1997: "Crush On You" - Lil' Kim
Gabrielle: Holy shit, I can't even express all of my feelings about this woman but I'm going to try. For a moment, set aside all of your preconceived notions about oversexualized female rappers and all the angry sex feelings you may have about rappers like Lil' Kim, let's go back to 1994 and talk about a young woman named Kimberly Denise Jones. Originally part of the rap group J.U.N.I.O.R. Mafia, Lil' Kim stood strong amidst a group of stone faced hard spittin' dudes and she held her own. Nah, check that, she eclipsed them immediately.
With her deep round the way voice and aggressive, violent, shockingly sexual lyrics, Lil' Kim sliced her name into the rap game with a vengeance. She rapped along Biggie Smalls in tracks such as “Get Money" and “Player's Anthem"; Kim was his co-de, homegirl, the Bonnie to his Clyde and unfortunately for her, a chick smitten with his Big-ness. But for me, Lil' Kim was more than the female version of Biggie — which is what rap critics called and still call her because obvs for a woman to be successful, she's gotta be strapped to a man. Right, Frida?
Anyway, obsessed with Lil' Kim from J.M., I totally jumped on her first solo album Hard Core which dropped in the cold ass winter of 1996. I hid that CD in my room for years listening solely with my headphones on because it was filled with curses, drug references and things about sex I never even imagined happened like female orgasms! Yes, Queen Latifah and others came first, but Lil' Kim was the first one to make rapping look so sexy, to me anyway. I'm conflicted as I write this because my nostalgia for Kim can't erase the fact that in many ways Lil' Kim's presence destroyed the positive sister-based feminism that the female rap movement embodied. Her verses were filled with hate for other women and the desire to be the main bitch in a circle of men. She rapped that other women couldn't be trusted like in the track "M.A.F.I.A. Land": “I used to roll hard with tons of bitches. Now it's just me and my n*ggas." Still, the one thing I can say about Lil' Kim is that her existence allowed my thirteen year old self to feel OK stomping through the streets, to feel safe walking the block with a scowl and fists clenched, ready to not be hassled by bullies, ready to handle myself. Sometime, that's all I needed to get through my day.
Rachel: Recently, because of this event called A-Camp, maybe you've heard of it, I had occasion to spend approximately 8-10 hours over the course of a day driving through, in, and around LA. I had a giant folder of dozens of CDs to play courtesy of Sarah Croce, but really I just wanted to listen to Notorious K.I.M. on repeat, so that's what I did. While I agree with Gabby that I wish Kim's brand of feminine power came with less competition and sniping at other women, I just admire her so fiercely for being so unapologetic, so indubitably powerful, and so unwilling to play down sexuality in order to be taken seriously. And she didn't leave you any choice about taking her seriously. "First female king/and they're mad 'cause I'm a girl." Even if Kim was often dismissed as a sexy, female, novelty sidekick to Biggie, his track "Another" has her telling him "You ain't shit, you fat motherfucker," on his own album. Kim didn't need to ride on anyone's coattails to be the best, because she already was.
And while Kim was also brushed off as unnecessarily vulgar, and working off the same denigrating sexual references that male rappers often used, the female sexual universe that Kim sets up is way more complicated and empowering than that. Lil' Kim was never shy about telling anyone to eat her out, or shy about rapping about how great it is to get to eat her out, or how if you're not willing to eat her out you may as well take your things and go. But unlike the dynamic in much of hip hop (and our culture in general), Kim wasn't issuing a command to a partner that she had control over — her partners were enthusiastic and into it, and suddenly pleasing your female partner in bed became more than just something they were owed. It became something awesome. Kim's overtly sexual lyrics weren't just about being in your face or being controversial — although they were also that — they were about making sex, and female sexuality, something fun and good. Kim's always in control of her sexual encounters, which is fucking badass, but they're about more than power; they're also about feeling good, which is genuinely revolutionary. We owe her so much; all hail Queen Bee.
1998: "Are You That Somebody" - Aaliyah
Carmen: How could I not put this song on every playlist ever in the history of time? God, it sounds good when you're cruising. My love for Aaliyah is strengthened by the honors paid to her by Drake on a daily basis, who respects her greatly as an artist and "wishes he had been able to meet her." That's a common sentiment, and with good reason - Aaliyah was a game-changer and an innovator. She was amazing. And she looked damn good in leather.
Saying goodbye to Aaliyah was something people weren't ready to do when she passed away tragically in 2001. A part of me wonders, though, if we ever have to say goodbye to a legacy. It doesn't seem fair. Can't we just play Aaliyah and pump the bass and pour one out?
That's what I'm gonna do.
1998: "Doo Wop (That Thing)" - Lauryn Hill
Carmen: I associate this song with, among other things, my friendship with Katrina and my friendship with my best friend Amanda Early and the night neither of them were there but it played at this gay bar and my friends and I, we just harmonized the shit out of it. We sang and we did backup vocals and we did beatboxing and we made that shit fucking happen because that's what you do when you hear Lauryn Hill — you throw your drinks up and you let it go. She shook the industry by not only demanding she be able to sing and rap on the same album, but then doing it at a level nobody could touch. Even Nicki Minaj ain't no Lauryn Hill.
That's because she's the one and only.
BONUS TRACKS: "Freedom"
Gabrielle: In 1995, Panther, a film directed by Mario Van Peebles, dropped into the American cinematic landscape and unflinchingly explored the Black Panther Party which fyi, was a revolutionary movement begun in the late 1960s whose primary focus was to protect Black Americans from a violent and corrupt law enforcement system. I cannot do the movement justice in this space so therefore I will refrain from anymore commentary. Basically, go to the library, do some research, read some books and watch this movie. My point is that two songs from the movie's soundtrack changed my whole fucking life. The song “Freedom" was released in two different versions on the Panther Soundtrack, and both version are simply incredible. All of the most influential creative female voices in hip hop and r&b music came together and created two songs about love for each, the strength in joining forces and the beauty that is being a Black Woman, A Woman of Color, and really, simply being a Woman. There have never been two songs like these ever. Don't test me. Just listen. Please.
One version was all of the best female rappers.
The other version was all the hottest R&B singers.
I hate to sound so old as to say they don't make songs like this anymore. Like women don't power together and make this kind of music...like maybe we do somewhere, in some magical place that I don't have access to but damn, these two songs gave me hope in the world.
“Freedom for my body. Freedom for my mind. Freedom for my Spirit."
PLAYLIST: A Thing Called Female Rap
Twist & Shout - Salt N Pepa
Cha Cha Cha - MC Lyte
Ladies First ft. Monie Love - Queen Latifah
You Can't Play With My Yo-Yo - Yo-Yo
Creep - TLC
Foxy's Bells - Foxy Brown
Crush On You - Lil' Kim
Are You That Somebody - Aaliyah
Doo Wop (That Thing) - Lauryn Hill
Freedom - Various Female Rap / R&B Artists Who All Are Amazing
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