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Rap's Rapidly Vanishing Female MC

The Why Chromosome

In the ever-declining market of hip-hop, it's becoming more and more apparent that one of its greatest losses may be its estrogen count.

Ten years ago, female rappers were steadily gaining on the success of their male counterparts. Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown coasted on the multiplatinum sales of their debut albums, Missy Elliot was christened one of the most innovative MCs around, and former Fugee Lauryn Hill's solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, became the first hip-hop album to win the coveted Album of the Year award at the Grammys.

A decade later, Kim has become more known for her crooked nose and headline-grabbing perjury trial/prison sentence than her music, Foxy is behind bars promoting an album that may never see the light of day, Missy is hawking Doritos, and no one seems to be able to answer the simple question, "Where in the world is Lauryn Hill?"

Last year, though, was originally touted as the return of the "femcee." Eve, Missy, Foxy, Trina, Shawnna, Remy Ma and newcomer Lil' Mama were all scheduled for new releases. In reality, this supposed resurgence fizzled out in a smattering of singles — all of which stiffed — and several release-date postponements. Lil' Kim did manage to put out a mixtape, which did little more than elicit nostalgia for her hard-core days. Instead of a welcome-home celebration for lady rappers, perhaps it's time to start a deathwatch.

So how did the femcee become an endangered species? An easy guess is that as hip-hop's commercial clout has begun to falter, women — who still suffer an earnings gap with men — have likewise borne the greater burden. But female rappers' plight actually started before overall rap sales began their free fall.

Two of hip-hop's best-selling female artists, the self-professed Ms. G.O.A.T. (the title of Lil Kim's still-unreleased latest album) and Elliot, both saw their string of platinum releases come to an abrupt halt years ago. Other popular rapstresses like Trina and Eve saw similar declines.

And their barrier-breaking predecessors? Salt 'n' Pepa recently reunited for VH-1 reality series The Salt 'n' Pepa Show, but haven't released an album since 1997's Brand New. In 2004, Queen Latifah released The Dana Owens Album, a collection of jazz standards. Her first full-fledged singing album went on to sell over 700,000 copies, becoming her best-selling release to date. Latifah also earned a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album.

Speaking of the Grammys, also in 2004, the shortage of eligible entries prompted the Recording Academy to remove the best female rap category — two short years after its inception. Considering the last major-label release by a female rapper to actually see the light of day was Remy Ma's The Truth About Remy in 2006, don't expect that category to return anytime soon.

Traditionally, female rappers have been introduced to the masses as protégés of an established male MC: The Notorious B.I.G. made Lil' Kim, Jay-Z molded Foxy Brown, and Shawnna, Eve and Trina can credit the Disturbing the Peace, Ruff Ryders and Slip-n-Slide camps, respectively, for their career launches. These days, however, even hip-hop's heavyweights have trouble maintaining their own sales, leaving little time to give anyone else a leg up in this downtrodden field.

In addition to acting as mentors and sponsors, these men typically dictated their female charges' subject matter, even down to writing their actual lyrics in many cases. Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown's rhymes about designer clothes and extravagant jewelry? Thank Biggie and Hova. But now it's becoming hard to differentiate which gender has the greater penchant for pearls and designer duds.

To wit: "I am so dope, like Louboutins with the red bottoms, you gotta have 'em. You glad you got 'em, like every color, Giuseppe's your guilty pleasure is me."

And...

"Awesome, the Christian in Christian Dior. Damn, they don't make 'em like this anymore."

That's Jay-Z displaying his knowledge of female footwear, then Kanye West — whose passion for fashion rivals Brown and Kim in their primes — asserting both his greatness and status as a fashionisto. There's also Pharrell, who now designs jewelry for Louis Vuitton.

It seems like now would be a great time for someone like Eve — who came onto the scene as the antithesis of Kim and Foxy's materialism — to return to her rugged roots. But her video for "Tambourine" reveals the rapper once referred to as a "pitbull in a skirt" is content with being a Shih Tzu in a gown.

Is there hope? Last fall, VH-1 announced a show for female rappers (not counting The Salt 'n' Pepa Show), but if you paid any attention to Ego Trip's White Rapper Show, you know that network couldn't produce the next MC Serch, let alone the new ­Eminem.

With many of the female MCs who enjoyed popularity in the '90s seemingly past their prime, and men taking on the very materialistic themes they once handed to their female protégés, it will take a new breed and a new direction to save this endangered genre.

But if that doesn't pan out, I'm sure Queen Latifah will be happy to sing at the wake.

 
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