How Women Reclaimed Hip-Hop in 2019 by Making Their Own Rules

Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat, Saweetie, Rico Nasty and Rapsody
Getty Images; Design by Jessica Xie

Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat, Saweetie, Rico Nasty and Rapsody

Last year demanded the question of why, in a time that blatantly dominated by hip-hop at every industry level, barely any room was made for women in the genre's mainstream. The topic surrounding the lack of equal representation was muddled in the midst of the Nicki Minaj vs. Cardi B saga that carried on throughout the year.

It cast a negative shadow among all of the other rising female rappers trying to push their way into the forefront, only to end up on the sidelines. The gender imbalance was too egregious not to be discussed. So, this time last year, we did just that: by breaking down the genre’s history of placing women in the shadows with commentary from female industry experts who commanded a change.

Fortunately, this year, there has finally been a noticeable surge in mainstream attention and commercial success from female MCs, whose stats are creeping up just behind the men. Throughout 2019, the female rappers who were once caught behind the webs of headline-churning feuds are now the ones who are -- in the ubiquitous words of Megan Thee Stallion -- “driving the boat,” both up the charts and towards the forefront of the hip-hop game.

The growth of women’s presence this year has been exciting and staggering, proving that they’ve always been capable of crafting music that impacts the industry. On Billboard's 2019 Year-End Hot 100 chart, Lizzo leads at No. 13 with “Truth Hurts" (which tied with Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" for the longest reign for a rap song by a female artist), Megan Thee Stallion appears twice (“Cash S--t” feat. DaBaby and the anthemic “Hot Girl Summer” with Nicki Minaj and Ty Dolla $ign), Cardi B scores six entries both as a featured and solo artist, while City Girls’ “Act Up” and Saweetie’s “My Type” bow at No. 68 and No. 76, respectively. The impressive feat marks the most female rappers on the Year-End chart’s history, beating out 2002's previous mark of five women (Eve for "Gangsta Lovin’” and her feature on City High’s “Caramel,” Vita and Charli Baltimore on The Inc.’s “Down 4 U,” Missy Elliot on “Work It” and Angie Martinez on “If I Could Go"). 

There were plenty other memorable moments for female rappers both on and off the charts. “My Type” earned Saweetie her first Rhythmic Charts No. 1. Rapsody’s acclaimed third album Eve -- a self-described “love letter to all black women,” with each track named after a prominent cultural figure and also features a rare guest verse from Queen Latifah -- drew some of the strongest reviews of the year. Doja Cat’s sophomore LP Hot Pink peaked at No. 20 on the Billboard 200, Megan Thee Stallion successfully trademarked her culturally pervasive “Hot Girl Summer” catchphrase, and the coveted XXL Freshman Class marked the first time three woman appeared on the cover (Rico Nasty, Tierra Whack and Megan).

“Us women have always been talented. But it was a thing where there could only be one woman [rapper] at a time,” Megan tells Billboard. “You got all these guy rappers out here who ain't really talking about a lot! [Laughs.] But we all would commend them, as many as they come. So I was really excited that a lot of women got their shine this year.”

The biggest key in these ladies’ successes is individuality, which they fearlessly embrace in their lyrics, through clothing, the way they engage with fans on social media and even the color hair they decide to sport on any given day. This leads to a range of sounds that speaks to the different facets of a woman. Feel like twerking? Turn up some Megan Thee Stallion or City Girls. Feel like talking smack? Maliibu Mitch or Kash Doll are your best bets. Need to reflect with intuitive, poetry-like lyrics? Try out NoName or Little Simz. Heading to the club? Better blast Dreezy or Ms. Banks through your car speakers. Desperate to scream out all your frustrations? Rico Nasty made an entire EP just for that.

“The culture doesn't move without women, and it's great because it shows there's room for all of us -- and we’re doing it at elite levels,” notes Rapsody. “We make some of the best music that's out right now. We don't have to fight each other for one spot, because that's an illusion. It's been super-diverse, especially if you look at music outside the mainstream TV and radio.”

“That's what we have been missing for a long time -- balance,” she continues. “Music is supposed to be a soundtrack to your life, and there's a woman who can fit in every part of that. What's dope is you see more camaraderie among these women. Nobody is falling into that false narrative of ‘there can only be one’ anymore.”

But as the spotlight continues to shine on these women, there will always be those who attempt to dim it. Back in July, Jermaine Dupri commented on female rap culture that immediately sparked controversy. “I feel they’re all rapping about the same thing,” he exclaimed during a PEOPLE interview. “I don’t think they’re showing us who’s the best rapper. For me, it’s like strippers rapping and as far as rap goes I’m not getting who’s the best rapper.”

His remarks, which were met with backlash from artists like Cardi B and Doja Cat, showed that the rise of new-gen women rappers didn’t necessarily halt the genre’s historically misogynistic mindset. 

“Just being a carefree black woman gets under so many men's skin,” says DJ Miss Milan, who also serves as Saweetie’s tour DJ. “Take Megan Thee Stallion for instance. She was getting berated by a bunch of men over the fact that she was constantly twerking. So what? She's rapping better than 99 percent of the male rappers out there.”

“People have to stop trying to put these girls down by telling them to prove themselves,” she continues. “The guys are never asked that -- they're literally popping out with no type of [music] history and are able to succeed. No one is challenging DaBaby or YBN Cordae -- but you'd have someone calling out Cardi B for not writing her raps. We need to just let the work speak for itself.”

Despite their unmistakable talent, these women find themselves still having the go the extra mile to confirm their worth in order to win favor from the industry (like the 2020 Grammys, which largely ignored women in the rap categories), or its consumers -- both of which are monopolized by men.

“I felt somewhat insulted [by Jermaine Dupri] because I rap about my p---y all the time. There's a lot of songs where girls don't talk about that,” says Rico Nasty. “But if the p---y-popping bangers are what's hitting the clubs, then that's what you're going to hear all the time. You know how many times men rap about the same s--t on more than one song?

“I think that guys sometimes get upset, because they look at us and think it's all glitz and glam,” she continues. “There's some guys out there who risk their life for this rap s--t and by being around certain people they got no business being around. So when they see a pretty girl shaking her ass and making a whole lot of money, they get mad because they can't do that.”

Rapsody echoes Rico’s sentiments, calling those who fail to discover new talent “lazy”: “We rely on outlets to tell us [what’s hot], but the same way you can Google anything you want to know, you can do the same for music. Find what you're looking for instead of complaining about what you don't like. Put your dollars where your mouth is!”

Beefs have been a longstanding marker in hip-hop, and was partly the result of last year’s attention being geared towards Cardi B versus Nicki Minaj. Now, these women have making making strides to break that historical chain by placing sisterhood as the top priority.

“People live for controversy and drama, but there are women who are genuinely supporting each other -- look at Megan driving the boat with every female artist, and the many collaborations between the rap girls,” says Miss Milan. “I even recently saw Kash Doll and Cardi B chilling together. Sometimes they don't even know they're beefing with each other; it all comes down to a headline. I like that they're not feeding into the negativity and are having fun and creating lyrics the girls want to sing, and inspiring this new generation [of young rappers] like ZaZa and That Girl Lay Lay.”

Megan, who has befriended nearly every major female R&B singer and rapper this year, through shared liquor bottles and twerk sessions, credits the new friendships to her welcoming personality. “I don't mind [reaching out], like ‘Hey girl!’ I don't feel like we're all in competition because we're not necessarily doing the same things," she explains. "So I just always let people know that I'm not the person that's trying to separate these girls -- I want to be cool with you.”

Along with uplifting each other, they’re also trading life lessons. “When I did ComplexCon [in November], I learned a lot from Kamaiyah by watching her speak about taking ownership of the s--t she has accomplished -- like performing at Coachella,” Rico Nasty recalls. “It really encouraged me. We realized we're all pretty much up against the same enemies and our journeys are similar. We're trying to change the stigma and that brings us closer together, knowing that we have one goal we can all agree on. We just want to knock this s--t out the park.”

While rap’s playing field has expanded to include more women on the bench, the work towards proper representation is far from over. The solutions can span from awards show recognition (both within categories and onstage performances) to more radio-focused collaborations, stronger worldwide marketing campaigns, covers on mainstream magazines and joint headlining tours. It should also happen right in the studio, giving female producers, engineers and A&Rs more opportunities to create the right platform for these rappers’ voices to shine.

But if attempts to silence their voices continue, Rico Nasty isn’t going to stand for it: “If you want me to stop yelling at you, then stop giving me s--t to yell at you about! [Our music] is just the blueprint of what people will look back on 10 years from now. I just hope people continue to embrace us.”

“We give everybody an equal chance, but it's still not really as equal as it could be,” says Megan. “There's just so many rules that people try to place on women rappers. So we just gotta keep breaking these barriers down.”

2019 Billboard Year in Music