Victory Lap
Last year was a milestone for hip-hop as female rappers reigned Billboard charts, dominated headlines and garnered critical acclaim while moving beyond trite archetypes. Has the playing field finally leveled out for women in hip-hop?
Words: Kathy Iandoli
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

Fashion Week is one of New York City’s biggest annual events, as models, fashion moguls and celebrities alike all gather in couture to honor this luxury-draped week-long extravaganza. In 2018, however, the biggest stars of the festivities were two female rappers.

During the Harper’s Bazaar Icons Party, Nicki Minaj and Cardi B brought their nearly two-year beef to a head. The now urban legend goes as follows: Nicki stepped on the train of Cardi’s red Dolce & Gabbana gown, ripping it. Bardi then approached Barbie’s table at the gala and attempted to throw her shoe at her rival. Cardi B left with a knot over her eye, after allegedly being elbowed by a member of Nicki Minaj’s security. After already dominating the hip-hop conversation, Cardi B and Nicki Minaj now commanded fashion’s attention. What a time to be alive.

Dave Kotinsky/Dimitrios Kambouris, Getty Images (2)

This was the year that women in hip-hop were finally the stars of the show. For decades, women were accessorized in the rap space: first ladies of all-male crews, the guest features on tracks for merely a cute embellishment, underrated and wildly underestimated, known more for their aesthetic than their bars. It’s a problem that’s persisted since women first picked up the microphone, navigating through a culture that’s oftentimes regarded as a “young man’s game.”

All of that flew out the window this past year. Perhaps it was due to 2017’s #MeToo movement growing its wings, or the disposition brewing within a nation where a misogynistic president continued to dismantle the White House, but women had enough of being othered and that inevitably affected hip-hop. It was time to be recognized, evolve and, for some, re-enter the battleground to reclaim a seat at the table. For others, it was joining the growing ranks of fellow women who were charting, touring and continuing to build their own respective movements. Reflecting on this past year and looking forward to 2019, it’s easy to see just how far these ladies of rap have come and where they plan on going.

The 2018 Grammy Awards in January were a clear indicator of the shape of things to come for women in hip-hop. Cardi B was up for Best Rap Performance for “Bodak Yellow” while Rapsody was nominated for Best Rap Album for Laila’s Wisdom and Best Rap Song for “Sassy.” While neither artist took home a gold gramophone statue, they both found their W’s in other ways.

Rapsody’s respect was well-earned and a long time coming. Since entering the scene with rap crew Kooley High and making waves with her honest-to-goodness flow for well over a decade, Rap’s rap sheet expanded in recent years by way of her guest appearance on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and as an addition to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation roster. In 2018, her career came full circle once the accolades rolled in for her aforementioned second solo studio album, a work that was both intimate and spoke directly to the times. Being the only female rapper on the Best Rap Album nomination list was epic, but so was making history as the fifth woman to ever be nominated for the Best Rap Album. “I’ve always fought for us to be recognized and respected for our talent on the same playing field as the guys—not separate because our gender does not limit our greatness or worth or skill,” Rapsody writes via email. “It was a big step to be recognized along your Jay-Zs and Kendrick Lamars as one of the best of the best solely for the art. But, only being one of five in history let me know how much more work we have to do.”

Dimitrios Kambouris, Getty Images

For Cardi, it was the monumental success of her debut studio album, Invasion of Privacy, and the snowballing effect that followed. In 2017, she already broke a record by being the first solo female rapper to reach the top spot of the Billboard Hot 100 in close to two decades with “Bodak Yellow.” When her full-length project released in April 2018, it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, moving 255,000 album unit equivalents in its first week and making Cardi the fifth female rapper to land a No. 1 album. She immediately became one of hip-hop’s most high-profile artists.

The Bronx-bred rapper set a record on Apple Music for the most album streams by a female artist in one week, knocking pop music titan Taylor Swift off her pedestal with a staggering 100 million streams, becoming Apple Music’s fifth-most streamed album ever. She deserved her own billboard on Billboard, with the most simultaneous U.S. Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Top 10 songs, along with becoming the first female hip-hop artist to land three No. 1 songs on the charts. Collaborations with Bruno Mars, J Balvin, Bad Bunny and Maroon 5 propelled her deeper into the pop stratosphere. In the midst of the madness, Cardi B gave birth to daughter Kulture Kiari and married the baby’s father, Offset of the Migos. In a world where women are told to pick a path, Cardi proved you could have it all, except for the respect of Nicki Minaj.

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After a nearly four-year pause, Nicki released a new project in 2018. Her fourth studio album, Queen, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts in August, with the lead single “Chun-Li” earning Nicki her 30th Top 10 hit on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart, surpassing Beyoncé and Mary J. Blige, who previously held the record with 29 each. She teamed up with elusive lyricist Foxy Brown on the patois-powered album deep cut “Coco Chanel,” and later in the year, set a career-spanning record by landing her 100th song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, rounding off the triple digits with her guest appearance on Tyga’s “Dip.” Nicki’s appearance on “Fefe,” a summer collaboration with the controversial 6ix9ine, quickly went platinum. Nicki’s Queen Radio on Apple Music became her playground for tea sipping and real talk, as the digital podium both put out fires and brought guns a blazing, with guests like Kim Kardashian, Kelly Rowland, Cassie and supermodel Winnie Harlow all celebrating at the radio show’s in-studio on-air launch party.

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As Cardi’s reputation solidified, the animosity between her and Nicki continued to intensify, culminating in the aforementioned Fashion Week incident. Ghostwriters, tour receipts and everything in between continued to filter through the ether when Nicki vented via Twitter, as did Cardi through Instagram. The social media frenzy continued to swell, with both artists’ fan bases jumping into the mix for good measure. While the conflict stayed heated and deflected from the music, it was by far one of the hottest topics in hip-hop, as two queens were the most talked-about artists in the space—for better or worse.

As Remy Ma and Lady Luck squashed their nearly two-decade beef in March 2018, the possibility of peace amongst beefing ladies felt like a reality. Even Lil’ Kim—who dropped her own heat with “Nasty One”—wished Nicki Minaj well, inadvertently dulling the intensity of their decade-long war. Yet, even after Nicki and Cardi seemed to call a cease fire (and rumors circulated about a potential tour), the tension between the two artists never seemed to dissipate.

“I can’t even look up to Nicki no more,” says Molly Brazy. “I was her biggest fan.” The Detroit rapper continued her own upward ascent in 2018, thanks to tracks like “They On Molly” and “Look Easy,” though a handful of beefs with other burgeoning acts during the previous year overshadowed her art. She says she focused more on music and less on trolling and promoting beef, learning from watching Nicki and Cardi fling mud (and shoes) at each other. “I looked up to [Nicki] at first, but [the Cardi beef] kind of fucked me up coming into the industry,” Molly says. “It made me look at a lot of stuff differently and made me want to change the ways. If [Cardi] would’ve just ignored Nicki or something like that, that would’ve put her on a higher note to me.”

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The new class of female rappers had their own successes to celebrate. The semi-seasoned Stefflon Don was featured in the 2018 XXL Freshman class. Philly rapper Tierra Whack challenged the concept and presentation of an album when she dropped the 15-songs-in-15-minutes Whack World via Instagram. Noname’s coming-of-age album Room 25 is one of the year’s most critically celebrated efforts. Miami duo City Girls brewed their own buzz with their no-nonsense mixtape, Period, which featured songs like “I’ll Take Your Man” and “How to Pimp a Nigga.” The Quality Control twosome received a major jolt when Drake both referenced and featured them on his gargantuan single “In My Feelings.”

While City Girls member JT went to prison for fraud charges in the midst of their glow up, her rhyming partner Yung Miami continued to carry the torch, promoting the November release of their debut album, Girl Code. “We knew this day was coming, we were prepared for it,” Yung Miami of City Girls recalls. “But I just be like, I’m finna go out here and do this for me and my girl.” City Girls received the ultimate cosign from their rap inspiration Trina, collaborating with the Miami legend on their Period track “Run Them Bands Up” and Trina’s “I Just Wanna.” The legendary nods didn’t stop there, as Lil’ Kim collaborated with upstart Dreamdoll on her track “Funeral.” Other artists like Asian Doll (a.k.a. Asian Da Brat) and Cuban Doll (a.k.a. Cuban Da Savage) were recruited by another legend, Gangsta Boo, on her 20th Anniversary remix of her debut single “Where Dem Dollas At.” There are a handful of artists to adopt the “Doll” moniker, led by Detroit native Kash Doll, who hit the scene back in 2014. After being locked in a recording contract with indie BMB Records for the past few years, she broke new ground with her 2018 project, The Vault. Kash took home the Issa Wave Award at the BET Social Awards earlier in the year based on the strength of her social media traction throughout her contractual predicament.

A squabble ultimately ensued over Doll supremacy in 2018—primarily between Asian and Kash—and when Nicki Minaj attempted to jump in to defuse it over Twitter, inviting the two Dolls up to Queen Radio, the godmother of Dolldom, Kash Doll declined. Cuban Doll differentiated herself from her namesake counterparts by identifying as a gangsta rapper, much to the chagrin of everyone who views the subgenre through a singular (read: male) lens. While tracks like “Drug Dealer,” “Bankrupt” and “Down to Ride” showed her skills, it was Cuban’s extracurricular rap activities that put her in the news. From allegedly losing her million-dollar deal with Capitol Music Group over snatching fellow rapper Rocky Badd’s chain and assaulting her, to showing her own bruises following an alleged fight with Tadoe, Cuban has ambitions as a ridah. “I’m like Tupac,” she says confidently. “Most people don’t like when I say that because you get I guess a lot of backlash from it and then dudes are always like, ‘Oh you a female! Why you want to be so hard?’ But this is how I am.”

Johnny Nunez, WireImage

It brings to light the notion that in 2018, no two female artists are truly alike. Whether it’s Floridian teen Bhad Bhabie trapping in “Gucci Flip Flops,” the return of Chicago
drill maven Dreezy and Brooklyn ski-masked marauder Leikeli47 or artists like CupcakKe and Saweetie being anything but sweet (with Cupcakke’s Ephorize and Eden projects and Saweetie’s High Maintenance EP all hitting critical marks), the year was full of both invention and reinvention.

While newer artists were finding their footing, legacy acts found new ways to remain relevant. Lauryn Hill returned to the touring circuit as part of the 20-year anniversary of her seminal The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. During her sets, Hill showed her support of Drake sampling her classic “Ex-Factor” bridge on “Nice For What,” by freestyling over it. “He took the sample,” Hill would rhyme, “My shit is classic; here’s an example.” Missy Elliott became the first female rapper nominated for 2019’s Songwriters Hall of Fame, also hopping on board for Ariana Grande’s Sweetener track “Borderline.” Her 2002 classic “Work It” gained new life when a clip of an older White woman named Mary Halsey rapping along to the song went viral, landing her and Missy an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Ruff Ryders alumn Eve also found herself on the talk show stage, joining the cast of The Talk on CBS. She joined other legends like MC Lyte, Yo-Yo, Rah Digga, Monie Love, Lady of Rage, Remy Ma and Trina on the nationwide Queens of Hip-Hop tour, too. For the first time in nearly two decades, disparate generations of rap’s leading ladies coexisted.

“I feel like women in the hip-hop industry in 2018 are definitely winning right now,” Cuban Doll says. “It’s like an all-time high at this point.” Cuban is right. In 2018, the playing field felt more leveled than ever before. Not only was there an influx of new talent, but a return to form for living legends. Any rap history timelines can point to various eras where women occupied the same space at the same time, though in 2018, real achievements were passed around to artists from different regions, styles and aesthetics. From making records to breaking records, women in hip-hop blazed the trail for a new day. “This year was just the foundation—2019 and beyond I think will be even bigger,” Rapsody notes. “You’ll see more of us working together to build each other and the culture. We will have a strong footing and let the industry know we aren’t going anywhere.

Check out more from XXL’s Winter 2018 issue including our Migos cover story interviewVic Mensa's turn toward activism and a woman's equality proponent, Show & Prove with Jay Critch, G Herbo finding new purpose as a father, Smokepurpp breaking down the songs on Deadstar 2 and more.

See Photos of Migos for the XXL Magazine Winter 2018 Issue