The 2018 Grammys Could Be a Year of Firsts for Female Rappers

Cardi B & Rapsody
Getty Images; Design by Jessica Xie

Cardi B & Rapsody

This year’s awards-show circuit has become an impromptu and much-needed stage for women to band together against the men who have held them down. And in a continuation of the theme, the 2018 Grammys could quietly become a record year for the ever-overlooked women of rap.

On Sunday, we could see the first woman win for best rap song, the first woman win in best rap performance, and the second-ever woman win for best rap album -- following Lauryn Hill’s win with The Fugees in 1997, making its potential follow-up exactly 20 years later. 

The two women responsible for the potentially historic night are Cardi B and Rapsody. Cardi B is up for best rap song and best rap performance for “Bodak Yellow,” while Rapsody is up for best rap song for “Sassy” and best album for Laila’s Wisdom.

The differences between Cardi and Rapsody are notable -- in fact, in some ways, Rapsody almost feels like Cardi’s antithesis. The 34-year-old North Carolina native has been quietly collecting and growing her critical acclaim for almost a decade, with her latest release, Laila’s Wisdom, being her sixth full project and second solo album. It includes the soulful, thoughtful and aware lyricism from someone who's been around, all over the sort of chopped piano beats that each sound separately ready for a feature from Kendrick Lamar (who is, in fact, featured on the album). And even before the feature from Kendrick, Rapsody has been building her lyrical mastery as far back as 2013. Her first solo album, She Got Game, includes verses sandwiched between Chance the Rapper, Jay Electronica and Big K.R.I.T., and each time she smoothly delivers a melodic matchup. Much like Cardi though, Rapsody’s true breakthrough only came recently, as it wasn’t until 2016 that she was signed to Roc Nation.

And as for Cardi B, her introduction was explosive. She’s the loud, unapologetic “regular, degular, shmegular” former stripper from the Bronx. Her year has edged toward over-exposure, a feat she’s only avoided by simply being one of the most likable personalities to hit the rap scene in a year of problematic male SoundCloud rappers. Her 2018 included a full feature and cover of Billboard magazine, a Beyoncé-topping chart record, and the massive No. 1 Hot 100 hit “Bodak Yellow” -- all without a full album from the rapper and only a handful of songs to her name.

The differences between the two female MCs are the sort of nuances that most Grammy-nominated artists span, but they’re also the complexities that are so often missed when female rappers are lazily compared and pitted against one another, or when their existence is glossed over altogether. Because despite the potential “first-ever” label that either woman could rightfully earn, there is more to be said about the lack of recognition at the Grammys than the lack of actual female rappers.

The rap album category was introduced in 1997, and it has remained female-free since the aforementioned Lauryn Hill (via The Fugees) win. As for the best song category, female winners have included Alicia Keys (on JAY-Z's “Empire State of Mind”) and Rihanna (on JAY-Z's "Run This Town"), both of whom were featured as the female songstress on a Hov hook. And while much credit is due to the sung hook, the difference and power in a female rap verse is unmatched.

The best rap performance category is nearly excused for its female absence, as it ha only had eight winners in total, half of whom are Kanye West and Kendrick. The category debuted in 1989 and only existed for another year before taking a hiatus and resurfacing, as a result of category restructuring, in 2012.

And to be fair, the show rightfully gave legend Missy Elliott her props in the category in 2002, 2003 and 2004. However her 2003 and 2004 wins were in a formerly segregated all-female category. As for the 2002 win, the categories were split between solo and duo performances, so her win was technically a part of the best rap solo performance. Missy’s four total wins are marked by 22 nominations.

The only other woman to win for her performance, while the category was still split by acts, was Queen Latifah in 1995, whose win sits next to another six nominations. So even Missy’s win is tallied as a technicality issue, and it’s still been 15 years since the last woman to win in the rap performance category.

But regardless of Grammy categories and guidelines, it’s not like there haven’t been chances for other female rappers to win just a few more Grammys. To start with the obvious, there’s Nicki Minaj, who has very much so existed within the modern parameters of the show’s categories. The rapper has been nominated a total of 10 times but has yet to actually take a home a statue. Her losses have been to reputable competitors -- among them Kendrick, Kanye, Adele and Chance the Rapper -- but something about an unrequited 10 nods to the most-known modern female rapper seems off.

Then there’s Eve, a four-time nominated rapper, with one win for “Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” a shining example of both a female hook and female-led verses. But her one win came for the now nonexistent best rap/sung collaboration category. Lil' Kim matches Eve with a similarly low six nominations, her only recognition coming from a win with P!nk, Christina Aguilera and Mya on a pop collaboration, which is probably the last category Lil' Kim really needs to win in.

As for this year, Rapsody and Cardi B are going against some longtime Grammy favorites with seven-time winner Kendrick Lamar and 21-time winner JAY-Z in their respective categories, making any potential female rap victory that much more impressive.

So much like the latter half of 2017, there may finally be some acknowledgement of women in the rap categories, but whether or not these women are truly acknowledged over their male counterparts will remain unclear until Sunday. 

2018 Grammy Awards