “You ain’t finna play her/Shawty gon’ get that paper/Shawty tongue rip like razor/Shawty got wit, got flavor/Pardon my tits and makeup.” She told Genius, the lyrics-interpretation platform: “I wanted to make something that people can dance to as well. The song kind of goes through different dynamics: sad, angry, and this part is the climax where you’re just like, All right, I made it through, I got the bag, now I’m having fun.” She explained the impulse behind the song. “I’m not gonna take what was given, I’m gonna take that and flip that and make my own story out of this. Whatever story I was written into, I’m gonna rewrite it.”
That’s not altogether different from what Lolita Gooden did in bringing life to Roxanne, a tired man-killer character, who in her hands became an avatar for misunderstood women. And perhaps the Roxanne Wars, the initial clash in hip-hop’s everlasting battle of the sexes, ended in a weary cease-fire instead of an armistice, and the ensuing four decades were just an extended conscription period. If women’s rap had been confined by the commercial impulse to treat it as a sideshow, then this new wave of artists presents a kind of revenge for the years of trash talk and diminishment — a multipronged retaliation characterized by unmitigated glee.
In Miami one weekend in late July, Rolling Loud, one of the biggest annual hip-hop festivals, made itself into a microcosm of the rap world. But it was a porous world, taking cues from outside. Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” was released that weekend; Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice had remixed Aqua’s “Barbie World,” which was climbing the Billboard Hot 100, and hot pink was the color du jour. I spotted phone cases, netted stockings, luxury sunglasses, pom-pom skirts, crop tops, short shorts, cover-ups, mohawks, gel sandals, wigs and patchwork jeans all in the neon hue. Pretty, hyperfeminine women in magenta, with the poise of pink flamingos, stutter-stepped next to James Harden and P.J. Tucker.
“I wanted to be a therapist before I was a rapper, so it’s like musical therapy. And people always say, ‘Oh my god, you helped me through a breakup,’ or ‘Oh my god, you give me so much confidence,’ and that’s all I’ve wanted to do.”
This ambient femme energy was also reflected in the demographics of the talent: Twenty of the 108 artists on the festival’s official poster were women. Hardly gender equality, but a far cry from the fallow periods. Although all the headliners (Playboi Carti, Travis Scott, A$AP Rocky) were men, some of the women generated even more attention. Echoing Grace Jones in “Boomerang,” Sexyy Red emerged onstage for her set with two men she walked on leashes. Yung Miami of the City Girls was the talk of TMZ and other tabloids for allowing her 10-year-old son to throw money at strippers backstage. The more heartwarming viral moments belonged to them, too: Coi Leray made headlines when Benzino, her estranged father — a former rapper and onetime co-owner of the hip-hop magazine The Source — looked emotional when seeing her perform, apparently for the first time.
In some ways, Coi Leray is an emblematic figure of this generation: She is sex-positive and makes vivacious, danceable music, perfect for a party or a TikTok challenge. “Players,” her biggest hit, is a two-minute ditty about young women having the same capacity for agency — sexual, musical, geographical — as men. (“I go on and on and on again, he blowin’ up my phone but I’m ignorin’ him/He thinking he the one, I got like four of him.”) Styled for her Rolling Loud performance with a short Halle Berry hairdo and black leather-and-chains costume, she looked like a Bond girl in a Cirque du Soleil show.
The “Players” instrumental samples liberally from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message.” Released in 1982, “The Message” is widely considered one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time and comprises a roll call of then-contemporary catastrophes in its lines: drug addiction, violence, rising inflation. (“Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge/I’m trying not to lose my head.”) It’s also considered one of the first socially conscious records, and it steered rap in a more streetwise direction than, say, the hippity-hops and bang-bang boogies of Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” did. And this divide — between the impulses in “The Message” and “Rapper’s Delight” — has been a central tension of hip-hop, this party music born in the bombed-out South Bronx, for as long as it has been around.
Americans now find themselves in a moment of similar social breakdown: postpandemic inflation, opioid addiction, a mental-health crisis, racial and sexual violence. And a lot of the music has become unremittingly grim in response. There’s a relentless gender pessimism in the air, too — on the street, on dating apps, in the Supreme Court and, of course, in rap music. “Players” is a kind of rebuttal to all of this. Here, you have Leray gesturing toward a hidden resonance in “The Message,” which is that the music can still be fun, no matter how the world makes us feel. The bridge is a connection to different types of pleasure: “Bout to catch another flight, the apple bottom make him wanna bite/I just wanna have a good night.” Leray treats the body as more than just a vessel that has to be guarded because it can be taken away, a common refrain in the men’s music: She demonstrates how one can be carried away in song.
BIG BOSS VETTE
On the last day of the Rolling Loud festival, I sat down with Flo Milli. In 2018, after years of refining her craft, she released “Beef FloMix,” a flip of a song by Playboi Carti, and it blew up on SoundCloud and TikTok. Her rise reflects the trajectory of a lot of young female artists, who use the internet to experiment, connect with collaborators and ultimately advance their careers: Tierra Whack, whose album “Whack World” went viral online because of its eye-popping visual component; Fousheé, who got her start making royalty-free music for an internet platform; KenTheMan, whose stage name is the username she had on SoundCloud, the popular music-streaming service. “I kinda came up during, like, Covid, so everything was on the internet,” Flo said. “That feeling never gets old to me, being able to perform and talk to my fans.”
We were in an air-conditioned trailer that the magazine was using to shoot photos, and after she finished angling her inquisitive features this way and that, it occurred to me that she could have been a fashion model in another context. Or, in an earlier era, she — like so many of the women — could have been relegated to “video vixen” status. Her long, washed-out blond wig was brushed back behind her shoulders so that it was out of her face, and it swayed a little when she talked. We sat in the shadow of the gigantic lamp that lit the set, and occasionally the jewels in her nose ring, Cartier watch and bellybutton piercing shined subtly in the half-light, coruscating in time with her movements.
Flo Milli put the resurgence in perspective. “If you look at the history, it was always female rappers. But at one point, it was male-dominated, and all you hear is these men degrading women, or not really making us feel loved.” Flo Milli is 23, and strikingly — for a member of a generation that seems to live in the permanent now — she has a real reverence and affection for the history of rap music. I had asked her who her favorite old-school artist was, and the first name she said was M.C. Lyte, whom she and her sister would listen to in her mother’s car in Mobile, Ala., where she grew up. They would rhyme all the lyrics of “Lyte as a Rock” front to back some two decades after its release. In an instant, Flo channeled that car karaoke, rapping the first verse of that song from memory. Her fizzy falsetto rose and rose as she delved deeper into her delivery. Her translucent nails, painted a school-bus yellow, flashed like toy lightsabers as she made elaborate rap hands that unfolded the way origami fortunetellers do in grade-school classrooms. When she was almost finished reciting the verse, her voice climaxed as she recreated the “Ly-ly-lyte as a rock!” sample, and she was beaming.
From her perspective, this earlier era offered greater freedom because, even if women’s roles were constrained, the men were less subject to gendered expectations than they are now. “If you look at the male rappers from the ’90s, you had all these love songs; men were not afraid to profess their love. But now it’s different. I think what it was is that it backfired on them: all the degrading, all the [expletive] that they was talking about us. We internalized it, but not really, and was like, OK, we finna reflect that back on y’all. Not really fighting fire with fire, but I feel we kinda found our strength and power in it.”
She looked slightly into the middle distance, her thoughts churning and gathering momentum, as she continued: “Wait, we can really find our voice in this and actually be an example for other women. To show them: No, you can really be a boss. You don’t have to take the bare minimum. You don’t have to take disrespect. You can really win and achieve anything you want in this life. I think that’s why a lot of women are put on the forefront, because that’s maybe what the world needs.”