Your Guide to New York Rap’s Next Generation

Originally published for Vulture on September 18th, 2020.

2020 commenced with a great loss in New York’s robust contemporary hip-hop scene: the murder of Canarsie’s prodigal son and prince of Brooklyn drill, Pop Smoke, at just 20 years old. His sudden passing left an indelible vacancy in the city. The loss of one of the booming voices of the New York rap community — whose meteoric career was cut short by a violent end — cratered the community and felt like an overwhelming defeat for one of rap’s newest waves in the city.

However, even a cursory look at the current musical landscape in New York would reveal that there is no dearth of emerging talent across the five boroughs — and not all of it is concentrated in drill. Several niches have developed over the past few years, each with their own distinctive sound. Young talented artists are branching out and blazing trails within the new school, as much of the rest of the country dismissively boxes them in as simply trying to duplicate the sounds of the South. From the small empires being built out of Highbridge to the mantles being passed down in Canarsie, artists are beginning to redefine the soundscapes of New York City — and they are as robust as ever.

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The 100 Songs That Define New York Rap, Ranked

Originally published for Vulture on September 14, 2020.

85. Jay-Z ft. UGK, “Big Pimpin’” (1999)

The ’90s ushered in both the rise of the South, which demanded acknowledgment of its contributions to hip-hop, and the emergence of the video vixen. It was only natural, then, that the Roc-A-Fella duo of Dame Dash and Jay-Z would extend an olive branch to UGK, one of the fastest-rising duos from Texas at the time, to collaborate on the biggest single of Jay-Z’s fourth album, Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter. The song almost didn’t happen, however: Reluctant to collaborate with Jay, Pimp C didn’t submit his verse until the 11th hour, even delaying participating in his now-infamous music-video scene with Gloria Velez. (He ultimately had to film in Miami in lieu of Trinidad’s Carnival, the backdrop for the rest of the crew.) —Shamira Ibrahim

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How Megan Thee Stallion, Flo Milli, and Saweetie Dominated 2020

Originally published for Teen Vogue on August 18, 2020.

On March 6, Megan Thee Stallion released Suga, her third extended play project packed with nine bass-heavy tracks about rough sex, making money, and self-love. Anchored by the standout tracks “Savage” and “Captain Hook,” Megan delivered a tongue-in-cheek ode to unrepentant sexual pleasure while switching between rhyme schemes fast enough to give you whiplash.

What would follow was a year filled with women rapping about sexual agency and ensuring that they remain on the foreground of the conversation around hip-hop culture. City Girls, Saweetie, Flo Milli, Doja Cat, and Mulatto all released new music within a four-month span in 2020 as well. Megan’s two major hit songs: “Savage Remix” with Beyoncé and “WAP” with Cardi B broke records. When taking account of 2020’s music distinctiveness, it should be heralded as a year when female rappers took laps around their contemporaries, one hit song after another.

Make no mistake: The power construct in music is still heavily informed by the cishet male gatekeepers of the hip-hop industry. As a genre that historically has served as a magnifying glass for the surrounding environment, patriarchy — and misogynoir in turn — has always received a platform.

But artists like Megan and Cardi B are leveraging their varied skills with a forceful reconstruction of the lascivious Jezebel stereotype that has long been affixed to Black women — removing the shame and immorality from sexual desire and highlighting the transactional power that has always existed. There is a wide range of women’s skill and talent to choose from who are centering their own pleasure and autonomy in a genre that has used the strip club as a litmus test for marketing viability of new songs for the better part of the current millennium.

Doja Cat quickly rose from her novelty single “Moo” off her debut album Amala into a bonafide international star, with singles such as “Juicy,” “Rules,” and “CyberSex,” exploring body positivity, sexual pleasure, and female agency — landing her a coveted feature from Nicki Minaj on the remix Billboard charting single “Say So” in May. Rapper Saweetie, for her part, has navigated the sweet spot of harnessing early 2000s nostalgia while still centering her agency in the song, flipping Petey Pablo’s classic crunk hit “Freek-A-Leek,” “My Type,” and more recently “Tap In.”

Simultaneously, Alabama rapper Flo Milli has quickly risen to relevance, being welcomed into the new vanguard of rappers — with co-signs from The City Girls and Missy Elliott — with her irreverent new project, aptly titled Ho, Why is You Here. Leaning into a brash, bratty timbre with lines that thrust you right into her unrepentant aesthetic, the 20-year-old’s music is as enjoyable as it is clever. “In the Party” and “Beef Flomix” respectively, and have become such cult hits that they can have been found as backing tracks in “fancams” within stan culture; her standout single “Weak” transposes the homonymous SWV track, repurposing it into a dismissive anthem about the failings of men. Her album follows suit accordingly, as each track grows more insolent and cocksure than the last.

The women’s posse is making a comeback too: the Thot Box (Remix) is a collective of up and coming women emcees (Chinese Kitty, Dream Doll, Young MA, Dreezy, and Mulatto) flexing their muscles in response to misogynoir. Cardi B, for her part, has alluded to working on a Ladies’ Night inspired song for her upcoming album.

But how does this moment in rap fit into the greater canon of women’s place in hip-hop history?

The conversation around female artists having agency and sermonizing the power of their sexuality is nothing new. At just 20 years old, a young Kimberly Jones stood alongside her childhood friends Notorious B.I.G. and other label mates in Junior M.A.F.I.A. In a taut 4’11 package, the video for the single “Get Money” off of the group’s debut album, Conspiracy, panned over to a brown-skinned Lil’ Kim, reclining in a salon chair donning a fur, gold chain, and a strapless red dress, while she delivers line after line of erotic haymakers, flexing her sexual power and agency under a mind-blowing flow. Not long after, Lil’ Kim’s career shot into the next gear, with her own debut album, Hardcore, serving as a cultural anchor and template for a new era of women in rap.

As Kim said in the Netflix series Hip-Hop Evolution, “I was supposed to be the girl that was cute and made the guys look good, but I liked being vulgar and explicit sometimes because it made me feel free.”

This disruption was not without significant backlash — as the infamous quote goes, “well-behaved women rarely make history.” Coming out of the era dominated by of MC Lyte and Queen Latifah and the graphic language reserved for the Biggies and the Jay-Zs of the world, many viewed Kim’s content as oversexed, lewd, and anti-feminist, as opposed to a complement to the content that the other women were producing, similarly to how the Rapsodys and Nonames of the contemporary era are positioned.

Fast forward to present day and the raunchiness that shocked the charts with Lil’ Kim’s Hardcore, Foxy Brown’s Ill Na NaMissy and Trina’s “One Minute Man,” or Khia’s “My Neck, My Back” is still just as subversive — but far less uncommon. A whole new class of young women are rising to the occasion of inverting the norms of male objectification for their benefit in their music. As scholar and authority of hip-hop feminism, Joan Morgan writes in When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, “most women possess an almost intuitive understanding of the role sex, money, and power play in our intimate relationships — and we accommodate accordingly.”

In the 90s, Lil’ Kim redefined the “alpha” role in hip hop music — and in contemporary times, we see an ascendance of that same perspective, to an overwhelmingly positive reception by the artists’ receptive fanbases, which is a welcome change of circumstances from decades ago. That re-centering of erotic power through women going bar for bar with each other or standing on their own, far from eradicates the industry-standard hip-hop misogyny that still runs rampant, but it allows for having a choice in your relationship with intimacy in hip-hop and power dynamics that is far more expansive than just the cishet male’s perspective.

On the Record Attempts to Set the Record Straight for Black Women in Hip-Hop

This was originally published on June 11, 2020 for Pitchfork.

The documentary On the Record opens by asking a question: “What is missing from #MeToo?” In the nearly three years since the hashtag went viral, the phrase has become a de facto movement, a derisive verb, and a platform for high-profile survivors in the entertainment industry and beyond. But despite originating from Tarana Burke, a Black woman, #MeToo has failed to provide a platform for the unique circumstances of Black women who dare to speak truth to power. They are frequently silenced, dismissed, or ignored, either pressured into racial solidarity or stigmatized by a hypersexual jezebel trope that justifies a higher burden of credibility. As Burke herself readily admits in the film, “A lot of Black women felt disconnected from #MeToo initially.”

On the Record attempts to reconcile with that painful truth, honing in on the experiences of Black women in the nascence of the hip-hop industry, and the impresario at the heart of it all, Def Jam’s Russell Simmons. The film centers around some of Simmons’ many survivors—mainly A&R executive Drew Dixon, as well as journalist Sil Lai Abrams and rapper Sheri Sher—and their journeys to come forward with their stories in the press. Every exposé that emerges is the result of an arduous process of reopening painful memories, ceaseless vetting and verification, and devastating fallout for the survivors. Presented side by side with the rise of Def Jam and hip-hop, On the Record shows the emotional toll of Black women’s trauma being perceived as an accepted cost of doing business. While filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s ambitious attempts to address so many critical threads of conversation about sexual assault, hip-hop, and Black women leave some nuances better served than others, the introduction of this film into the zeitgeist is an essential and welcome addition to a long-overdue conversation.

There was a brief period of time when this story almost never made it to the general public. On the Record lost distribution with Apple TV+ just two weeks before its premiere at Sundance Film Festival this past winter, after executive producer Oprah Winfrey pulled her support. It was soon revealed that while Simmons had pressured Winfrey, she had her own apprehensions about the doc and Dixon’s story. The premiere went from a triumphant moment of acknowledgement for Black survivors into a fight to avoid obscurity and erasure. Had HBO—the same network where Simmons once aired his iconic Def Comedy Jam series—not selected On the Record for their recent HBO Max rollout, the documentary could have easily collapsed into an urban legend, sustained by a whisper network of participants and early viewers.

Drew Dixon anchors the film as a former A&R executive who quickly rose in prominence during Def Jam’s early ’90s heyday. She played a fundamental role in amplifying artists and staying on the vanguard of trends at Def Jam, reshaping Method Man’s “All I Need” into a groundbreaking duet with Mary J. Blige. After her alleged 1995 rape at the hands of Simmons, she almost immediately moved over to Arista Records to work under the mentorship of legendary music exec Clive Davis, only to be sexually harassed by his replacement, L.A. Reid. She was trying to sign John Legend and Kanye West to Arista when her relationship with Reid completely deteriorated, after she continually rebuffed his advances.

As Dixon details her rise and fall in the industry, a familiar narrative comes into focus: her seat at the table came with the proviso of a heightened threshold for indecency, an expectation that she compartmentalize and minimize incidents like Simmons repeatedly exposing himself to her. It was an environment where women’s boundaries were not respected, and ultimately Dixon’s assault and harassment caused her to leave the industry altogether. Now it is difficult for her to disentangle music from trauma; she avoids engaging with some of the songs she helped make into hits. In the film, after her story becomes public in The New York Times, she nervously sits with her daughter waiting to hear what the (noticeably measured) response will be on Hot 97. “For 22 years, I took it for the team,” she says, adding, “I loved Russell, too.”

Since On the Record closely follows Dixon’s journey to come forward, Sheri Sher and Sil Lai Abrams don’t receive nearly as much screen time as they should. Sher, a member of the first all-female rap group, the Mercedes Ladies, only has around five minutes of screen time despite her crucial perspective: that of the women artists who fought for respect for their skills, only to be dismissed and treated as sex objects by the industry. Similar to Dixon, there’s an implication in the film that Sher’s alleged 1983 rape by Simmons and subsequent diminishment in the field represented a loss for the music world: Despite being hip-hop pioneers in the South Bronx, the Mercedes Ladies never released any official music or got a record deal.

For her part, journalist and activist Sil Lai Abrams offers a brief but agonizing account of the spiral that followed her 1994 sexual assault, when she was still working as a model and enmeshed in the music industry. Abrams first told The Hollywood Reporter in 2018 that she’d had an intermittent sexual relationship with Simmons that she clearly ended before her alleged rape, but On the Record doesn’t properly delve into the nuances of the situation, or the disorienting nature of sexual assault at the hands of a past intimate partner. Detailing a complicated survivor story is brave in and of itself, but as many Black women implicitly know, the mere allusion to a survivor’s sexual desires is often exploited, used to subtly reinforce a pervasive subconscious notion of the “cultural impossibility for Black women to be raped,” to quote seminal hip-hop feminist Dr. Joan Morgan in the film. Parsing all that out would have brought valuable new depth to the conversation.

The end of On the Record includes brief vignettes of other women’s stories, faces that fade into each other and echo fragments of the previous person’s trauma. The segment effectively highlights the magnitude of Simmons’ reach and harm in his heyday; there are women in fashion publicity, screenwriting, and modeling who detail various degrees of sexual and physical assault at his hands. In merely chronicling the scope of these allegations, the film’s focus shifts away from Black women in hip-hop. There is no easy choice to make here: A documentary that is tasked with accomplishing so much in the way of investigative, emotive, and pedagogical work, that is inherently intertwined with Simmons’ vast legacy, will have more to untangle than can easily be accomplished in just 95 minutes.

Along the way, experts and academics bring context to the overarching issue of misogynoir in hip-hop culture. Though misogyny against Black women is historically tied to the genre, its transition from a subculture to a mainstream market in the ’90s was accompanied by its aesthetic shift—a hypersexualization of Black women that hadn’t been as dominant in rap visuals previously. As the film draws connections to women who’ve dared to accuse Black men in the public eye, from Anita Hill to Desiree Washington, a robust picture emerges of how a white supremacist patriarchal construct is absorbed, echoed, and distilled for entertainment purposes, with the full expectation that Black women in the space stand in lockstep. While a bit didactic, these historical threads serve as an important reminder that the toxic expectation of race loyalty persists in highly visible spaces across movements, industries, and generations. Solidarity with Black men is the name of the game, and yet again Black women are the collateral damage.

It would be a disservice to imply that the problems detailed in On the Record are contained to the early years of hip-hop. Just last month, Chris Stylezz, the host of the Roc Nation-affiliated hip-hop party D’ussé Palooza, was confronted with dozens of accusations of sexual misconduct and assault, resulting in his termination and a new wave of discourse about the industry’s exploitative, gendered power imbalance. Charlamagne tha God, who continues to be the face of “The Breakfast Club,” arguably hip-hop’s biggest syndicated radio show, previously admitted to domestic abuse and faces credible allegations of rape against him. (He was even allowed to help lead the first high-profile interview of Simmons in months.) Despite the collective efforts to #MuteRKelly, not to mention the 22 federal criminal charges against the singer, his musical legacy still looms large in certain spaces, like on the popular Verzuz Instagram Live series. The calculus of acknowledging the pain of Black girls and women is still determined by how much it offsets the accepted threshold for collective sacrifice. As long as a legacy is critical enough to “the culture,” mechanisms are in place to protect abusers—positioning them as the victims, and the victims as living crime scenes.

Currently, Simmons resides in Bali, which does not have an extradition treaty with the United States. With the full support of his family, he has been engaging in an exculpatory tour of self-promotion via his unfettered social media presence, flipping #MeToo into #NotMe and posting open letters decrying the willful assassination of his character. Just yesterday morning, he used his “Breakfast Club” appearance to gaslight survivors, call out “toxic femininity,” and namedrop famous Black women who’ve had positive interactions with him, in some veiled attempt to inoculate himself from claims of assault. “I really don’t think we should be relitigating 30-year-old stories that had never been told,” Simmons said. Despite stepping down from his companies and philanthropic endeavors, his presence online as a wellness guru remains more or less unchallenged, while various friends in entertainment have stuck by his side. Is the man who sold rap to the world too big to be canceled? The answer remains to be seen, but hip-hop needs this reckoning—not just for Simmons’ survivors, but for all the Black women who’ve silenced themselves for the greater cause.

YesJulz Is the Latest Example of the Problem With Voluntourism

Originally published for Broadly.

In 2018, the scales on which we weigh morality have begun to slowly shift. Many of its detractors have derisively tried to attribute the change to the rise of “call-out culture” or “cancel culture,” but the reality is that the rubric of what defines goodwill is no longer limited to intent. Power imbalances, agency, and execution are all critical factors for assessing the merit of any charitable effort, and social media has increasingly empowered the groups whose spaces are being infringed upon to continuously hold people accountable on those merits.


Originally published on VerySmartBrothas.

When I heard direct shots cast at Remy Ma on Gucci Mane & Nicki’s reconciliatory collab “Make Love”, three words immediately came to mind: are you dumb?

Apparently Remy felt similarly – and on Saturday, February 25, 2017 at 1:03 PM  EST, one Onika Tanya Maraj got her entire life snatched in just under 7 minutes by the Queen of Castle Hill, Reminisce Mackie, in a comprehensive takedown that was the result of a decade of tension by arguably two of the most visible female rappers today.

My love for Remy is no secret. I’ve stanned for her since she came on the scene on Big Pun’s Yeah Baby with the underrated track “Ms. Martin“, and followed that up in the same year with the “Ante Up Remix” – a song that is permanently on my gym playlist (as is the “Girlfight” remix). I still toe whop  to “Whuteva” when the mood strikes. Just a couple months ago, I flawlessly performed the seminal classic “Conceited” during a lipsync/karaoke challenge.

I was verklempt when she was sentenced to 8 years for exacting street justice against a girlfriend who robbed her, and still wonder what would have been her career trajectory if she hadn’t been robbed of her momentum on the heels of two hit singles. I’m sure this is something Nicki wonders as well – when Remy went in to do her bid, the two were publicly squabbling over what Remy perceived to be a shot at her on a freestyle.

As the years passed, it seemed that both women had decided to leave their bygones behind with their curly weave/straight bang pack hair combo and remain cordial. Nicki catapulted to superstardom, going from recording freestyles on project staircases to becoming a pop crossover sensation in the houses of high school fans everywhere – bye bye, “Beam Me Up Scotty”, hello “Super Bass”. And while Remy’s music upon her initial release had a few false starts (me and maybe 4 other people listened to her I’m Around mixtape), she eventually hit her second wind, recording the Grammy-nominated “All the Way Up” (with Jay on the remix), appearing on the West Coast leg on the Formation Tour to  extremely positive receptions, and branding her and her husband as debatably the strongest example of Black Love on Reality TV (as opposed to Yandy Smith’s ‘non-marriage’ to an adulterous felon).

By all indications, the two rappers now exist in different lanes, serve separate fanbases, and should coexist without issue save for the occasional sub (which I frankly don’t mind, if it keeps both women a bit competitive). It’s this fact that makes it all the more befuddling that Nicki took it upon herself to launch the first grenade:

“You the queen of this here?/One platinum plaque, album flopped, bitch, where? /Hahaha, ahhhhh/I took two bars off just to laugh/You see, silly rabbit, to be the queen of rap/You gotta sell records, you gotta get plaques/S, plural like the S on my chest/Now sit your dumbass down, you got an F on your test”

Listen to the song for yourself. It’s largely a middling verse. I mean, she rhymes “Nas” with “nahs” and “knives”. And she took two bars off just to laugh, which might be the most laughable way to create filler since Wayne had that three year stretch of correcting himself after mispronouncing words (go to Google and type “Wayne” and “oops I meant”). I would think that if you were going to declare war against a woman who shot her friend twice in the stomach, you would come with a tighter assault than that, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20.

Less than 48 hours later, Remy got on wax and addressed in no particular order: Nicki’s butt shots, using ghostwriters, switching from crew to crew to get on, her 360 deal and inflated sales, her deflated buttshots, her previous proclaimed fandom of Remy, stealing Remy’s lines, abandoning Safaree, general disloyalty, her pedophile brother, her fake goon status, alleged drug use, stunts on Mariah, Taylor, and Miley, selling a dangerous body image, instigating beef between Meek  and Drake, Foxy Brown’s hearing loss, her stupid ass chicken wing necklace, and flipped the Back to Back cadence to dismiss Nicki’s internet antics.

In short, it was the most comprehensive diss I’ve heard since “Takeover.” Every time I run the track back (I’m easily on twentysomething listens) I hear something new. I fully expect to discover some other rumor that Meek leaked to Remy that I was too busy screaming aloud to notice on my next play.

When it comes to disses, two things matter: content and punchline delivery. Remy hit on both. Take “Nas” and “nahs” or the “S” in plaques and compare it to this:

I’m sayin’, how you mix Nicki with a Minaj?/I’ma park this bitch, put Nicki in the garage/I’m gettin’ money like Nicky Barnes, I’m the big homie/I responded in less than 48 Hours; Nick Nolte/Gettin’ close like Nick Jonas, grippin’ the gauge/Then blaze off, Face Off, bitch, Nicolas Cage/You animated like Nickelodeon, you fake, bitch/Only the kids believe in you; you St. Nick/Now when I shoot Nick at Nite, they won’t understand it/I’m Wild’n Out, ’bout to hit Nick with the Cannon

Or this:

And stop talkin’ numbers, you signed a 360 deal through Young Money, through Cash Money, through Republic/Which means your money go through five niggas before you touch it/Any videos, promotions come out of your budget/Endorsements, tour and merchandise, they finger-fuck it/You make, like, 35 cents off of each ducat/I own my masters, bitch, independent/So for every sale I do, you gotta do like ten/Stop comparin’ yourself to Jay, you not like him/You a motherfuckin’ worker, not a boss like Rem

….nigga MY feelings are hurt and I didn’t even do nothing to Remy. Whew.

As of writing this, we have yet to get an official response from Nicki Minaj, short of a few deleted tweets to Trey Songz and mentions of album sales that Remy already addressed. It’s safe to say that Onika was served a very sizable L-shaped two-piece, no biscuit; and frankly, while Nicki has certainly had a more successful career than Remy, I don’t think there has ever been a point where she could outrap her, so I am not especially hype for any significant come back that Nickelodeon could deliver. Everyone has their day and Nick Nolte was handed hers.

In the grand scheme of things, this is unlikely to hit St. Nick that hard – at this point, her staple fan base isn’t one that cut their teeth in the late 90s/early aughts era of rap that would have a diss of this magnitude make or break your career, and her crossover content will largely be unaffected. However, this is a major win for Remy, who has struggled to reconcile the rap game she left with the one that she is now walking into. She managed to dominate an entire weekend by leveraging the grit she has always had against a competitor who for the last several years has claimed the top spot nearly by default; in an industry that has the attention span of a hummingbird, she managed to flip the Aubrey-style internet stunt culture on its head by refocusing the debate to content and skill as opposed to retweets, let us and Nicki know in her own words, “don’t ever in your life fucking play with me.” That is no easy feat, and I can only hope to see her capitalize on this momentum in a way that she wasn’t able to a decade ago.

RIP Rap Nicki Minaj. Long live Queen Remy. Buy “Shether” on Itunes.

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