From Trina to Foxy Brown, we revisit five rap greats who deserve as much recognition as their peers
Although there’s still work to be done, it’s fair to say that female rappers are gaining the recognition they deserve. Nicki Minaj is the most high profile example; a commercial behemoth in her own right, but one that has earned respect from the business and can easily outshine Kanye West on his own track (or anyone else for that matter). And that’s without mentioning the slew of more recent talent, from Tink to Dej Loaf and Leikeli47 to Little Simz, or the artists that paved the way, like Lil’ Kim, Queen Latifah and (obviously) Missy Elliott.
However, despite the success of the above, there have been plenty of female rap greats that have slipped under the radar. Foxy Brown is a perfect example – while she achieved enormous sales for all three of her albums as well a soaring profile in the early ‘00s, her legacy has largely fallen by the wayside. Similarly, NYC rapper Jean Grae has become known for her political-minded lyrical ability, yet remains underground, whereas Trina’s consistent career spans almost two decades, yet remains less recognised as her equally talented peers. With that in mind, we decided to shine the spotlight on five women in hip hop whose legacy and talent ought to be revisited.
You might recognise Shawnna from brief appearances in Ludacris’ “What’s Your Fantasy” and “Stand Up”. However, these chorus cameos don’t do justice to the rapid-fire delivery and thought-provoking lyricism that the Chicago native is capable of. Arguably, her underrated status can be accredited to various career complications which continued to plague the rapper; her 2004 debut album Worth Tha Weight had its release delayed by almost two years, and her eventual departure from Ludacris’ Disturbin’ Tha Peace label in 2007 led to years of rumoured conflict.
Despite the consistent pushbacks, Shawnna’s 18-track debut still stands strong as her finest work, and it features standout collaborations with Missy Elliott (on the weed-soaked “What Can I Do”) and Ludacris (on ultra-catchy lead single “Shake Dat Shit”). Most impressive is the aptly-named “R.P.M.”, which sees Shawnna go toe-to-toe with rapper Twista – the man that once held the record for ‘world’s fastest rapper’. The four-minute cut features a chorus appearance from Ludacris and an almost incomprehensible syllable count, proving Shawnna’s capability of holding her own with the best in the game.
Foxy Brown’s first two (incredible) albums were certified platinum, the third gold, so arguing that her skills have gone unnoticed is tricky. However, despite her initial success, Brown’s legacy remains largely uncharted thanks to a loss of hearing which halted her career, as well as several run-ins with the law.
Her skillful fusion of reggae, soul, gospel and hip-hop remains unmatched by her contemporaries, proven over the course of her 18-track opus Broken Silence. One second she’s paying tribute to her Jamaican roots, spitting Patois over a dancehall beat on “Oh Yeah”, the next, she’s coyly inviting her lover to “imagine me nude / stretched out” on tongue-in-cheek Kelis collaboration “Candy”. However, the album’s central lyrical theme is the dark underbelly of fame – the LP was released in the wake of a suicide attempt that courted mass media attention, hence the Broken Silence alluded to in the title. With this in mind, the album’s highlight is undoubtedly “The Letter”, written as a heartfelt apology to her family; “when I was in the hospital / could not be still /only you knew the reason why I popped these pills.”
The self-proclaimed ‘baddest bitch’ Trina has sustained a career for almost two decades, yet still remains severely underrated. The Miami-born rapper first emerged via a slew of cameos and collaborations with Trick Daddy and, although her first album was solid, (spawning one of the best song titles ever – “Pull Over (That Ass Is Too Fat)”) it was her second album Diamond Princess that truly pointed towards star potential.
The genius behind Trina’s music is that she reclaims her own sexuality, frequently referencing her ‘fat ass’ in lyrics and creating sex-positive lyrics. “Hustling” for example, is a step-by-step guide to seduction that teaches women how to use their sexuality to expose infidelity, whereas the violin-driven lead single “B R Right” relies on a chorus driven by sexual demands. Although it might not seem progressive now, Trina’s lyrics are significant because they actively combat slut-shaming culture. Crucially, they also fight the stereotype that conventionally beautiful women should be reduced to accessories by the hip-hop community. In essence, we know she’s smart, talented and we know she’s getting laid on her own terms – and enjoying it.
It’s fair to say that Jean Grae’s music transcends the genre-specific confinements of rap. Her lyrics are thought-provoking, philosophical and often political, set against sonic backdrops that reference jazz and soul. Naturally, a handful of the industry’s most introspective wordsmiths have gravitated towards Grae, resulting in collaborations with The Roots, Talib Kweli and Pharaoh Monche. However, her musical output has never translated into mainstream success, despite a consistently stellar back catalogue.
Arguably the most impressive of Grae’s solo albums is Jeanius, which was pushed back four years without explanation. Pirated copies began to leak on the internet and, finally, the LP was released in 2008 under Kweli’s Blacksmith Records. The results are brutally honest – there’s “My Story (Please Forgive Me)”, a lyrical depiction of abortions, miscarriage and a resulting suicide attempt, there’s “Desperada”, which documents her rehabilitation following a dependence on pills and alcohol and finally, on a lighter note, there’s “2-32s”, a self-assured opening cut that name-checks Roxanne Shanté and Erykah Badu. Unlike most, Grae has earned the right to compare herself with respected industry veteran, and over the course of the last fifteen years, she has proved herself more than worthy of respect, recognition and critical acclaim.
A glance over her discography gives a fairly clear explanation of Jacki-O’s mainstream anonymity – after all, titles like “Pussy (Real Good)” don’t exactly point towards heavy rotation on mainstream radio stations. However, aside from her major label release Poe Little Rich Girl, Jacki has built a formidable back catalogue of mixtapes and self-released projects on her own.
The rapper is unflinchingly honest in her lyrics, frequently touching upon her criminal history of shoplifting and troubled relationships. One of her most memorable cuts appears on her 2005 mixtape entitled Free Agent, which opens with a searing 3-minute freestyle that rips apart fake friendships and exposes label politics. Most importantly, she highlights the male-centric rap world, highlighting that most female rappers come into the industry in the shadows of an established male rapper. She references Kim and Trina specifically; “y’all seen me time again, I came out by myself / no rapper co-sign, I had to co-sign myself / no Trick, no Biggie no Joe / no Luda motherfuckers just O” – with those lines alone, she underscores the difficulties of trying to establish a reputation as an independent female rapper, while sticking her middle finger up to the industry in the process.