The 90’s were a great time for women rappers.
A lot of people — especially young people — don’t really grasp how deep the bench was for femcees at the time.
The list is a breath-taking ‘who’s who’ of hip hop legends: Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Yo Yo, Da Brat, Missy Elliott, Foxy Brown, Lil’ Kim, Mia X, Lady of Rage, Rah Digga, Charlie Baltimore, Eve, Bahamadia, Nonchalant and, of course, Lauryn Hill all had success in the 90’s.
Most of them, if not all, had either platinum or gold success. There was solidarity, but there was also competition, consider the battle between Queen Latifah and Foxy Brown (bet you didn’t know about that). There existed all of the necessary factors to prove a vibrant and healthy cultural ecosystem.
And in that ecosystem, Lauryn Hill was undoubtedly the queen.
She was both socially conscious and street, she was hardcore and soulful. She had the mind of Latifah, the swagger of Lyte, the fire of Roxanne Shante and the feminine appeal of Salt-N-Pepa. In addition to that, she could share a mic with Nas, tell a story like B.I.G., and incite passion like Pac.
She was the perfect package and, for my money, one of the Top 10 emcees of all time.
Ms. Hill kicked in hip hop’s door as a member of The Refugees in 1994 with their debut release, Blunted on Reality. Although the album didn’t perform especially well, listeners couldn’t help but notice the lyrical ability of the young female member.
Despite commonly shared belief, neither Wyclef or Pras are wack, but Lauryn sure made them seem that way.
When they dropped the hip hop classic The Score, the group, along with Hill, skyrocketed to cultural prominence. But it wasn’t until she released The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1998 that she really became royalty.
She was everywhere. Her music, image and message permeated the culture that, against her tidal wave, seemed toilet paper thin.
She was all things to all women: beautiful, proud, knowledgeable, passionate and soulful. She was a new model for femininity in hip hop; a blueprint that, much like Queen Latifah before her, would be happily and hopefully mimicked by all young female rappers after her.
Then she vanished.
Okay, let’s get this out of the way: I love Lauryn Hill.
Creatively, she’s a genius. Socially and politically, she’s provocative and unafraid.
I mean, anyone who can point an accusatory finger at the Vatican over its inaction following the multitude of sexual misconduct charges aimed against its priests isn’t the type of person to wilt in the face of pressure.
Yet and still, wilt is exactly what Hill did, much to the despair and misfortune of female hip hop.
Of course there was a vacuum, but the person who most filled it unfortunately didn’t share Hill’s love of social commentary, intellectual thought or philosophy. She wasn’t nearly as talented and for all intents and purposes was nothing more than a cartoon character created by men who, in Hill’s absence, somehow became a feminist icon.
Lil’ Kim’s rise to fame was pretty much the antithesis of Hill’s.
She wasn’t a lyrical dynamo that embarrassed all other emcees around her. She was created.
Lil’ Kim was just as much a creation as any of the other numerous candy pop trends in the 90’s. It’s just that her creator happened to be one of the greatest writers in the American literary cannon: Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G.
Once Biggie became successful and wanted to help get his young friends off the street, he decided to write a movie in the form of an album and cast his neighborhood’s kids in the roles. Lil’ Cease admitted that B.I.G. wrote his rhymes. In reality, other than a few members, Biggie wrote for the majority of the group creating characters that mirrored those in the 1991 film, New Jack City.
Biggie based Lil’ Kim’s character on New Jack City’s Keisha, played by Vanessa A. Williams, but with the sexuality turned up to an almost comical degree; that’s what she was for, that was her purpose.
Now I say all this not to entirely dismiss Kim’s talent. Sure she could keep to a beat, and maybe some of those rhymes were indeed written by her, but in an era where Lauryn Hill had shown that women could not only compete with men, but dominate on the mic, it was a huge step backwards to have a woman on the culture’s main stage who was penned into existence by a man.
So it was this created cartoon character that rushed to fill the vacuum left by Hill and unfortunately…it stuck.
Sex, as a marketing tool, is two-fold dangerous: One, it can sell a product, even if a product is bad; and two, it’s incredibly easy — almost anybody can do it.
Whatever the reason for Hill’s abandonment of the limelight (and there are many), what is clear is that at some point, she began to lose touch of herself.
Lamenting on her lack of privacy and loss of personal freedoms following her success, Hill withdrew into a life of solitude. She developed a relationship with a shady religious adviser, and that was pretty much the beginning of the end.
This didn’t bode well for women in hip hop.
Once she left the scene, the only profitable paradigm to follow was Lil’ Kim’s. So the landscape at the end of the decade, almost overnight, went from this:
to the early aughts with this:
And no, every female rap star didn’t go the sex route, but the popular ones did.
Trina, who was never a major numbers mover, used her highly sexual style to still sell consistently, at her peak she dropped the No. 6 album in the country in 2008. Da Brat, on the other hand, saw a dip in her sales when her sophomore album failed to pull the numbers of her debut. Dropping the braids and introducing a new sexy image, Da Brat’s third album “Unrestricted” shot her back to platinum status.
On the flip side, other artists who chose not to go the sex route, like Eve, didn’t fair so well. While Eve’s rap career was put on hold for an acting turn, her girl-next-door style of rap that earned her double platinum success with 1999’s “Let There Be Eve…Ruff Ryders’ First Lady” had all but vanished in 2013 when her digital album “Lip Lock” failed to garner attention.
Now, while this isn’t a comprehensive list, the fact remains that Lil’ Kim’s influence on female hip hop is pretty much a non-argument. And while sexuality isn’t necessarily bad, it sure is limiting.
It’s no coincidence that the most popular female MCs of the past 5 to 10 years have been
Nicki Minaj and Iggy Azalia. Both are pop-focused, wannabe starlets who know nothing about, nor respect, the actual culture from which they make their money; and neither seem comfortable outside of the reach of the male artists who initially sponsored them.
They are both extensions of the Lil’ Kim MC bloodline, using overt sexuality to buttress a weak skill foundation.
Nicki’s recent battle with Remy may very well signal the beginning of her descent from the top. Unfortunately for Remy however, she isn’t nearly as marketable as Minaj and more than likely won’t become the figurehead for any new paradigm.
And that’s all thanks to Lil’ Kim popularity and, if we’re to be honest, Lauryn Hill’s absence.
Remy Ma, who is undoubtedly an attractive woman, just never made sexuality a cornerstone of her skill set. As a result, no matter how talented she is, in this post-Kim sex-sells-best world, she may not have a place.
That’s horribly sad.
In 2017, there are more women succeeding in rap than ever before.
(Following the Nicki Minaj vs. Remy Ma battle, there’s been a resurgence in female emcees. Whether Remy Ma, Young M.A., Dej Loaf, and the incredibly successful Cardi B, women in rap have rebounded healthily.)
Still, there’s something to be said about the fact that, of all the women who have broken through recently, it’s the former stripper and sexually explicit Cardi B that’s experienced the most success.
So who’s to blame?
Do we blame Lil’ Kim for taking the frank and honest discussion of sex that Salt-N-Pepa started and stripping it of all class and context? Should we blame The Notorious B.I.G.; he’s the one that created Kim for all intents and purposes, writing her rhymes and creating her character like a screenwriter for a mafia film?
Should we blame record labels for following a successful formula so blindly? Maybe we should blame the artists for not fighting hard enough against cliche and exploitation.
Or maybe we should keep things as simple as possible and blame the person who was the crux of it all: Lauryn Hill.
Look, L-boogie owed us nothing. That’s where it should end.
If she had decided that she’d given us all that she had to offer, then fine. I feel the same way about Andre 3000. We can’t force artists to abide by our expectations and cater to our over-inflated senses of self importance as fans.
However, is there something to be said about one’s responsibility to a community when it is oppressed and in need of focus, representation and inspiration? Hill’s community of black female rappers sorely needed a heroine to champion and speak their its truths as only a member of said community could.
And don’t get me wrong, the culture and the industry both tried to replace her. It should be no surprise that almost immediately after Hill went missing in the late 90s, the careers of Alicia Keys and India.Arie exploded, with both releasing their classic, Lauryn Hill-inspired, albums in 2001.
But these were R&B and soul singers. While Hill was the same, she was also a rapper, one of the best — a woman who had conquered a realm of men.
She was so unique, strange, and special, the neo-soul movement spent the next decade looking for her replacement, but to no avail.
All it had left was profit. So Lil’ Kim it was.
So who do we blame?
Well, sorry for the click bait, but there’s no way in hell I’d honestly suggest that Hill is to blame for the woman’s rap drought from which we are currently pulling ourselves.
No, it’s our fault.
It was our expectation of perfection that kept and keeps artists like Hill and Andre 3000 from expressing themselves freely. The fear that you’ll let your fans down, for truly devoted artists, must be crippling. For Hill, it led to her changing her entire format, switching from Miseducation’s hip-hop soul to MTV Unplugged No. 2.0‘s folk, acoustic guitar.
The expectations must’ve been even greater for the artist if she’s black and a woman.
When Hill left, fans made it clear that we would just as happily accept Lil’ Kim and what she was selling, despite the fact that there was far less quality in the bargain. We didn’t promote or foster an environment where a suitable replacement could develop.
We went for instant gratification and got what we got.
I don’t want to come off like I’m dogging Lil’ Kim, but she does represent something dark in our culture.
The idea that Lil’ Kim —’ a corporate created, easily marketed product of lower quality — could so easily replace a brilliant and organic growth of cultural expression should be frightening.
The idea that such a creation could then — absent the culture entirely — begat an entire generation of similarly financially-driven creations should be horrifying.
It should also be a reminder that, unless we are vigilant, someone will always be looking to take what we create, kill it dissect it, and create their own bastardized version for profit. Sure woman’s hip hop is clawing its way back, but in who’s image will it present itself, and for who’s benefit will it fight?