Female emcees often get shelved into their own subcategory of rap, these ‘femcees,’ when good enough, can count on backhanded compliments mentioning their gender, as the problematic term already implies. The seven female rappers included in this list however, don’t need any subcategory to stand out. Yes, they’re dope female rappers, but they’re also dope rappers. Period.
The first female rapper to go platinum has been a staple of Jermaine Dupri’s So-So-Def Records ever since the mid-90s and could hang with Biggie without being outshined. She did it without shaking her ass like her peers did in that period, in fact, her tomboy-ish looks made her come across as more gully than some of the dudes she spit with. She’s even been rumored to be one of the ghostwriters behind other hits on her label, making her the mirror image in both talent and appearance of what many people think of when the words “female” and “rapper” are combined. Sadly, her comeback attempts in the early ’00s mostly fell flat as she discarded her previously established image for a decidedly more feminine (some would say exploitative) persona. Maybe she’ll return to her gully side again now that she’s been released from her stint in prison for aggravated assault.
The former first lady of the Flipmode Squad never really got the shine she deserved. She trades verses with Lauryn Hill on The Score cut ‘Cowboys’ and her debut album ‘Dirty Harriet’ contained beats by (among others) DJ Premier (back when that was something people not wearing backpacks still got excited about), Pete Rock, Nottz, DJ Scratch and Rockwilder and the Jersey spitter murked. every. single. one. of them. It was released at the end of 1999, which was too far into the jiggy era to ride the wave of prime ’90s boombap, and too early to be nostalgic for that sound. The Rawkus era started to blossom, but the album sounded to rough to fall in line with that category, despite Digga featuring on the first Reflection Eternal album. Even though Dirty Harriet sold close to 400,000 copies (sales numbers many rappers would kill for nowadays) it seems to have been forgotten in recent times. Which is a shame, really.
Lady of Rage
‘Afro Puffs’ is an undeniable 90s classic from the height of the Death Row era. Things don’t exactly seem fair though, when you’re set to drop your debut album for 3 years (!) and watch the brand you helped build with Dre, Snoop, Daz and Kurupt crumble around you. When Necessary Roughness finally dropped in 1997 it received rave reviews, but by then Snoop was busy trying to get off the label, Pac had passed and Dre was starting Aftermath. It never got the push it deserved. Thankfully, Snoop offered her a deal on his Doggystyle label and took her on tour with him several times, as recent as two years ago when performing his debut album. It was cool to see Lady of Rage on that tour, but her hardcore delivery deserves better than being an occasional guest appearance appealing to the most devoted of ’90s nostalgists.
MC Lyte is widely regarded as one of the best ladies to grace the mic, and rightfully so. Her delivery is smooth, her writing is strong, and she delivered a distinctly female perspective often lacking in hip-hop while she could still hang with all the dudes and never appear ‘soft.’ Lyte never tried to forcedly come across rough to unnecessarily compensate for her gender and never exploited her sex appeal either. She’s a woman that’s a genuine rapper’s rapper. A role model, a pioneer and a damn fine spitter.
If Guru is the king of monotone than this Gang Starr affiliate is the queen. Rarely has an emcee had a delivery that is as simultaneously smooth and raw as Bahamadia’s. Her calm, understated delivery has a menacing undertone that should stop anyone with half a brain from trying to mess with her while absolutely perfectly fitting the organic, jazz-sampling production style prevalent in the golden era. Alas, western audiences might not be as appreciative of that style as they once were, but don’t worry, Bahamadia has Japan on lock and still regularly releases succesful projects over there. Staying true to her own aesthetic and caking off it, how many rappers can say the same?
It’s a good thing Jean Grae is signed to Talib Kweli’s Blacksmith label, if she was caught in any corporate machine trying to make her sing saccharine pop tunes, she’d probably sprain her middle finger flipping it humming bird style. Check the Haters Anthem for further reference if you’d doubt that. Jean has punchlines galore but can weave a narrative as well, does characteristically cartoonish ad-libs reminiscent of Eminem and has the intricate internal rhymes and tongue twisters to match. Her attitude and sarcastic humor caps off the package, and when her upcoming album Cake or Death finally drops she’ll hopefully get the exposure she’s deseverved for a long time now.
One of the strongest voices in the game, ever. Able to carry a tune like few others and rap her ass off just as well (f*** you Drake). Not one but two classic, multi-platinum albums under her belt. Beefed with Jeru the Damaja. And won. One of the most critically acclaimed musicians of her generation. If she hadn’t been bogged down by the soaring level of fame she received, leading her to decide to go off the radar for over a decade, we’d probably be having GOAT conversations about Miss Hill. Almost 15 years after her solo-debut, emcees still ain’t ready to take it to the Serengeti.