For nearly 40 years, hip-hop has almost exclusively been dominated by men. Often criticized for its traditionally tone deaf and sexist lyrics, the “boys only” club rarely gives women their props–let alone a voice.
However, 2017 has marked a thrilling year for women in hip-hop. From draw-dropping beefs to historic chart performances, this year female rappers proved that even in a “man’s world” it’s the women who most certainly keep the tempo.
But in order to fully grasp the major wins for women in hip-hop in 2017–from breakout star Cardi B to comeback queen Remy Ma–one must take a trip down memory lane and put things in better context.
Last year’s VH1 Hip Hop Honors is where things took a turn with the insurgence of female rap.
Pioneers Queen Latifah, Lil’ Kim, Salt-N-Pepa, and Missy Elliot, each with their distinct styles and flows as MCs, were finally recognized for their pivotal roles in ushering in new and innovative sounds for generations. All six women were particularly responsible for keeping women’s hip hop alive between the late ’80s and early 2000s.
The 2016 award ceremony was a bittersweet moment for music fans, as we jammed to the hits we once knew, realizing just how far women’s hip hop had become removed from the culture at large.
No more were the days of the aforementioned artists, and other influential rappers like Eve and Foxy Brown, who dominated the charts and pushed the culture forward. Women’s rap had arguably become stagnant.
Honoring women in rap on such a stage was historic, as women in the hip-hop industry were often viewed as the exception to the men. And when compared to their male counterparts as lyricists, they were never fully accepted as “rappers.”
Billboard’s “Top 10 Best Rappers of All Time” ranking in 2015 included only one woman: Lauryn Hill. This year, Complex‘s more extensive list spanning between 1989 and 2015, named the best rapper year by year in which only one woman—Nicki Minaj—made the cut as the best in 2014.
Considered the indisputable queen of rap over the last several years, Minaj’s dominance was not by chance, and her rise is often seen the catalyst for the reemergence of women in hip-hop on a commercial level.
The Queens “Barbie” entered the industry with hard hitting flows, clever vocal inflections and catchy metaphors, which won over fans across demographics. Minaj proved she could hang with the best in the industry when she arguably laid down the best verse on the Kanye West‘s smash hit “Monster” (2010), solidifying her presence in hip-hop.
She would go on to release three multi-platinum albums, acquiring hit after hit, raking up Billboard plaques from 2009-2016. What’s more, Minaj won the BET Best Female Rapper award for a record seven years in a row. She was undeniably the Queen of Rap, and although many tried, she refused to be displaced from her throne.
Coming off her first year back in the game, which garnered the Grammy-nominated song “All the Way Up,” and an album release (Plata o Plomo) with Fat Joe, Remy Ma ignited the year in true rap battle fashion.
In February, Remy released her earth-shattering, seven-minute diss track, which ironically sampled Minaj’s rumored beau Nas. The “Ether” inspired record was a response to alleged jabs thrown by Minaj. “ShEther” became the quintessential hip-hop moment of 2017, re-energizing women’s rap.
Minaj responded with three consecutive diss tracks herself, including “No Frauds,” which became a top 15 Billboard hit. As the bad blood continued to spill between the two ladies, excitement grew within the industry as the Queen of Rap finally had a viable threat to her throne.
However, Nicki continued to dominate the Billboard charts. In March, she went on to break the record long held by the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin (73), for the most Billboard entries by any female artist.
Minaj’s chart glory was not only a reminder of how dominate she’d been during a somewhat dormant period in women’s rap, but showed the world just how hard female MC’s had to work to earn any meaningful props.
By May, rivalry tensions grew deeper as BET announced the nominees for Best Female Hip-Hop Artist, including Minaj, Remy, Missy Elliot, Young M.A, and Cardi B.
At the time, Cardi B was still fresh off her fame of Love and Hip-Hop, just looking for a chance. The Bronx native self-released two mixtapes within six months of each another in 2016 and 2017. The projects proved how serious she was about her transition into music, and demonstrated she had the talent to do so.
Remy Ma ultimately dethroned Minaj, winning the Best Female Rapper category, and more importantly broke her winning streak. It was quite the moment in hip-hop, as it seemed the women’s rap scene finally had some healthy competition. The moment, however, was quickly overshadowed by Cardi’s Cinderella come up story.
The rapper’s breakout hit, “Bodak Yellow,” instantly made her a bonafide star and someone to watch in hip-hop. Cardi had listeners shouting lyrics like “I don’t dance now, I make money moves,” and moves she most certainly made moves this year. The single quickly climbed the charts, ultimately hitting the Billboard Hot 100’s Top 10 within 8 weeks of its release, with a shot of reaching number one—a feat that even Minaj had not acquired in over 80 attempts.
The community’s response was amazing, and they galvanized to push the song straight to number one. Week after week the song gained in streams, downloads and YouTube views, as the collective hip-hop community did everything within its power to dethrone Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do.”
On Sept. 23, “Bodak Yellow” finally did what seemed to be the impossible, becoming only the second solo number one by a female rapper in Billboard’s history.
As Cardi continued to ride on the success of Bodak, and worked on her debut album (due in 2018), Remy Ma was also making money moves. On Oct. 30, Remy would sign a multi-million dollar music deal with Columbia Records, with her LP 7 Winters, 6 Summers also slated for a 2018 release.
As the jostling for the “Queen of Rap” title in 2017 continued on, another Queen reminded us how important it is to pay homage to those who paved the way.
For Halloween, Beyoncé released a set of photos honoring “Queen Bee” Lil’ Kim in epic fashion. The photos were a throwback of Kim’s most iconic looks throughout her storied rap career.
Kim, whose Hardcore album turned 21 years old, laid the foundation for much of the transition of women’s rap inclusive of fashion. Her importance as we watch the new women in the industry cannot be ignored, as many of them today benefit from the marriage of rap and fashion she once set as the standard.
The last weeks of the year brought collaborations from Remy and Kim (“Wake Me Up”) and the hit “Motor Sport” from Quavo ft. Cardi and Nicki respectively. Cardi B has earned two Grammy nominations for her hit song “Bodak Yellow,” and continues to release music in anticipation of her debut album.
2018 is setting up to be an epic showdown, as Minaj, Cardi, Remy and Kim are expected to release full-length projects, bringing back competition we haven’t seen since the ’90s.
The lull of female rap over the past years, which included the rise and fall of Iggy Azalea and Azealia Banks, has seemingly been ended by one of the best years, chart wise, in nearly two decades.
Record deals, Billboard records, and heated competition are all the makings of what should be an exciting 2018, following a 2017 where the women took their rightful spot on the throne.
George M. Johnson is the Managing Editor of BroadwayBlack.com. He has written for Ebony, TheGrio, TeenVogue, NBC News and several other major publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.