In 2010, NPR reported that the number of female rappers signed to a major label dropped to just three women—compare that to the forty-odd women signed to major labels in the late 80s and early 90s. While one might argue that the independent scene has long dominated the rap game, making mainstream rap an inaccurate picture of the genre, two points remain clear: not only does rap have a gender equality problem, but it seems that it has regressed on the issue. In a genre where women still aren’t quite welcome, is female hypersexuality—the exaggerated use of explicitly sexual lyrics and images by female-identifying rappers—a form of empowerment or simply what sells more records? That question begs a few more: does our haste to dismiss hypersexual female rap stem from a discomfort with black femme bodies asserting control of their sexuality? A conversation about hypersexuality in female rap necessarily has a focus on black women and the tradition of their objectification by black men, since the role of white women in rap has been limited to a handful of brief careers. Furthermore, why should the ways in which black women choose to present their bodies even be up for debate? Why can’t hypersexuality empower women and sell more records?
In reality, the sexuality of black women is complicated, especially in light of the complex and intersecting issues that black women face: sexism, racism—the intersection of which we call misogynoir—and colorism. These phenomena result in the media’s tendency to paint black women as one of two centuries-old conceptualizations: the mammy (see the black cast of The Help) or the Jezebel (see the cast of the hit VH1 show, Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta). The tried and true, usually dark-skinned mammy has cleaned up white people’s messes and raised their children since slave times all with a warm smile and a sexlessness to rival a eunuch’s. The Jezebel is the desirable, often fairer-skinned woman of loose morals whose insatiable sexual appetite excuses her rape and abuse.
The options for women in rap reflect the limitations of white patriarchy; save for pioneers of women in rap such as Lauryn Hill, Eve, and Missy Elliot, images of scantily clad, light-skinned black women with asses that just don’t quit are more commonplace in the world of rap music videos than images of women who rap. Just take a look at the recently released video for D.R.A.M. and Lil Yachty’s song “Broccoli”—we get a medium close up of a woman’s bare butt before we even see the two rappers, who for the rest of the video are flanked by bikini clad, well-endowed women while they remain fully dressed. Considering the limited options for women in rap, the fact that black women have elected to take control of their image should come as a surprise to no one.
It isn’t uncommon for the oppressed to reclaim terms that are tools for their oppression—black Americans have reclaimed the N-word, the LGBTQ+ community has reclaimed the term ‘queer,’ women have reclaimed the term ‘bitch.’ Recently, when rapper Azealia Banks, problematic (ex-)fave to many, called Zayn Malik a ‘curry-scented bitch’ in an ugly tweet storm, South Asians all over the world took to the Internet to post selfies with Banks’ slur as a hashtag. Oppressive language and ideas can and have been used for self-empowerment. Black women in rap have subverted the Jezebel trope by reclaiming their sexuality. They have taken sexuality as a tool for abuse or debasement out of male hands and into their own. They empower themselves by using the same graphically sexual lyrics that their male counterparts do. Yes, black women enjoy sex, but that is a human trait, not grounds for dehumanization. Yes, black women can be sexual and rap too. Yes, black women can do more than twerk on either side of a rapper. At the same time, black women in rap have subverted the mammy trope. Dark-skinned black women are not asexual and servile; dark-skinned women can be sexual beings and should be proud of their sexuality. In consideration of the misogynoir that black women face, hypersexuality in female rap is not a gimmick but an act of resistance.
No one questions hypersexual rap lyrics when men hold the mic. One could even argue that rapping about sexual prowess is part of rap’s hypermasculine territory. From the dawn of rap, the list of objects that attest to a rapper’s masculinity has always gone: cars, drugs, chains, and the list of trophy women with whom they have had sex. In 1993, Too $hort’s Get In Where You Fit In peaked at number four on the US Billboard 200. His song “Blowjob Betty” contains these lyrics: “Blowjob Betty give ‘em real good head / Bust a left nut right nut in her jaw / Sperm on her cheeks is all you saw.” More recently, Future’s 2015 album, Dirty Sprite 2, featured these lyrics on the track, “Stick Talk:” “I ain’t got no manners for no sluts / Imma put my thumb in her butt.” Hypersexuality has become a part of the fabric of rap music. While men have historically used graphic sexual imagery, men and women alike criticize female rappers who do the same. From civil rights activist C. Delores Tucker calling Lil Kim’s music “filth” and “gangster porno rap” in 1997 to celebrity gossip site Bossip taking to Twitter to imply that Nicki Minaj owes her success to her butt in 2015, we have shamed female rappers for expressing their sexuality. Why are black femmes only meant to be ‘hypersexual’ when men need props for their music videos?
Of course, some argue that hypersexuality in female rap is a step backward, an offense to all the feminist foremothers who fought for women to be valued in society as human, not as men’s possessions. However, the notion that women shouldn’t express sexuality is more of an insult to feminist ideals than any racy female rap music video ever could be: the autonomy of all women should come before the conservatism of some women. While Rapsody, a femcee who signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation in July, chooses not to present herself in an overtly sexual manner, female rap group PTAF chooses to do the opposite. Our media should reflect the existent and broad spectrum of black femme sexuality in order to actually empower black women because hypersexual female rap lyrics do empower some women. The women in PTAF aren’t only being raunchy in “Boss Ass Bitch,” they’re talking about women making their pleasure a priority in hetero sex and about women being “bosses:” powerful and in control. Take the line, “Got ya nigga going, going insane / And so do I when he give me brain;” KDUCE talks about male-to-female cunnilingus where most rap lyrics would focus on the reverse. Even the chorus’ simple proclamation “I’m a boss ass bitch” is a positive affirmation of female power, as opposed to the myriad of images in rap of black women as the submissive. When Cupcakke talks about her sexual prowess on “Vagina,” (“Pussy so good I’m on a trip to the bay / Soon as he put it in that nigga calling me bae”), she’s exhibiting the same braggadocio that most of her predecessors, both male and female, have. Hypersexuality in rap is nothing new, but black women have revolutionized it by reframing women as sexually dominant agents instead of sexually submissive objects.
Still, questions remain. Are these hypersexual lyrics catering to the male gaze, offering them a Jezebel fantasy? Or are they actually empowering? Perhaps both. Sex does sell, but the sex in hypersexual female rap lyrics prioritizes female pleasure where the standard has always been the prioritization of male pleasure. Female hypsersexuality doesn’t cater to men if men aren’t the center of these conversations about sex. Besides, if sex appeal, rather than skill, were the only factor in selling records, then arguably groups like Bitches With Problems and Hoes With Attitude would have record sales comparable to those of Lil’ Kim. Furthermore, if one were to focus on the broader content of artists like Cupcakke and Nicki Minaj, they would find that these artists do indeed discuss more than just sex. Cupcakke tackles an especially delicate subject in the black community on her track “Pedophile” and Minaj has spoken out again and again on misogynoir in the music industry. Hypersexual female rappers have made it clear that they have created a platform by women and for women. Sexiness does not equate to vapidity.
Lastly, when the conversation turns to the topic of rappers selling out by giving into societal expectations, one would be remiss not to examine the content of rap as a whole—are black men talking about drugs because the subject matter is pertinent to their lives or are they just giving us what we want? Future himself admitted in an interview with Clique that the lifestyle he raps about isn’t necessarily accurate; it’s just what sells. Yet, surely no one would question the role that rap has played in the empowerment of black males in a society that continues to devalue black men. Female rappers can and do function in the same way; hypersexual female rappers are just a subset of an overall empowering group.
The pretense of concern about women and the ways in which they present themselves is a tired one. The concern here is that women are expressing sexuality outside of the bounds of male pleasure and doing so unapologetically. Black women are prioritizing their own pleasure, bragging about their own sexual prowess, and being cocky in a world that has told them that they shouldn’t. That attitude is at the heart of what rap is—the oppressed expressing an exaggerated bravado and flouting at all of the reasons society has told them that they are worthless. Hypersexuality in female rap is a big laugh in the face of all the conflicting messages that society has sent to black women. It’s not too surprising that society isn’t joining in on that laugh, but just because it isn’t doesn’t mean that the work these female rappers do isn’t valid.