Female Rappers 20 Years Ago

Female rappers, Hardcore and Ill Na Na were pioneering albums by Black women about Black women.

Female rappers Hardcore and Ill Na Na were pioneering albums by Black women about Black women. On the 20-year anniversary of their release, we’re still feeling the love. As part of an ongoing ’90s retrospective series, we examine the out-sized impact of Lil’Kim and Foxy Brown.

There are two time periods that make up the chronology of women in hip-hop: the era prior to Nov. 12, 1996, when our heroes of the genre were cut from a respectable cloth, and I the one following that date, when respectability got shot up and was laid to rest. There’s a week between (a mere seven-day stretch) that birthed the release of Hard Core, the debut album by Lil’ Kim, and Ill Na Na, the debut album by Foxy Brown. In their wake was a leopard-print bikini, an infamous squat, a whole lot of cleavage and a wealth of explicit lyrics for women listeners to draw upon and use to find the power some of us didn’t know we needed.

In general, 1996 was a monumental year for hip-hop and R&B, the interdependent genres of contemporaiy Black music. Jay Z released his first album. Reasonable Doubt. The Fugees gave us The Score, their second and most phenomenal project. Bad Boy and Roc-A-Fella dominated sales and packaged a culture of come-up and opulence consumed voraciously by teens and 20-somethings. The atmosphere was ripe for two beautiful young women—and dope rappers—to set themselves apart from their male crews, cliques and label mates to stand out as their own artists with their own brands of unapologetic Black girl bravado.

It’s been 20 years since those classic albums dropped— ions in the fast metabolism of the music industry—but the boldness that each articulated empowered an entire generation of Black female rappers. “You can’t talk about 1996 and not talk about Ill Na Na and Hard Core. They proved that women could spit, women could be aggressive and sexy, women could rhyme over good beats because the production value was there,” says VaNatta Ford, Ph.D., assistant professor of Africana Studies at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. “At the same time, they took sexual identity to the next level: to be cool with your lipstick and wear your fitted clothes in a way that MC Lyte and others before them could not or would not. Overall, they showed that hip-hop needed women.”

Competition where there is none
Let’s get the ugly stuff out of the way: It’s impossible to talk about the lasting impact of the music without mentioning the contentious relationship of the two women who created it. Both female rappers Kim and Foxy were contacted to be interviewed for this story; both, however, declined. Fans need only look back at the February 1997cover of hip-hop magazine The Source to recall a more amicable time. If hip-hop is competitive at its core, it’s even more of a blood sport for female artists who are historically held to a more rigorous set of aesthetic and artistic standards than their male peers. Pitting women against each other is typical, said Lynese “Babs” Wiley, who appeared on MTV’s Making the Band 2. An artist herself, she is also the founder and CEO of Queen of the Ring, the largest female battle rap company in I history, a platform she says she created to diffuse and redirect much of that unwarranted hostility.

“When you look at the pattern, it’s usually a girl in a crew of dudes who are like, ‘My chick is hotter than your chick.’ I think that’s where it stems from, feeling like they need to compete,” she explains. “Foxy and Kim never needed to do that, though, because they’re different. Their rhyme patterns are different, their images are different. They both sell sex appeal, but the I things they rap about are completely different. Lil’ Kim sells sex a little bit more than Foxy. Foxy was selling sex, but it was more like, ‘OK, I got the guns, I got the crack in the stash, I’m riding for my n***a. Kim was more, ‘I’m the madam; I’ll f**k a n***a and take his stash. It was similar, but it was different.”

A little competition is healthy for the art, adds Ford. But when those interactions bypass rivalry to become cutthroat beefs, it doesn’t fuel the progression of either artist or those coming up behind them. “I think Kim and Foxy would agree that they are important to rap music and the culture, but I also think people sometimes expect women to be BFFs when they don’t expect men to be BFFs. There’s always some sort of competition when just being a woman in hip-hop is a statement. I think now we’re see¬ing something new happen but, for like the last [15, 20] years, you could only have one, maybe two successful women in hip-hop at a time.”

And for a time, those women were Lil’ Kirn and Foxy Brown.

Whether either one was really free as an emerging artist is up for debate. The contents of their albums were heavily weighted by male influences—from the storytelling to the lyrics—and the ability to explore or express their own experiences, thoughts and emotions may have lost out to a facade. What we know for sure is that their natural sex appeal was ramped up, commoditized and marketed for money-making purposes, which  is never imposed on male counterparts, who are allowed to have protruding bellies, glass eyes and everything in between. A woman’s very ability to be seen and heard is measured by an indeterminate external value.

“I don’t care how good you look, how big your ass is, how big  your breasts are; eventually, a woman is going to want to be respected for her talent. I’ve known artists like that who told me, I just want to do me.’ Marketing turns them into mannequins. [The record labels] will have someone come write for her even though she writes her own sh*t. They’re going to dress her, they’ll tell her how to sound because they think a n***a is going to look at her and be like, ‘Oh, I want to f**k her,’ or a chick is I going look at her and say, I want to look like her,’” says Wiley, who designed Queen of the Ring matches to focus purely on the women’s ability to rap. “That’s what happened with Kim and Foxy. Do I think women have to dress like that to make it happen? No. Look at Young M. A. She’s breaking the mold right now. She’s a woman, and she’s spitting. She’s got millions of views. She’s got a following. No matter what, you’re going to have an issue. I just say stand strong and get your paper.”

Savoring our sexual selves
Together, Hard Core and Ill Na Na sold more than 3 million copies in the United States alone. Kim and Foxy produced subsequent albums with respectable showings for sure, but nothing compared to those debuts that celebrated the fly girls from Brooklyn and communities like it everywhere, the ones counted out by so many folks but who were queens in our homes and neighborhoods. Kim came with a brilliant uninhibited style that made the gritty streets her runaway. Foxy and her chocolate complexion affirmed the beauty of dark-skinned girls, Together they owned the parts of womanhood we’re not supposed to want to own – the calculated hustle, the by-any-means survival, the detached indifference, the sometimes-consuming vulnerability— and they paved the tarmac for other women to do their living, in and out of hip-hop. Erykah Badu would debut in 1997. Lauryn Hill would drop her solo project in 1998. But for a moment, Kim and Foxy were the dominant female forces in the music, period.

“Girls were so mad at Kim. They were bashing her CD, ripping her posters, like, ‘What is this? This chick is squatting with her box out?’ They couldn’t believe it. She was saying things that peo¬ple do but didn’t want to say, except she said it,” Wiley says, laughing. “I ain’t seen a brownie yet make it pop like Foxy. She did that. She was sexy, chocolate, coming with bars, just spitting. They did that. Their albums changed the game. It was so new, so vulgar, so raw and it was so Brooklyn at the same time. I pay homage to Kim and Foxy. They are queens.”

Drop “Big Momma Thang” or “I’ll Be” in a roomful of Black women, and you’ll instantly be able to tell who has a memory at¬tached to the pivotal work that Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown birthed for Black girls two decades ago. They galvanized us at parties, they gave us masterfully raunchy anthems for sexual pleasure, they put lyrics to our badassness, they even occasionally made us uncomfortable and forced us to question why we were feeling that way. Can you now say the p-word without blushing? Can you go down or saddle up without reservation? For three minutes at a time, these artists erased the behavioral line that divvies up good and bad girls and made us aware of ladylike expectations that were really just patriarchal social niceties. Choose to abide by their raunchy rules or don’t, but there’s no denying Kim and Foxy gave us choice from inadvertent Black feminist perspectives.


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