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.
In "U.N.I.T.Y.," though, Latifah voiced doubts about one type of female strength: "A minute ago you was a nerd and nobody ever heard of ya—now you a wannabe hard." The previous year, New Jersey rapper Apache had released "Gangsta Bitch," a Bonnie and Clyde fantasy stocked with matching Carhartt gear and his 'n' hers .9 mms. Gangsta bitch soon became its own microtrend, exemplified by Boss, a sawed-off tough from L.A. On 1993's "Recipe of a Hoe," she taunted, "Ya dick'll be getting shot clear the fuck off if ya keep talkin' that shit, cuz all bitches ain't hos." Elsewhere, she threatened to lure men home and rob them or worse—Boss wanted to reimagine the money-grubbing ho as a Machiavellian gangsta in her own right.
Less aggressive, and far more successful, was Brooklyn's MC Lyte. In 1988 she released "I Cram To Understand U," which turned a familiar hip-hop narrative (a parasitic ho sleeps around and siphons a guy's cash) upside down (here the parasite is a crack-addicted, pocketbook-plundering boyfriend). Gender friction fills Lyte's catalog, but she preferred to dive into the genre's storytelling capacities unencumbered by agenda; she specialized in odd fables with no readily apparent moral. Her "Cappuccino" is a wonderfully strange tale of the afterlife and cocaine abuse; in "Poor Georgie," Lyte mourns a libertine, drug-free alcoholic who suffers from colon cancer and dies in a quasi-suicidal car crash. Missy Elliott, who frequently mentions Lyte's influence, can thank her for the liberating notion that a woman can be not only a serious MC but a serious weirdo.
If the pervasive spirit of female rap's early days was defiance, the mid-'90s gave rise to a sort of radical compliance. In their porno-grade raps, Lil' Kim, Foxy Brown, and Trina offered themselves up almost as grotesques, inhabiting lewd sexual fantasies almost to the point of caricature. Kim—who offset constant demands for cunnilingus with a famous brag about "how I make a Sprite can disappear in my mouth"—was the best of these, and the only pop star in history to serve as muse to both Notorious B.I.G. and Marc Jacobs. Her take-no-shit attitude appealed to hardened hip-hop fans, while her hypersexualized camp made her a gay icon. Hip-hop femininity is often described in binary: Women are either "independent"—they pay their own bills and, conveniently, ask men for nothing—or they are hos. Lil' Kim made the case for the independent ho. (Sometimes another option, cited in the case of confident female rappers, appears: lesbian.)
So why has female hip-hop made so few lasting inroads over 30 years? For one thing, what most of the women mentioned above have in common is that their music rebuts and responds to guy-spun gender narratives. One effect of this is to make female rap seem second class, occurring outside the "real," "primary" work of hip-hop canon building, even as it argues for first-class citizenship. When we hear the word rappers, we think of black males; they're what feminists would call hip-hop's unmarked category. This makes tough going for pretenders outside of this category, and it's meant that many of the identities that female comers have carved for themselves—Boss' gangsta bitch, Kim's badass nympho, or, recently, Lil' Mama's lunchroom alpha girl—have registered as one-offs or fads. (We see the same thing with white rappers, whether it's the Beastie Boys' nerdy boogie or Eminem's white-trash horror-core.)
At one point, seeing a way to reach previously estranged female audiences, rappers rolled out protégées the way they roll out energy drinks today: Ice Cube boosted Yo-Yo, Jay-Z boosted Amil, the Wu-Tang Clan boosted N-Tyce (who released an obscure infidelity gem called "Hush Hush Tip"). These days, rappers have learned they can appeal to women by hiring an R&B singer for a chorus—ladies' jam? Check!—then return to their normal business. At the same time, singers like Mary J. Blige, Keyshia Cole, and (the rapperly) Beyoncé have proven that contemporary R&B offers women plenty of room for toughness, too.
The great hope of female rap today lies on the pop fringes and in the fact that the distance between fringe and center shrinks daily. Cultural politics are looser and market concerns less overriding on the indie circuit, where artists like Baltimore's Rye-Rye, Tampa's gay booty-bass duo Yo! Majesty, and the New York eccentric Jean Grae make exciting music for devout followings. M.I.A. and Kid Sister—avant-gardists who admire the '80s-era sass of Salt 'N' Pepa and the sonic experimentation of Missy Elliott—have gone a step further, parlaying hipster popularity into mainstream-rap incursions. Kanye West guest starred on Kid Sister's "Pro Nails," and M.I.A. scored an unlikely smash with her single "Paper Planes," hitting No. 5 in pop and inspiring remixes by 50 Cent and Jim Jones. In September, M.I.A.'s voice showed up, sampled, on "Swagger Like Us," a posse cut starring A-list rap gatekeepers West, T.I., Jay-Z, and Lil' Wayne. The song is a small coup: It's a chest-bumping locker-room bromance, but when M.I.A.'s refrain comes around—"No one on the corner has swagga like us"—the boys' club is breached, the swagger shared. Maybe next time they'll actually invite her to rhyme.