Female hip-hop fights a bad rap
NEW YORK (Billboard) - Before 2007 is out, Eve, Missy Elliott, Foxy Brown, Trina, Shawnna and Remy Ma should have new albums in stores, setting the stage for a banner year in the world of female rap. For the long-suffering genre, that would mean that more than two or three titles could finish in the top 100 of Billboard's year-end Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart.
Female rap shows few, if any, signs of growth. In 2006, only Remy Ma's "There's Something About Remy: Based on a True Story" cracked the year-end top 100, just making the cut at No. 92. Since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking sales in 1991, only 13 female rappers have appeared on the year-end chart out of a pool of 585 artists.
The genre's biggest stars all seem to be winding down in terms of sales. Lil' Kim cracked the million-selling mark with three straight albums, beginning with her 1996 debut, "Hard Core," which has sold 1.42 million copies. But her latest, 2005's "The Naked Truth," has shifted a mere 388,000, a 73 percent decline. Brown, Elliott and Eve also have seen their album sales slashed by more than half in recent years. To be fair, these numbers are in line with the overall slippage in hip-hop market share, which amounted to 107 million albums in 2000 but just 59.5 million in 2006.
RULES OF THE GAME
It has grown so bad for female rappers that the Recording Academy did away with the best female rap artist category of the Grammy Awards in 2004, two years after its inception, due to a shortage of eligible entries. The category was combined with best male rap artist to create the best rap solo performance field.
"We try to have at least 25 entries minimum because that gives a good variety and cross-section of music," said urban music/awards project manager Alan Foster, who revealed that the category won't be present in this year's Grammys either. "The problem we had with the female rap category was we only had like 13 entries."
It wasn't always like this. In fact, Brown was once a bigger star than Jay-Z. But the truth is, females have been playing by male rapper's rules almost from day one.
"I believe that is mostly attributed to what being an MC is all about: being arrogant, braggadocious and aggressive," WQHT (Hot 97) New York program director Ebro Darden said.
"It's a male domain, and the theme, the images, the styles, the outlooks and perspectives have been driven by men," said author and University of Pennsylvania humanities professor Michael Eric Dyson, who has written extensively about hip-hop.
"The success of women (rappers) has suffered as a result of the prerogative of men to set the standards for what's acceptable and not acceptable in hip-hop and, quite frankly, to set the rules of the game as to what lyrics, what styles and what genres will be most popular," Dyson said. "So, it has been difficult for women to fit in."
DISCOURAGED AND INTIMIDATED
The danger for female rap now is that the lack of success turns off tomorrow's would-be stars. Jazmin Polanco, who organizes the yearly "Unanimous Decision" MC battle in New York and also serves as general manager of Def Jam imprint Roc La Familia, said she's been impressed by underground female MCs like La Bruja and Patty Duke. But she said women are "usually outnumbered when they come out to my showcase, and they become intimidated by men."
"Girls used to approach me like, 'I rap,'" said Eve, whose first album in five years arrives August 7. "But now it's usually guys that give me demos. No girls have come up to me in a while."
An artist like Trina illustrates the uphill struggle for female rappers. Her 2000 debut, "The Baddest Bitch," sold 684,000 units, while 2005's "Glamorest Life" has shifted 398,000. But the latter album spawned Trina's biggest hit to date, "Here We Go" featuring Kelly Rowland, which reached No. 3 on Hot Rap Songs and No. 8 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs.
That success wasn't enough to keep Trina at her longtime label home of Atlantic, however. "Because of where Trina is with her career and where we are with our label, we felt we could put out her record on our own," said Slip-N-Slide project manager Aaron Lucas, who inked a new deal with EMI to distribute Trina's "Baddest Bitch II," due August 14.
"The consumer, the public, they believe in the females in the game," said Trina, who claims the new album will make people listen again. "I'm stepping my game up like 10 notches, and somebody is going to tell somebody about it, and they might just want to pick it up this time."
KEEPING UP APPEARANCES
Billboard spoke to artists, managers, executives, retailers and radio programmers to get a sense of why female MCs still lag behind the commercial achievements of their male counterparts.
Some claimed the extinction of the female MC began when Lil' Kim and Brown made it trendy to be high-maintenance. "They were overtly sexy, their rhymes were raunchy, they only wore designer outfits, and their attention to hair and makeup rivaled Diana Ross in her prime," former Vibe editor-in-chief Mimi Valdes wrote in a March 2 blog post. The problem was that dressing like a diva required a budget traditionally unavailable to a rapper. "That's why labels only release a new female MC every few years," Valdes observed. "They're just too damn expensive!"
"When labels are losing money by the boatload and records aren't selling, it takes a lot of money to break a rap artist," WQHT's Darden said. "You can double that for a female artist with clothes, makeup and hair stylists because there's no way a female can wear the same pair of shoes every time the people see her."
Labels may perceive a female rapper as a bigger risk or at least less of a sure thing. "No one wants to invest in something that sells 100,000," Brown said. "They want to go with the sure shot."
IMAGE VS. SUBSTANCE
Maybe female rappers have just run out of ideas. After the rise of Brown and Lil' Kim, "every crew was like, 'We're gonna go get a girl and she's gonna rap and she's gonna wear a bikini and open her legs and that's gonna be fly cause that's what Kim did,'" Brown said. "Or, 'I'm gonna get a dark-skinned chick and she's gonna be sassy and controversial and she's gonna be Foxy.' They were clearly carbon copies and people know that. I believe right now people want their stars to be stars again, not just fabricated."
Dyson singled out Lauryn Hill as one of the few female rappers who have been able to court fans of both genders. "When she was with the Fugees, she spit serious game and talked about the issues men think about: police brutality, struggling against a white supremacist society, dealing with ignorant Negroes who didn't want to learn and forcing them into different pastures," he said. "She was able to hang with the fellas at that level. Then when she did her solo album, she was able to send wisdom to young women who were being seduced by and hoodwinked by these men."
Chicago rapper Shawnna, who guested on Ludacris' 2003 Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hit "Stand Up" and was a member of his Disturbing Tha Peace clique up until last year, suggested that female MCs try tackling more in-depth subjects. "Fans are tired of hearing rappers talk about being the top chick or the richest rich or the one with the most diamonds," she said.
Warner Bros. VP of urban A&R Naim Ali feels women need to stand alone rather than align themselves with male rappers. "In the past, many of the new female rappers came in on the momentum of being in a clique, either with a group of guys or on the heels of a producer, and their careers were subject to how popular the clique/crew, male artist or producer was," he said. "Female rappers need to be competitive with the guys and be looked at by consumers as having their own identity. If they don't, then whenever the association with the clique, artist or producer expires, their career expires as well."
Miami rapper Jacki-O believes that relying on men for credibility and support hasn't gotten female rappers far enough. "The majority of the female artists that came out were backed by males. So, why didn't they sell?" she said. "You don't need a man to back a woman up. We are natural-born leaders. If we ride with each other, we get our strength from each other. We just need to work together and stop trying to always be No. 1."
The numbers tell a different story. Ten of the 13 charting female rappers, and all five of the biggest sellers, were closely aligned with a male crew or leading male rapper.
But Jacki-O, who has teamed up with Shawnna and Remy in hopes of releasing an album together this year, says it's time "to try something different. If we get together, my fans can listen to what you do, and your fans can listen to what I do. You put that together, and we've got a big impact."
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