Consciousness vs. Sex: Jean Grae and the Plight of the Underground Female Rapper
Jean Grae, who performs tonight at the New Parish, is a very talented rapper. That's not just a very talented female rapper, but a very talented hip-hop artist who deserves to be considered on nothing more than her own lyrical merits, and shouldn't be given some sort of a rap pass due to the estrogen flowing through her body.
So goes the politically correct hip-hop peanut gallery chatter.
Whenever a female rapper attracts any sort of hype or commercial success, this is the reactionary party line that's often dragged out -- rappers like Jean Grae are held up as more deserving of exposure and success than, say, a Kreayshawn or a Nicki Minaj. Female rappers should not be forced to use sex -- or, perhaps cynically, underage nude pictures -- to further their careers, right? As a sentiment, it's honorable. But is it really that awful for female artists to play up the attributes of their image to sell records? After all, male rappers have been doing it for years.
It's undeniable that, for female rappers, sex shifts songs. Perennial chart-toppers Salt-N-Pepa always pitched themselves to the masses as sassy big city girls -- they were two student nurses, after all. The mid-section of the '90s saw Foxy Brown and Lil Kim emerge under the wings of Jay-Z and The Notorious B.I.G., both rapping about Fendi, Gucci and Louis, both scoring hits, and both pretty much adhering to the template of some sort of gangsta rapper's moll. The inference was that Fox and Kim only blew up due to the men behind them, by pandering to the sort of stereotype of a female portrayed in a lad's mag, and by signing off on a subservient rap career. Even Lauryn Hill, who might for some be an easy counter-point, brokered her first wave of hype by being the token female -- for wont of an easily-trotted-out phrase -- in a male-dominated unit (even if those two males were possessed of dubious talent).
So while Foxy and Kim and their ilk prance around in their undies and rack up the cash, the deserving cases like Grae, Bahamadia (who associated with boom-bap legends Gang Starr!), Heather B (who recored with the ultimate hard rocks M.O.P!), and one-time-tagged "femcee" Invincible (a female Eminem!) find themselves stuck making records only heard by the underground cognoscenti. It's just not fair, surely?
Maybe. But this isn't something that only afflicts female rappers. Since the original old school era, successful male rappers have been whoring themselves out; even those artists who like to define themselves as "conscious" still try to give of the impression that they are some incarnation of a lyrical lothario who can't walk from the bar to the bathroom without picking up three chicks along the way. (Some of your favorite hardcore rappers have also donned silk pajamas to enhance their image in the past.) Even Rick Ross has boasted about his procreative prowess, and has an alleged sex tape doing the rounds. Just think about that for a second. (Or, rather, don't.)
The real reason why a rapper like Jean Grae isn't as well known as a Nicki Minaj isn't so much because she doesn't openly use sex to sell. No, it's because she makes songs like "Taco Day." From a writing perspective, the track is as good as anything Eminem has been academically lauded for. But the lack of commercial success for "Taco Day"' wasn't because Grae didn't slut around in front of the camera in a school girl's outfit for a video. It didn't crack the charts because it's a song about an abused teen who shoots up her school, contains lines like "The principal called me in the office to talk about the dean's list/ And then he backed me up into the door and made me touch his penis," and is rapped over a thoroughly uncommercial beat produced by Mr. Len, who came to repute as part of underground rap torch-bearers Company Flow. Much of the perceived plight of female rappers is at heart the same underground versus overground argument that runs through all of hip-hop.
So the next time someone bickers how it's unfair that Kreayshawn is blowing up and Grae isn't, explain to them that one has simply chosen -- and on her very own volition -- to make uncompromising underground hip-hop songs, and the other is aiming for mass appeal. And that right there might be hip-hop's ultimate dividing line.