By: Jon Caramanica
Good news! The most popular rapper in America in the last few months may well have been a woman.
In recent years, female rappers have usually been loudest in their absence, but this year the opposite has been true: Iggy Azalea’s single Fancy spent seven weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, the longest stretch for any female rapper ever.
Good news, right?
It is, yes, though it shouldn’t be overlooked that Azalea is white, which undoubtedly helped place her in an express lane, and that Fancy had more resonance in the world of pop than in hip-hop, where Azalea has at times been viewed with a bit of side eye.
At the BET Awards in June, Nicki Minaj, one of the most important rappers of the day, female or otherwise, gave a sassy acceptance speech for best female hip-hop artist. “What I want the world to know about Nicki Minaj is when you hear Nicki Minaj spit, Nicki Minaj wrote it,” a seeming swipe at Azalea, who has been accused of using ghostwriters.
But the real insult was the nomination list in that category: Minaj and Azalea, but also Eve, who hasn’t had a relevant single in seven years; Charli Baltimore, who hasn’t had one in almost twice that long; and Angel Haze, a promising young rapper with almost no mainstream exposure. In short, the very definition of foam peanuts, merely there to keep the main candidates safe. And a glaring indictment of the music industry’s inability to nurture a wide range of female stars.
Maybe the old model is extinct. From the mid-1990s through the early 2000s, female rap thrived, relatively speaking: Foxy Brown, Lil’ Kim, Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott, who were all stylistically distinct and sold millions of albums. But to find a critical mass of female rappers in 2014, you have to turn to another industry: reality television. A new series called Sisterhood of Hip Hop will premiere soon, and there are certainly more female rappers on this show than will release albums on major labels this year. Thanks largely to the Love & Hip-Hop franchise on VH1, reality television has become a more reliable avenue of exposure than the radio.
Sisterhood is mostly boilerplate stuff: a difficult romantic relationship here, for Siya; a blooming family problem there, for Bia; a cast member, Diamond, who actually describes this phase of life as a “rebrand”, saying “I need to get out of Atlanta so I can rebrand myself”. (It should be said that Diamond’s rebrand, which involves purple hair and midriffs, looks quite a bit like Minaj’s old brand.)
Diamond is also arguing her side of her breakup with Lil Scrappy, which he talked about often on Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta, after she left him to date Soulja Boy, another rapper. “It’s not my fault that I stepped out with somebody who was younger, flyer and who had more money,” she says sharply and hilariously.
There is plenty of talent here worthy of an audience, Nyemiah Supreme and Brianna Perry, in particular. But dispiritingly, what a female rapper appears to need most is a male mentor; each cast member is shown receiving words of wisdom from a more established male artist (Pharrell, Rick Ross, Timbaland, Lil Jon, Tank), who are there to also validate them in the eyes of the viewer.
To be fair, there is plenty of sniping in the old model, too, whether it’s Minaj’s veiled shots at Azalea, or the latest flurry of barbs thrown at Minaj by Lil’ Kim. On a new song, Identity Theft, Lil’ Kim sounds fatigued while continuing her sporadic campaign against Minaj. She seems more inspired on her remix of Beyoncé’s Flawless, in which she takes umbrage at Minaj’s invoking her name.