Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty
“Farewell To...” is an end-of-decade series that explores some of the biggest cultural trends of the last 10 years. HuffPost’s culture team says bye to the celebrity feminist litmus test, so long to lily-white and mostly male literary institutions, RIP to the movie star, and more.
The 2010s are ending on a high note for women in hip-hop. Cardi B surpassed her prescribed 15 minutes of fame to become America’s favorite cover girl. Noname is teaching the babies with her book club. JT of the City Girls is free. Megan Thee Stallion is empowering us to let out our inner hotties. Doja Cat is making music videos interesting again and reminding us that she’s more than just a cow. Missy Elliott is finally getting the accolades she deserves.
These ladies are not only in their bag but in your favorite male rapper’s, too. Yet at the start of this decade, it was almost unimaginable to think that this many women would be able to thrive and climb the hip-hop ladder at the same time.
The beginning of the decade belonged to Nicki Minaj. 2010 marked her big breakout moment. She turned the corner in the late aughts from freestyling in staircases to signing on with one of the hottest up-and-coming rap labels at that time, Lil Wayne’s Young Money. Men were dominating the mixtape game back then and the quality of EPs began to sound more like albums, but Nicki had the streets’ attention with 2009’s “Beam Me Up Scotty.” By November 2010, it was evident that the Queens, New York, rapper would become the oasis of estrogen hip-hop desperately needed. That year, she dropped her debut album, “Pink Friday,” and arguably the best feature verse of the year on Kanye West’s “Monster.”
She spent the year giving us a preview of how she would go on to dominate the charts both with her own singles and with feature performances on some of the most notable records of the time, including “All I Do Is Win” and “Bottoms Up.” By the end of 2010, her album had become the first album by a solo female rapper to reach platinum status in eight years, kickstarting her reign.
This was just a first glimpse at Nicki’s potential. With her colorful theatrics and lyrical agility, she was able to do what so many women in rap couldn’t for a while: She secured a place in hip-hop that would lead to longevity, massive crossover appeal, business ventures aplenty, awards and a record-breaking 106 songs on the Billboard Top 100 Hits. But for a little more than half a decade, it seemed like she would be the only female emcee to get the shine she deserved.
Minaj wasn’t the only woman rapping, but she was the only one audiences and the industry were paying attention to. Compared to the ’80s and ’90s when there were more than 40 women signed to major labels, in 2010 there were just three: Minaj, Diamond of Crime Mobb and Trina, who parted ways with Slip-N-Slide Records later that year. The early to mid-2010s felt bleak for women in the game. Missy Elliott, who took a break from rapping to take a seat in the production chair, was diagnosed with Graves’ disease; Lil Kim was still working through and recovering from contract issues with her previous label; and Remy Ma was still in prison.
“We’ve gone backwards,” MC Lyte said in a 2014 interview with NPR, commenting on the state of women in hip-hop. “This is pretty much what it was like when women weren’t able to get major recording and release opportunities.”
By the decade’s midpoint, however, more women were doing their damnedest to pry open the doors that had been closed to them so long. Artists not in the mainstream of hip-hop ― including Tink, Angel Haze and Azealia Banks ― were putting in the work to try to make a name for themselves in rap.
Naima Cochrane, writer and former product manager for Tink, told HuffPost that for a while, the rap industry wanted new artists to be iterations of artists with already established success.
“Tink was signed with Timbaland ― it should have been great, right?” Cochrane said. “And she can both rap and sing. There was room for her to do a lot, and I think had it been three years later, her story would have gone differently. But people wanted to be like, ‘Well, is she a new Missy, is she a new such and such?’ You had to put her in a box, you had to compare it to somebody. And I think we’ve moved past that. I think we’ve finally moved past that moment of having to say, ‘This is the new blah blah blah,’ and just let them be them.”
Around 2015, fans got a look at how the formula would soon change. Cardi B, already known for her ever raw and often hilarious presence on Instagram, joined the cast of “Love & Hip-Hop” to help plant the seeds of stardom. During her time on the show, she launched her rap career, dropping “Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 1,” and established a rapidly growing fanbase with her infectious personality. But since she was on reality TV, had a past as a stripper and often was labeled not a true lyricist, the industry didn’t take her seriously at first.
“Even though I’m from New York, they gave me the hardest time,” Cardi told 99 Jamz of getting radio play initially. “They were the hardest for them to play me on the radio and take me serious because rapping in New York is something very serious. It’s not a game to them. I had to prove myself.” And despite her ultimately meteoric rise to fame, she said that being on reality TV made it harder for her.
It turns out all that didn’t matter. Cardi B found the formula and was able to dominate the airwaves starting in 2017, becoming the first female emcee to win the Grammy for Best Rap Album. And she did it without a nod from a major male rapper.
“I think one thing Cardi was able to do was show that she didn’t intrinsically need that male co-sign,” music journalist Sowmya Krishnamurthy told HuffPost. “Now, obviously, she’s in a relationship with Offset. She’s collaborated with everyone from G-Eazy to A$AP Rocky ― the list goes on and on. But I would argue that in many ways she added a certain X factor to those records and her working with these artists made them more interesting, as opposed to the idea that she had to be ushered in by a man.”
Around the time Cardi B entered the game, there was a new excitement around women in hip-hop. In 2017, Remy dropped “Shether,” arguably the best diss track of the decade aimed at Nicki. Their beef was the dominating conversation in hip-hop from the day Remy’s track released and then, shortly after, Nicki responded with “No Frauds.” Beef is ingrained in the DNA of hip-hop and for the first time in the decade, two women throwing bars at each other had everyone’s attention.
With the rise of streaming in conjunction with social media, more fans were tuned in to what female rappers had to say in general, which made it hard for the industry to ignore them. But there was, unfortunately, still a lot of convincing to do. So in the mid-to-late 2010s, up-and-coming female emcees really started to shake the table.
In October of this year, Cardi made headlines when she claimed that she had opened doors for the new wave of women in hip-hop. “Labels [were] signing female rappers and putting them in a shelf and not focusing on them,” she said on Twitter. “Bitches been rapping bitches been have talent but the music industry wasn’t believing,” she added.
Though her remarks were controversial, it’s hard not to accept that there’s a lot of truth in them.
Now, for the first time in a long time, music fans have a number of active female rappers with varying sounds to stan. Rapsody and Noname bring a more cerebral, vibey approach to their music. City Girls, Megan Thee Stallion and Bbymutha empower listeners to lean into their inner bad bitch. Rico Nasty’s punk sound inspires ragers. Young MA and Tierra Whack can spit circles around your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper. And Saweetie, Kash Doll, Dreezy and Dej Loaf offer bops suitable for any Instagram caption.
The chart numbers reflect a demand for a diverse array of female rap acts. Just this year, eight female rappers made the Billboard Top 100 Hits chart ― that’s the most this decade. In recent years there has been a surge in female collaborations in hip-hop. Rap icons who’ve been in the game for a while are also getting their just due, with Lil Kim being recognized at the VH1 Hip-Hop Honors in 2016 and the BET Hip-Hop Awards this year. Missy Elliott is also getting her flowers, receiving MTV’s Video Vanguard Award and becoming the first female hip-hop artist to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
This shows that the industry and major institutions within it are starting to take women in hip-hop more seriously and rectifying snubs from previous eras, but there’s still a long way to go before parity is a reality. In 2003, the Grammys created a new category for Best Female Rap Solo Performance to address the rising number of female rappers. They did away with the category just two years later due to a dwindling number of women who could compete for the award, NPR reports, noting that BET and VH1 followed suit. Cochrane suggests that as hip-hop evolves, there need to be more categories to reflect the various lanes opening up within the genre.
What’s key is having true diversity and inclusion in decision-making positions, Krishnamurthy noted, or those institutions will become less and less credible to fans.
“Having people who know the music, know the culture and are able to kind of funnel that into these established entities, I think it’s paramount,” she told HuffPost. “Otherwise, you’re going to keep getting the same five people winning awards. I think for the fans, how they’re showcasing their discontent is they’re not tuning in. Across the board, a lot of these kind of old school things just aren’t garnering the same interest. I think for them to survive and go into the next generation, they have to be nimble and they have to reflect what the culture is in 2019 and onwards.”
Progress is a slow process but if this decade was any indication of where hip-hop is going, then the old guards that prevented women from thriving in this young genre are starting to fall as women make their moves to capture the throne. If nothing else, this decade proved that more than one woman can wear her crown alongside other rap queens.
CORRECTION: Eight, not seven, female rappers made the Billboard Top 100 Hits chart in 2019.