by Jana Záhoráková
This article analyses sexually explicit lyrics.
This article will look at how the depiction of women in hip-hop has transformed over the years. First, in the historical origins of hip-hop, the misogynistic portrayals in songs and music videos by male artists were abundant. Later on, the 1990s belonged to female rappers like Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott, or Queen Latifah and now it is not only people who listened to rap from its infancy, but the whole world that engages in this culture. I will focus on two songs: “Anaconda” by Nicki Minaj and “WAP” by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. I will first introduce each singer, then analyse the lyrics in these two songs. I will then focus on each song’s reception and the controversies they caused.
Women were an important part of the hip-hop culture from the outset in 1973 when Cindy Campbell and her brother Dj Kool Herc (also called the Mother and Father of hip-hop) essentially launched hip-hop culture in the Bronx by hosting the first ‘Back to School Party’. The event, which is now an annual tradition was organised in order to raise money for school supplies (Guzman & Bilen). This founding stone of hip-hop culture was organised by an adolescent girl. As Guzman and Bilen write in their article in The Hoya magazine entitled “Women in Hip-Hop Navigate Objectification, Owning Their Sexual Power” about the precarious place for women in hip-hop, the hypermasculinity that fuels most of the male rappers’ lyrics might be dated back to the way they were treated as slaves and referred to as “boys” which is a derogatory term degrading their self-sufficiency and manhood and thus might have a connection with the historical treatment of Black people in the USA (Guzman & Bilen). Whether this origin is correct or not, the fact that women in hip-hop culture and music have often been treated purely as objects by male rappers is something that very few people would argue with. Highly objectified women appear in music videos scantily dressed and dancing provocatively. However, with the emergency of more female rappers, especially in the 1990s, the situation started to slowly improve. These female artists had two options when singing about their sexual experiences: either dress similarly to men—as did Missy Elliott —or dress like the objectified women in the music videos—as did Lil’ Kim.
I would argue that a new generation of female rappers cares less about whether they are considered empowering by critics, and they manage to turn even the most explicitly sexual content into catchy songs that dominate the charts.
Maeve Eberhardt analysed songs of both of these female artists to determine the roles they take in their lyrics, and she found that even though most people would consider their texts empowering, the truth is more complicated (Eberhardt 42). Apart from assuming active roles and disregarding their male sexual partners– similarly to the way male rappers construct their songs about women and sex– they often put themselves in the position of objects and use language that gratifies themselves as objects of male desire (Eberhardt 42). However, Eberhardt further suggests that we have to take into consideration the fact that women sometimes enjoy being the objects of admiration and that sometimes their active roles are problematic. For example, women boasting about their proficiency in giving fellatio can be considered passive and obedient, whereas demands to be satisfied in the bedroom by men performing oral sex on them can be considered as them being a passive recipient while at the same time playing an active role since they are actively ordering men to do their bidding (Eberhardt 36). This analysis proves how difficult it is for women in hip-hop to be assertive and empowering while remaining sexually desirable to men. Or at least it was, as I would argue that a new generation of female rappers cares less about whether they are considered empowering by critics, and they manage to turn even the most explicitly sexual content into catchy songs that dominate the charts.
Theresa Renee White compares Nicki Minaj’s large bum and people’s reaction to it to the famous Venus Hottentot which used to be an attraction in the 19th century. At the time, South African Khoikhoi women were exhibited as ‘freaks’ and displayed for the purpose of perplexing Europeans with their bodies (White 66). White suggests that Minaj is a modern-day version of this manifestation with fans around the world questioning the realness of her behind in a similar way to Europeans who decades ago poked and touched the Venus Hottentot’s bottom to determine the same thing but adds that Minaj does not mind people talking and speculating about her body and views it as a good advertisement (White 66). Minaj is full of confidence, and she has no problem engaging with others about her sexuality. “Anaconda”, a song in which she invokes her femininity and her power to keep men under her control was released in 2014 and is probably one of her best known singles.
Interestingly, the music and samples of this song are derivative of a song previously performed by a man, specifically, Sir Mix-a-Lot’s famous “Baby Got Back (I Like Big Butts)”, however, in her song Minaj again refers to her big posterior only to assert that she can use men to do whatever she likes because of it, not only sexually but financially—i.e., she manipulates men into buying her expensive gifts. Where Sir Mix-A-Lot stresses his demand for a woman to have curves in order to be sexually viable for him: “My anaconda don’t want none/ Unless you’ve got buns, hun”, Minaj samples these lines to turn the tables around and implicitly suggest that a man with a small penis would not deserve her attention (Sir Mix-A-Lot 03:04-03:08). Even the title of Minaj’s song comes from this sample, highlighting the importance of this male physical attribute. Minaj starts the song with a playful alliteration: “Boy toy named Troy used to live in Detroit” (Minaj 00:08-00:11). Thus, she introduces the first man in the song who is mesmerised by her body. What Troy has in common with the second man mentioned in the lyrics, Michael, is that they are both making big money doing something illegal “Was in shootouts with the law, but he live in a palace” and “I let him hit it ‘cause he slang cocaine” (Minaj 00:15-00:18, 01:31-01:35). The fact that both men do something that is against the law probably raises their “gangster credit” and seems to be another condition for Minaj’s persona in “Anaconda” to have sex with them. Another thread that links the two men is the fact that they buy her expensive designer clothes afterwards. While in the first verse about Troy, it seems that he is the one with the idea of giving her the latest fashion “Bought me Alexander McQueen, he was keeping me stylish”, later on with Michael, the agency shifts from the man to Minaj herself demanding the gifts: “And when we done, I make him buy me Balmain” (Minaj 00:18-00:22, 01:38-01-41). This change of agent underscores Minaj levelling up in her demands on a sexual partner. She raps that his “dick bigger than a tower, I ain’t talking ‘bout Eiffel’s ” further advancing the fact that she needs “anacondas” in the bedroom and then brings up anilingus: “He toss my salad like his name Romaine” (Minaj 01:17-01:21, 01:35-01:38). ‘Tossing salad’ is a colloquial term for anilingus and romaine lettuce is used as an ingredient in many salads, however the contributors on Genius, a website where people gather information about songs and attempt to decipher their meanings, point out that Roman Zolanski (a play on the famous Polish director Roman Polanski’s name) is one of Nicki Minaj’s many artistic alter egos which might explain why she chose to use it in the song (Genius). This slowly builds up the idea of what Minaj’s persona looks for sexually. Apart from having curves that these men crave, she goes even further comparing herself to medicine: “Pussy put his ass to sleep, now he calling me NyQuil” (Minaj 00:25-01:28). Thus, showing that she can give them something other women cannot and therefore deserves their attention and more.
The video features Minaj and other female dancers twerking in various outfits accentuating their behinds as well as shots of fruit that look like sexual organs and then at the end a frustrated Drake sitting on a chair and watching Minaj twerk aggressively in front of him until he tries to grab her bottom at which point, she pushes his hand away and walks out on him, seemingly leaving him desperate. This ending implies that people can watch Minaj, she even provokes them to do so, but not everyone can come close enough to touch her. Even before the video came out, the promotional image in which Minaj is depicted from behind, squatting in a bikini, caused a lot of noise and controversy with people questioning if her reliance on her body does not muddy her talent (Mokoena). However, in Minaj’s own words from a cover story in Complex magazine, her goal with this song was:
to create a song that embraced curvy women. I wanted to be sexual but be playful with it. And I wanted it to be so melodic that even if you don’t understand English you could still go along with the melody and you would have no idea about all the raunchy s**t I’m saying—I get a kick out of that. (Nostro)
Minaj goes on to call the song a joke she made mainly for her girlfriends to laugh at, however, this “joke” turned into the highest-charting song of her career proving that she knows what she is doing even when she just wants herself and her fans to have a little bit of fun (Nostro). She likes to be provocative and understands the power of a catchy melody and alliterative flow.
People can watch Minaj, she even provokes them to do so, but not everyone can come close enough to touch her.
Cardi B, another contemporary hip-hop artist, had an interesting start to her career: at 19 she became a stripper in New York City where she grew up and claims that this was a good life decision because it gave her financial reassurance and the self-confidence to end an abusive relationship (BBC Newsbeat). She later managed to get a considerable following on Instagram because of her short but brutally honest content ranging from sex advice to political analysis which in turn got her a regular spot on the VH1 reality show Love and Hip Hop: New York (BBC Newsbeat). She stopped stripping at 23 and launched a successful hip-hop career (BBC Newsbeat). There have been strippers turned rappers before, but none of them achieved the kind of fame and glory that Cardi B is enjoying now. Megan Thee Stallion had a more straightforward road to rapping as her mother was a rapper herself performing under the nickname Holly-Wood and the young rapper remembers the work ethic of her mother writing in between work and other engagements. She started emulating this as a young child, but her mother persuaded her to wait until she gets older and goes to college before embarking on a full-time rapping career because she believed that some of the racier verses were too inappropriate for her age (Ogunnaike). Even her name Megan Thee Stallion refers to her body as black women in the South who are tall and built impressively are referred to as stallions (Ogunnaike). This is viewed positively by Megan Thee Stallion otherwise she would not have adopted the name, but the history of comparing African-Americans to animals is a sensitive issue. However, it could be said that embracing it means reclaiming the term and switching the negative connotations in other peoples’ minds into something more positive. In August 2020, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion released a song called “WAP” with the acronym standing for “wet-ass-pussy” that was again very explicit in its depictions of sexual behaviour while at the same time topping the charts all over the world.
Right from the beginning of the song, the two singers call themselves whores (Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion 00:01- 00:05). This could be interpreted as reclaiming the word just like female rappers in the 90s did with the word bitch. Cardi B then starts her first verse after the chorus naming one feature of the male body that must meet her criteria for satisfaction: big penis “extra large and extra hard” (Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion 00:30-00:31). She later intensifies her lust for large penises with lines like: “Not a garter snake, I need a king cobra … I wanna gag, I wanna choke/ I want you to touch that lil’ dangly thing that swing in the back of my throat” and “I want you to park that big Mack truck right in this little garage” (Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion 01:30-01:31…01:41-01:47, 00:46-00:50). Another point that Cardi B makes about her sexual partner (similar to Nicki Minaj) is the demands for him to be wealthy: “He got some money, then that’s where I’m headed/ Pussy A1 just like his credit” (Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion 01:33-01:36). Furthermore, she demands cunnilingus during sex, ordering the man to “put this pussy right in your face” which again ties her to Nicki Minaj and her insistence on being satisfied sexually (Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion 00:31-00:33).
In comparison with rappers like Missy Elliott and Lil’ Kim, Cardi B describes acts that could be considered passive as active with lines like: “Hop on top, I wanna ride/ I do a kegel while it’s inside” (Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion 00:35-00:38). The reference to kegel exercise done while the penis is inside the vagina is one of the strategies inform audience about the tightness of Cardi B’s vagina. Similarly, her casual mentioning of “My head game is fire” as well as “I ride on that thing like the cops is behind me” bring the listeners’ attention to her sexual energy (Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion 01:48-00:49, 01:51-01:52). Cardi B then follows this by allusions to some other practices that men might be interested in with lines like: “Tie me up like I’m surprised/ Let’s roleplay, I’ll wear a disguise/ I want you to park that big Mack truck right in this little garage” (Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion 00:42-00:49). However, more important from the point of view of empowerment are the following lines “Make it cream, make me scream/ Out in public, make a scene” in which Cardi stresses the idea that a woman should be satisfied in a sexual act (Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion 00:50-00:52). Furthermore, she outright rejects the common stereotypes of the role women have in a relationship “I don’t cook, I don’t clean/ But let me tell you how I got this ring” (Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion 00:53-00:56). Interestingly, Cardi B does not deny that for some women getting married is a priority, she is simply declaring that there are other ways to achieve this goal apart from becoming a typical housewife. Cardi B in “WAP” also claims that her vagina is so sweet that when she lets the man “taste it, now he diabetic” and that she “spit on his mic and now he tryna sign me” which is a double entendre since spitting on a mic can refer to her performing oral sex on her partner while at the same time it can simply be a reference to an actual microphone and how good she is at rapping or spitting verses (Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion 01:39-01:40, 01:52-01:54). So good indeed that the man would want to sign a contract with his label to lock down her talent. So, in this verse she links her rapping talent with her sexual skills, thus, suggesting once again that these two elements are closely connected in hip-hop in general as well as for female musicians in particular.
Furthermore, she outright rejects the common stereotypes of the role women have in a relationship “I don’t cook, I don’t clean/ But let me tell you how I got this ring” (Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion 00:53-00:56). Interestingly, Cardi B does not deny that for some women getting married is a priority, she is simply declaring that there are other ways to achieve this goal apart from becoming a typical housewife.
In her verses, Megan also conditions her sexual participation on whether the man has money to spend on her: “Now make it rain if you wanna see some wet-ass pussy” and “Ask for a car while you ride that dick”, but she also follows this by claiming that: “you really ain’t never gotta fuck him for a thang/ He already made his mind up ‘fore he came” (Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion 01:21- 01:25, 01:05-01:11). Thus, it seems that she is saying that the man would have given her whatever she wants even without her following it with sexual favours. In her second verse, similarly to Cardi B, Megan goes on to titillate the male listener with images of hard-core sex: “Your honor, I’m a freak bitch, handcuffs, leashes/ Switch my wig, make him feel like he cheatin’” (Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion 01:53-01:58). However, when she raps about anilingus: “In the food chain, I’m the one that eat ya/ If he ate my ass, he’s a bottom-feeder/ Big D stand for big demeanor” she seems to suggest that she does not respect men who perform it on women with ‘bottom-feeder’ being the opposite of an alpha-male—which is supposedly more desirable for women (Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion 02:01–02:07). This triplet of lines plays with the idea of animal hierarchy with Megan putting herself on top. Interestingly, “eating” or more specifically “eating out” refers to cunnilingus but can also refer to anilingus, so Megan is also saying that it might be demeaning for men to perform anilingus on her, but her reputation would remain intact. This goes back to referring to passive roles as active. Megan Thee Stallion later also boasts about her sexual skills as well as her status as a sexual object, but again with a sense that this makes her even more in control rather than just being objectified by males: “I could make ya bust before I ever meet ya” (Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion 02:06-02:08). She finishes her second verse with the couplet: “If he fuck me and ask “‘Whose is it?’/When I ride the dick, I’ma spell my name, ah” which again focuses on her and spelling her name putting stress on it and the fact that everyone should know who she is from now on (Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion 02:12-02:16).
Megan Thee Stallion later also boasts about her sexual skills as well as her status as a sexual object, but again with a sense that this makes her even more in control rather than just being objectified by males.
“WAP”, similarly to Minaj’s “Anaconda”, made a lot of people uneasy due to its boldness and disarming honesty. It is understandable if conservative men and women were wary of it at the beginning, but interestingly some criticism came from the hip-hop world itself: Snoop Dogg reportedly chastised the two women for uncovering such intimate information about their sexual appetites claiming that women should hide them and only show them to their partners (Daly). Luckily, Cardi B’s rapper husband Offset from the group Migos called Snoop Dogg out on his double standards, reminding him that male rappers always discuss sex in their songs and essentially telling him that men should not tell women what not to do anymore (Daly). Not that either Cardi B or Megan needed a man to fight for them- they made their thoughts on this quite clearly known in the song itself and the fact that it won many accolades—both official and unofficial—shows that they were right in producing such a record since many people liked the song.
It should be noted that hip-hop has evolved tremendously since its beginning in the 1970s and the women have progressed into full-fledged members spreading the culture further and further whilst also pushing the boundaries of what is accepted and even welcomed in a rap song. Female rappers that rose to fame in the 90s like Lil’ Kim or Missy Elliott paved the way for younger generations of female rappers to sing and rap about whatever they wished and especially about sex by writing lyrics that challenged the male-dominated industry. That is why the likes of Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, or Megan Thee Stallion can now reap what the women before them have sowed. It is hard to evaluate whether the lyrics of the older generations of female rappers were more or less provocative than the artists who release their work now, but it seems that the world these days is better accustomed to make such explicit songs into platinum hits. This can be related to the fact that hip-hop itself in all its forms has become more ingrained into the mainstream culture; it has evolved from a niche attraction to a mainstream giant and its artists with it. Alternatively, it could be the result of society’s becoming less conservative overall as a consequence of more openness about sexuality brought about by feminist and queer movements. The certain thing is that the world can just sit back and enjoy the diversity of what (female) rap can offer and be excited about what is to come in the future.
Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion. “WAP.” Spotify. open.spotify.com/album/2ogiazbrNEx0kQHGl5ZBTQ?highlight=spotify:track:4Oun2 ylbjFKMPTiaSbbCih.
Eberhardt, Maeve. “Subjects and Objects: Linguistic Performances of Sexuality in the Lyrics of Black Female Hip-Hop Artists.” Gender and Language: Theory and Practice, by Lia Litosseliti, Routledge, 2016, pp. 21–47.
Minaj, Nicki. “Anaconda.” Spotify. open.spotify.com/album/40XGTQ7FN6Y3dZXJhKBe96?highlight=spotify:track:5eqi MMbaeUZ32Q7sS00H35.
Sir Mix-a-Lot. “Baby Got Back (I Like Big Butts).” Spotify. open.spotify.com/album/6c62jxWCe2aisIudaDRcaP?highlight=spotify:track:1SAkL1 mYNJlaqnBQxVZrRl.
White, Theresa Renee. “Missy ‘Misdemeanor’ Elliott and Nicki Minaj: Fashionistin’ Black Female Sexuality in Hip-Hop Culture—Girl Power or Overpowered?” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 44, no. 6, 2013, pp. 607–626. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24572858. Accessed 29 July 2021.