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March 29 2013
Sex & Low Beach
If I find myself jonesing for some lady rap in my nightly procrastinatory YouTube scans, there’s no question what video I’m watching: “DJ please, pick up your phone, I’m on the request line.” Bees buzz on a record player. Swings swing in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Middle school flashbacks hit. There she is: spiky-haired, blue fur-wearing, iconic. There’s no other way to put it: Watching Missy Elliott’s “Work It” music video is mesmerizing. Her singular facial features, her coat complete with her own visage printed on the back, and her tendency to blend right in with her male dancers are all just unarguably cool. Elliott is a female anomaly in the male-dominated hip-hop industry: She’s fearless, she’s powerful, she’s attractive—and now, she’s back.
After a seven year long hiatus since her last studio album, Elliott reappeared over this past year on collaborations with artists from Busta Rhymes to Demi Lovato. She released two much-anticipated singles over Labor Day weekend, “9th Inning”—featuring veteran hip-hop producer and rapper Timbaland—and “Triple Threat.”
Elliott began her career as one-third of an R&B group called Sista, which promptly disbanded when it encountered difficulties with its record label. She began writing songs for other artists, most famously for Aaliyah, to much acclaim from record company executives. By 1997, Elliott had her own album out—Supa Dupa Fly—on which she experimented with both melodic vocals and low, smooth rapping.
Women in rap date all the way back to the prehistoric mid-80s. MC Lyte (born Lana Michele Moorer) was one of the first solo female rappers to make a full-length album (Lyte as a Rock, 1988). Salt-N-Pepa, an all-girl hip-hop trio, formed in 1985. Wendy “Lady B” Clark, Queen Latifah, Eve, and Lil’ Kim are just a few of many other early female MCs. Essentially, two camps began forming, delineating the different ways in which these female artists gained notoriety and became successful: Lyte represented the hardcore, aggressive, one-of-the-guys persona, while Salt-N- Pepa was more coy, sensual, and, well, girly.
Missy’s approach falls somewhere in between. Her sporty style staples are just as recognizable as the opening lines of “Get Ur Freak On” or “Lose Control.” Missy doesn’t wear corsets, leopard-print bikinis, or half-topless dresses (ahem, Lil’ Kim). Her baggy pants and sporty kicks are reminiscent of hip-hop-inspired men’s streetwear, which may lend her credibility by allowing listeners to think of her as in league with their favorite male MCs.
According to Grace McCreight, WBAR’s urban music director, women in hip-hop “are placed under extra scrutiny for being feminine intruders on a masculine space. Because of this, it is much harder for them to be taken seriously and to become successful, especially in a mainstream sense.” One can recognize this boys’ club simply by noting that male hip-hop artists continue to dominate the charts.
“Missy Elliott is one of the few women to escape the objectification used by the industry to market rappers who just happen to be female, while maintaining the ability to rhyme about her own sexual appetites,” McCreight says. Her lyrics are indeed rife with a kind of girl power, a sexual pride and self-confidence that rivals the cockiest male rappers. In short, even Elliott’s version of feminism might be termed masculine in its delivery, making her music accessible to everyone, regardless of their gender-debate persuasion.
Today, females in hip-hop have become even more common. M.I.A., Rye Rye, Azealia Banks, and Nicki Minaj are becoming household names, mentioned alongside male powerhouses Jay-Z and Kanye. The era may be different, but the various artists’ approaches to their images have not really changed: sexy outfits, outrageous lyrics, tomboy-chic style, and a strong feminist agenda (or some combination thereof) still seem to be the attention-grabbing options from which female MC’s must choose if they want to be successful.
Of course, one could argue that, in general, the rap industry is now more sexualized than it was at its roots—just watch Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s music video for their 1982 hit “The Message” and compare it to The Fixxers’ video for 2007’s “Can U Werk Wit Dat.” It follows, then, that the cliché of the role of women in hip-hop has evolved to a point that would make any women’s studies major cringe. Where, then, does that leave the ladies who are the stars of their own music videos?
“Often, they work within those misogynistic schemes to reach audiences,” McCreight says. “See Lil’ Kim’s cover for La Bella Mafia—the woman has more talent than most men out there, but still has to be nearly nude for her album to get attention—and so they have to balance artistic endeavors with industry expectations.”
Oftentimes, that balance implies a sort of paradox: “Women attempting to fit into a male industry sometimes write very sexual lyrics, using aggressive feminine sexuality as a response to aggressive masculine norms,” McCreight explains. “At the same time that they are transgressing social rules on how women should talk about sex, they are also kowtowing to an industry that expects them to be primarily sexual creatures.”
Ultimately, it’s a catch-22: whether one sees, for example, Minaj’s risqué outfits as a capitulation to the sexualized stereotype of females in rap, or as a strategic statement on (and a valuable tool in taking back) sexuality, is ultimately a matter of opinion.
If Twitter support and attention in the blogosphere are anything to go by, Elliott is being welcomed back to the game with open arms. Her singular style has not changed as the industry has. She’s female-empowering without shoving ideals down anyone’s throats, she’s hot without sporting barely-there underwear in her music videos, and she’s the epitome of cool without giving you an inferiority complex. Missy’s accessible, timeless, and unique. And she’s certainly saved me from many a night of humdrum productivity.
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