This winter, Queen Latifah is set to release her eighth album—her first to feature rapping since 1998. As her star has risen in Hollywood, onetime collaborators Monie Love and KRS-One have given way to Steve Martin and Diane Keaton, and her most recent LPs have consisted of jazz standards and classy throwback ballads. The hip-hop world spins quickly, and you wonder whether she can avoid disappearing with a quick, irrelevant fizzle upon re-entry.
Still, one thing hasn't much changed since Latifah's 1989 debut: Female rappers are as scarce today as they were then, if not scarcer. This estrogen deficiency gave Latifah something to rap about when she was a brash 19-year-old, and it might well give her something to rap about now. Her late-'80s contemporaries have either disappeared or been exhumed and reanimated as reality-TV personalities (Pepa on the Surreal Life; Yo-Yo hosting VH1's Miss Rap Supreme, a competition that made sport, literally, of the "femcee" phenomenon). The '90s stars that followed her—Lil' Kim, Eve, Lauryn Hill, Da Brat, and Missy Elliott chief among them—have either faded or flared into tabloid ignominy. Today, female rappers are flukes on the charts, and exactly zero women were nominated at this year's BET Hip-Hop Awards and VH1 Hip-Hop Honors. What happened?
The word that most beguiles rappers is I, particularly as it appears in the phrases "Who I am" and "What I do." Male MCs have long controlled the microphone, so women with rap dreams have faced the steep challenge of attempting self-definition in a genre whose louder, deeper voices have already done much to define them (in narrow and frequently noxious terms, at that). In large part, the story of female hip-hop is the story of that challenge.
The first female rap star was Sha Rock, a 10th-grader from the Bronx who helped found the Funky 4 + 1 in 1978; the first female rap group of prominence was the Sequence, three teens who released a rowdy single called "Funk You Up" in 1979. At its start, hip-hop was primarily party music, competing with disco for crowds, and that environment was apparently welcoming to women on and off the stage—"I never experienced any kind of sexism," Sha Rock has said. Really, what party worth its piñata would turn girls away at the door? Like their male counterparts, Sha Rock and the Sequence trafficked in dance-floor chants and well-landed brags, spiced, in their case, with some streetwise, G-rated coquettishness.
Formed in 1985, the New York trio Salt-N-Pepa elaborated on this tradition, fashioning themselves as sassy, hair-tossing flirts in neon spandex—although "flirt" is a mild word for "Push It," the throbbing electro-bass hit the group built around a decidedly single-entendre. Salt-N-Pepa made their sexiness their chief subject, and they liked to emphasize the ways that sexiness served them. In their songs, their pleasure is always paramount and men are always disposable; they're happy to wield their desirability against no-good lovers ("Chick on the Side") and romantic competitors alike ("I'll Take Your Man," which plays like a hip-hop version of Mean Girls).
Uninterested in flirtation, Roxanne Shanté was hip-hop's first pit bull in lip gloss. Shanté wrote her assaultive 1984 breakthrough, "Roxanne's Revenge," in response to UTFO's dorky hit "Roxanne, Roxanne." The original concerns a "stuck up" femme fatale who rebuffs the Brooklyn threesome's leering advances; in her song, then-14-year-old Shanté rapped from the ice-princess perspective, mercilessly detailing why she'd turned the guys down (short version: they were losers). "Roxanne's Revenge" was a legendary stunt (no discussion of iconic rap feuds omits it), but it was also an elegant bit of defiance. UTFO's fictional object of desire and scorn had roared improbably to life and spoken for herself.
With the rageful, late-'80s ascendance of gangsta rap, hip-hop's gender wars grew far more hostile. The post-Imus debate over the prevalence of the slurs bitch and ho in the genre can be traced to this period, when they were scraped hard into the lexicon. This is the context into which Queen Latifah made her debut, and from 1989's "Ladies First" to 1993's "U.N.I.T.Y.," she often took the form of a protest rapper, dressing down misogynists and encouraging women to stand strong before a mounting wave of bile.