If you take a look at Billboard‘s Year-End Hot 100 chart, it’s abundantly clear that hip-hop was the dominant genre in 2018. But dig a little deeper. Beyond the ubiquitous Drakes and Post Malones of the world, there were only two female rappers who claimed their stake on the coveted chart, with a combined 12 appearances between them. Yet in a year that saw an impressive variety of new and up-and-coming women rising in the hip-hop space, why is that Cardi B and Nicki Minaj continue to gain all the mainstream attention?
From the neon-colored kookiness of Rico Nasty and the dutty wine-and-Red Stripe chattings of Stefflon Don, to the visual creativity of Tierra Whack and Noname’s soothing near-spoken-word tunes — even Bhad Bhabie’s teen-driven cockiness and the raunchy lyrics of City Girls and Megan Thee Stallion — these artists made some of the most vibrant, energetic and adventurous music this year. This new class is bending the stereotypes of what it means to be a free-thinking woman in hip-hop, injecting a dose of progressive lyrics, non-binary sexuality and autonomous imagery into a genre that has been historically ruled by men. But hip-hop culture will suffer if only a small handful of these artists are showered with the bulk of the attention — often for reasons that have nothing to do with their music — and 2018 showed there hasn’t been enough room made for many queens to rule the court.
Mainstream hip-hop is still limiting the space for female rappers, a playing field that’s been uneven since the genre’s birth in the ‘70s. Over the decades, we saw more women enter the realm, including Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, Roxanne Shante, Yo-Yo, Queen Latifah, Lil Kim and Foxy Brown. But there was always a catch: they would either have to rely on a male co-sign to get the exposure they deserved, or they’d end up getting pitted against each other in trivial feuds.
“Historically speaking, if you think back to how we first started hearing about these women — they were always attached to a group,” Hot 97’s on-air host and DJ Megan Ryte tells Billboard. “Lauryn Hill is attached to The Fugees, Lil Kim with Junior Mafia, Remy Ma with Terror Squad — even Nicki Minaj with Young Money.” Cardi B’s rise earlier this year — following to the skyrocketing of “Bodak Yellow” to No. 1 in the latter half of 2017 — appeared to halt this trend. “When Cardi B came out — and not to say she was the first to do this — she was very instrumental in breaking that off because she came out solo-dolo,” Ryte explains. “The focus was on her. She didn’t have an established crew around her, so she was able to stand alone on her own two feet — and we’re talking red bottoms!”
Cardi B’s record-setting trajectory — “Bodak Yellow” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks in a row and made history as being only the second female rapper to accomplish that feat with a solo single — helped open doors for other female rappers to let their music be heard. “[“Bodak Yellow”] is a very woman record, and I feel like it opened a lot of doors for a lot of these female artists to come out and do the same thing,” Ryte continues.
But it also caused a rift between her and rap’s long-governing queen, Nicki Minaj. The two previously claimed they didn’t have an issue with each other, yet the rumors about their beef continued to build as fans speculated they were throwing subliminal shots in various songs. Minaj later addressed her problems with Cardi during a Zane Lowe interview in April, where she stated she didn’t receive proper praises from the Bronx star: “I remember when I first came in the game, if a female of that stature had done a feature with me on it, I would only be singing their praises and saying thank you.”
From that point on, the “Cardi B vs. Nicki Minaj” argument escalated into a rap soap opera. The tension between the two women hit its gnarly peak during September’s New York Fashion Week, where they got into an altercation at a Harper’s Bazaar event. Needless to say, the drama between the artists temporarily dimmed the spotlight on their actual music as both released new albums within months of each other — April’s Invasion of Privacy and August’s Queen. This yet again enforced the idea that there can only be one female rapper who can have control of the mainstream’s apex. Instead of using all this energy to fuel other women on the rise, the feud between the two stars — and the countless spectators reveling in the drama — inadvertently seemed to suck up all the oxygen that could’ve been used to boost fellow female MCs further into the ears of the public.
“I don’t like it, but then again [Cardi B and Minaj] showed this is what hip hop was about,” Brooklyn-born DJ Miss Milan says about the feud. “If you had a problem with somebody, you’d pull up to that person like, ‘What’s good?’ And I feel like it’s just more pinned against women because we’re known to be ‘catty.’ But especially how times are changing now, we’re just showing that we’re about the same bullshit that you men are talking about [in your music] — except we’re really about that action now.”
According to Ryte, the industry played a role further igniting the messy saga. “It’s interesting: [the media] will make a whole story about a woman, and they’re not gonna do that with a guy! [A label] can have a [male] artist, and they’re not trying to figure out what they were doing before they started rapping, how long they’ve been rapping — they don’t think that way. But when a woman comes along, all of a sudden it’s like ‘Oh where did she come from?’ You can’t do that. Of course you want to know about the person, but it should always be about the record.”
Marisa Mendez — host of Dash Radio’s Marisa Explains It All — agrees, telling Billboard: “Some of these websites do polls, like, ‘Who is your favorite, Nicki or Cardi?’ Things like that don’t need to be. Let’s highlight more women. I think the media enjoys the Cardi vs. Nicki narrative and in that, there isn’t really room for other people. But I want it to change.”
In the midst of the Cardi B-Nicki Minaj chronicles, there were still some female rappers who managed to grab the industry’s attention. Mendez calls Oakland-based rapper Saweetie, the three dolls (the Rihanna-cosigned Kash Doll, Cuban Doll from Dallas and Dream Doll from the Bronx) and Tierra Whack as some of her favorite femcees this year. Miss Milan is also rooting for Saweetie, along with Crystal Caines, LightSkinKeisha and Bronx’s own Maliibu Miitch. But despite their love for all the new faces, these industry leaders also face challenges in their workplace when trying to give a spotlight to those who are deserving of it.
“Of course there’s been instances where I’ve said, ‘This record is hard, let’s support her’ — and sometimes there’s backlash,” Ryte explains. “With women — not just in this industry — we have to prove ourselves so much more than men. And that transfers in the music side of things, where that woman who’s trying to break through, has to work two, three, four, five times as hard for people to accept her and say ‘I’m buying into this.’ And I think that is where the issue lies. People don’t want to take much of a chance, which is unfortunate, but we’re definitely getting to a better space in general where women are able to shine.”
As we head into 2019, it’s time to break the cycle of placing female rappers in the shadows of the rap game. But it is not up to the women alone to make this change — men also need to step up and support the talent as well. “That’s what DJs have the power to do,” says Mendez. “There may be a lesser-known woman who’s not necessarily the most popular, but if she got a record that is good for a club, just throw it on. It’s just little things like that that’ll just start making a difference and celebrating more women.”
From adding more than one female MC onto songs — without the pairing being inspired by any drama between them — to label A&Rs seeking out undiscovered female talent and even us consumers acknowledging that there are multiple lanes in hip-hop, there are various ways this year’s female rappers and the ones to follow can all remain relevant for decades to come. Miss Milan puts it best: “We don’t want to wait until they blow up to superstardom for us to be like, ‘Oh yes, I was supporting her!’ Literally, we just got to continue to push each other, have [the female artists] open up on tours, put them on records. Let’s give them a shot the same way they would give a male a shot. We just need the same respect and energy.”