Has the Competitive Landscape Changed for Women in Hip-Hop?
About Damn Time
Women in hip-hop have climbed their way to the top for decades while seemingly only one female rapper at a time could exist. Has the landscape for women changed in 2022? With more ladies than ever succeeding, it’s a resounding yes.
Words: Kathy Iandoli
Editor’s Note: This story will appear in the Winter 2022 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
In American history, 1992 was coined the “Year of the Woman,” thanks to a record number of women achieving party nominations in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. Prior to that year, women were a congressional novelty, with only two holding simultaneous seats at a maximum, as if that were enough for representation.
For decades, similar rules applied to women in rap culture. The notion of “there could only be one” was both a tenet and a record label strategic marketing standard; though 30 years after the “Year of the Woman,” it seems as though female rappers have ultimately had their year in both the quality of their wins and the quantity of the participants. Have the tides finally changed?
2022 was a landmark year of sorts for women in rap, though earlier years like 2018—with the release of Cardi B’s debut album, Invasion of Privacy—proved the number of women in the space began amassing. This allowed for 2020 to further introduce the world to women in rap on a wider scale, and it was because everyone was sitting at home tuned in.
The ripple effect arguably began once the world stepped into quarantine in 2020. It was during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic that Megan Thee Stallion cracked nearly 30 million creations on TikTok for her hit single “Savage,” later grabbing a remix with none other than Beyoncé. Other female rap artists like Tierra Whack and DeJ Loaf scored successes on TikTok for older singles a year prior and continued into 2020, while artists like Coi Leray and Saweetie delved headfirst into the platform with carefully curated content that signaled sustained marketability.
The greater global audience began absorbing the artists’ personalities and their music, changing the archaic business model of having to forcibly seek out the scarcely scattered women in rap overshadowed by far more male counterparts.
As hip-hop moved deeper into 2020, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion brought both controversy and camaraderie with “WAP.” The song was challenged for its lyrics, suggesting that the two were pushing rap in a “raunchier” direction, a not so inventive call back to the early days of Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown and Trina for committing similar lyrical felonies. What the naysayers failed to acknowledge were the cameos of other female rappers in the “WAP” music video, like Latto, Rubi Rose and Sukihana. The girls were entering the scene like gangbusters, all for one and one for all.
By the time rappers and their fans were “back outside,” the positions of women in rap were locked and loaded. At the start of 2022, those artists were ready to take over. With every music industry quarter last year, new hit singles by women were pumped through the airwaves. Nicki Minaj’s “Do We Have a Problem?” with Lil Baby kicked things off, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. She outpaced herself with “Super Freaky Girl” later last year, with over 275 million Spotify streams. Then Latto’s game-changing single “Big Energy,” which arrived on her March of 2022 album, 777, began gaining major traction.
While Nicki was already a household name, Latto quickly ascended up the ranks with her song’s perfect blend of nostalgia and catchiness. The single made it to No. 3 on the Hot 100, but found its way to the top of three other Billboard charts, including Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, Mainstream Top 40 and Rhythmic Airplay.
However, the most impressive milestones for the track were those that fell beyond the scope of hip-hop, most notably topping the Billboard Mainstream Top 40 chart. “That means moms in cars,” explains J Grand, SVP of A&R and Marketing at RCA Records. Grand met Latto in her teenage years, watching her evolve at a distance before she signed to RCA in 2020, and released her breakout debut album, Queen of Da Souf. With the rap audience in pocket, the next frontier to conquer was the rest of the world.
“We took a lot of time with radio. She knows the importance of it,” Grand continues. The song was multi-formatted for radio specifically, considering the unedited version is toned down to be “Big Dick Energy” over “Big Big Energy.” The track’s production contains a sample within a sample: Tom Tom Club’s 1980’s hit “Genius Of Love” and Mariah Carey’s 1990’s classic “Fantasy.” That means that the familiarity of the beat transcends generations. Latto adding Mariah to the track was really just the cherry on top of the whole thing. A star was born, one who understood the assignment without actually knowing what the assignment was, but figuring it out along the way.
It was a vantage point for Latto that speaks to the malleability of women in rap as they navigate the male-driven waters in a way that has them surpassing their opposing gender competition. “The cheat code for me is that women are willing to make songs for all walks, like ‘Big Energy,’ to have more success,” J Grand adds. “Is it hard to get male artists to consider making songs like that? Probably more so than ever.”
Latto now holds two 2023 Grammy nominations, one for Best New Artist and the other for Best Melodic Rap Performance for the live version of “Big Energy.” She was crowned by Billboard as the Top New Artist of 2022 based on her charting positions. The rhymer also earned Best New Artist at the BET Awards and scored Song of the Year for “Big Energy” at the BET Hip Hop Awards last year. As Latto celebrates her individual groundbreaking achievements, it’s fascinating to witness how she’s now one of many women in the rap space stacking wins.
Over the course of 2022, successful rap singles by women in staggering numbers have been released. Megan Thee Stallion found crossover success with her Dua Lipa collaboration “Sweetest Pie,” off her second studio album, Traumazine, which reached the Top 5 of the Billboard 200. Other songs off Traumazine like “Plan B” and “Her” helped amplify the album’s success. Fellow mainstream hip-hop stars like Doja Cat found equal footing in both worlds, with her single “Vegas” being nominated for a Grammy for Best Rap Performance and “Woman” nominated for Best Pop Solo Performance and Record of the Year for the 2023 Grammy Awards. If that’s not the epitome of crossing over, then what is?
More traditional rap songs managed to also get their well-deserved spins. Cuts like Rubi Rose’s “I Like,” Coi Leray and Nicki Minaj’s “Blick Blick,” Doechii’s “Persuasive” with SZA and Flo Milli’s “Conceited” all contributed to the fabric of 2022’s soundtrack as well. New artists continuously entered into the pipeline and others like KenTheMan, Rico Nasty and Maliibu Miitch kept building on their consistency. New York rapper Ice Spice and her fire-hued hair set the summer ablaze with the release of “Munch (Feelin’ U),” grabbing over 32 million Spotify streams. Her follow-up single, “Bikini Bottom,” has cracked the 10 million-stream mark. While the critics still hovered around, hoping to singularly highlight any lady MCs beefing, slim album sales and social media hiccups, last year’s most prominent female artists still managed to ignore the noise and keep moving forward.
Yo Gotti’s CMG signee GloRilla had a record-breaking introductory year in 2022, starting with the release of her Hitkidd-assisted track “F.N.F. (Let’s Go).” Due to the song’s reception, earning a No. 42 spot on the Billboard Hot 100, and her around-the-way personality, she’s flourished. Big Glo chased that record with the track “Tomorrow 2,” grabbing a coveted collab with Cardi B and clocking in at over 44 million streams on Spotify. A No. 9 position on the Billboard Hot 100 came quick for the collab. The two even performed the song at the 2022 American Music Awards.
Last October, Glo won Best Breakthrough Hip Hop Artist at the BET Hip Hop Awards. “F.N.F. (Let’s Go)” is also nominated for a 2023 Grammy for Best Rap Performance. All this means the Memphis rapper seamlessly slid beyond her Tennessee borders, which proved another big move in the right direction for rap’s women: they were no longer relegated to their respective regions.
A similar phenomenon happened for Alabama’s own Flo Milli, whose 2022 critically acclaimed track “Conceited” became a battle cry of self-empowerment for women in all corners of the country. Flo inadvertently kept the broader audience in mind, which helped magnify the song’s reach beyond the South. “That’s another thing that I subconsciously do that I didn’t realize how much of an impact it does have,” Flo expresses regarding her planning. “I think it’s a great thing, being that I’m so versatile, it appeals to so many people.” Much like Latto’s “Big Energy,” Flo sees her reach grabbing attention across age groups. “You could play my songs to a little kid. A little child could dance to it,” she adds. “And then I can get on the internet and see an older woman, someone’s grandma, dancing to the same song. It’s crazy. There’s no geotag or any type of tag on it. It’s universal.”
The uptick in women is inspiring for artists like rising star Lola Brooke, who secured her own win last year with her viral single “Don’t Play With It” featuring her fellow Brooklynite Billy B. Brooke signed to Arista Records in collaboration with Team Eighty Productions in January. The Brooklyn rapper attributes the shift in women like herself to finding the self-confidence to level up. “I feel it’s the energy,” she explains. “The greats passed it on, and you can feel the frustration between the lines of every great artist that has her moment. It traveled up to 2020, to 2021, and now 2022, and now all the ladies is coming together and we going crazy.”
Frustration being the operative word. “Basically, we’re all frustrated,” Lola continues. “And when you get frustrated and you’re under pressure and you feel like you’re being doubted, you work harder. And now there's a lot of us, so all they energy at once? They can’t hold us.”
Flo Milli echoes that sentiment, adding on that their maturity and emotional capacity have allowed women to move differently from the men. “I feel like the reason why is because we’re given a safe space to be a little bit more emotionally vulnerable,” she says. “We’re able to deal with our emotions. It gives us the opportunity to grow faster than men versus a human being who has to suppress that type of stuff, and they’re not really as observant.” Flo also thinks it boils down to women’s precision when approaching their careers. “Like women versus a lot of men, we actually put so much more effort into everything all around,” she maintains. “We just want it to be perfect, and we care a lot about our craft.”
That’s not to say that men had no year at all in 2022. Artists like Drake, 21 Savage, Kendrick Lamar and a bevy of other male rappers all put their numbers on the board, but the difference lies in their strategies. If the music industry can’t help itself but to add the “female” title to the “rapper,” then the solution is to drop the “rapper” title and simply become a woman who’s killing it. Look no further than City Girls’ Yung Miami, whose Revolt talk show, Caresha Please, became a success story overnight, with guests that have included her peers like Megan Thee Stallion, Saweetie and Latto, along with Revolt figurehead Diddy. City Girls collectively made their own massive moves musically in 2022, collaborating with Usher on the hit “Good Love.” For so long, when women were up, then they were in fact stuck, though now their success lies in the pivot and it’s been proven over and over again last year.
It would be reductive to assert that women simply did more in 2022, as if to suggest that the last five decades in hip-hop were spent with women resting on their laurels and just hoping for their big break. That’s far from factual. Women have been planning for this inevitable ascension, and it’s a long time coming. Sure, there’s been a noticeable uptick in productivity across multiple mediums, since content is queen, but the reality is that women’s visibility has simply changed. There’s something to be said about strength in numbers and when the industry rule that there could only be one woman at a time is diminished, seeing just how powerful multiple women on the scene can be is clear. The goal now is to assess what to do with all of this power, and for J Grand, he has a hopeful goal in mind for Latto, at least musically, which is one that should apply to the music industry at large. “I’d love to see her be widely acclaimed as the top female artist out,” he says. “And then, you know, take the word female out.”
Buy the winter 2022 issue of XXL magazine on newsstands now or online at the XXL store.
Read about the ways in which women in rap succeeded in 2022 in the winter issue of XXL magazine, on newsstands now. Check out additional interviews in the magazine, including the cover story with Pusha T as well as conversations with Chance The Rapper, Freddie Gibbs, Ab-Soul, G Herbo, DaBaby, EST Gee, Murda Beatz, Morray, Ice Spice, Jeleel!, Armani White, Destroy Lonely, producer Dez Wright, singer Kiana Ledé, actor Shameik Moore, plus a look at hip-hop's love for wrestling, a deep dive into how new artists get on in hip-hop these days, the rapper-run podcasts the game has grown to love and a tribute to rappers we lost in 2022.