Friday, August 10, 2012

Against the Man: Lady Power and Contemporary Hip Hop

"Yankin" by Lady has all the traits of a Top 40 hip hop song: a thundering beat, a repetitive and slightly grating chorus, and lyrics celebrating sexual prowess. The song was even featured in the final episode of the TV show Girls. But why has it been noticeably absent from the commercial music scene?

"Yankin" is, for some, a jarring portrayal of a world of female sexual dominance. It is an articulation of of female power that challenges the commercial music establishment, which for the most part is oriented towards the masculine gaze. And because commercial music is mediated largely by men, it is necessarily cleansed of all elements, even implicit subversion and social critique, deemed offensive by the sinister controllers of cultural hegemony. "Yankin" has been banished to the far reaches of internet obscurity not because of the graphic nature of its content, but because of its subversive nature. 

Next to "Up!" by LoveRance feat. 50 Cent, which has garnered major mainstream radio play for several months, "Yankin" seems tempered and nearly nuanced. LoveRance and 50 Cent's song, which even when censored reads like the script of an NC-17 rated movie, recounts episodes of cunnilingus and intercourse and features a chorus only of the words: "I beat the pussy up up up up up up." The two male rappers detail their sexual conquests, with LoveRance rapping "watch that back, make that ass clap/make the pussy squirt, yeah I gotta stroke" and ending the first verse with the couplet, "put it on my tongue, fill me on up/put it in the gut, tear the pussy up." The two male rappers are allowed to freely describe their sexual encounters, objectifying and subjugating women in the process. Indeed, the commercial music industry has deemed it appropriate for men to air their affinity for tearing and beating women's genitals. 
"Yankin" is an articulation of female power that
challenges the ideology of the commercial music establishment.

In "Yankin," Lady turns the tables. Men rather than women - the traditional sex-objects in hip hop and commercial music - are objectified, sexualized, and subjugated. Lady defies the demand that female rappers acquiesce to male subjugation. Her fluency in the language of sexual domination makes her uniquely "unfeminine," particularly when compared to other female artists like Beyonce and Nicki Minaj. 

Lady's male counterpart is not demanding or controlling; she is. You might say she wears the pants in the paradigmatic relationship. From the first hearing of the song's refrain, Lady makes it clear that she is the dominant sexual power. Her male partner is forced to submit to her, as she declares "my pussy be yankin, got this nigga feelin' hypnotized." In an emulation of typically male sexual bravado, Lady boasts about her sexual stamina, "look like you tired, I suggest you pop a pill or two/you gotta keep up, when I make this thing do what it do." Indeed her power over her partner is so great that she suggests he may be utterly unprepared, "you think you want it but you don't really want none." Like male rappers, Lady is concerned with being pleasured as much as she is concerned with being an adequate pleasure-er. She makes clear her sexual demands, "I see that magnum rapper, nigga that's the perfect size," while at the same time she brags about her ability to deliver maximum pleasure: "I hope you strapped for this incredible ride/look at my hips they got a hell of a grind/I started slow so you can relax your mind/Cause once I finish, you gonna be out of yo mind." Unlike her female counterparts, specifically Nicki Minaj and Beyonce, she does not require male validation, "you ain't gotta tell me, I know this pussy be yankin'." She is acutely aware of her own sexual power. 

Neither Nicki Minaj nor Beyonce, two of hip hop's leading women, challenges commercial music's gendered status quo the way Lady does. Nicki Minaj asserts her dominance not over men but over other women; she is concerned with being the best woman in the service of men and not with being serviced by men. In her song, "Shitted on 'Em," Nicki Minaj proudly announces "All these bitches is my sons." Bitches, being a gendered term, refers to Minaj's female rivals. Like a mother over her children, Minaj claims superiority over other women. Later in the first verse of the song, she raps, "if I had a dick I would pull it out and piss on 'em." She not only claims to be better than other women but also concedes that only if she were a man could she truly claim power over women. This lyrical thread can be seen in Minaj's other works. In her verse on Big Sean's Dance (Ass) Remix, Minaj is again interested solely dominating other women. "Wobbledy, wobble, wo-wo-wobble, wobbin," she begins, "Ass so fat, all these bitches' pussies is throbbin'/bad bitches I'm your leader." There's no ambiguity there; Minaj stakes her claim as leader of women. And yet, conspicuously absent is any attempt to assert some kind of power over men. 

Beyonce, who as the respectable female ambassador of hip hop to the rest of the world is tame compared to Minaj and Lady, articulates an idea of female empowerment albeit within the framework of a male-dominated society. Indeed, Beyonce's Run the World (Girls) transmutes the genuinely subversive kernel of female power into a sanitized and benign kind of platitude. Of course, we know girls don't run the world. Women represent only 19.3% of national
legislative seats across the entire world. The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), which maintains a
Beyonce's song is purged of gender politics. The chained men in Lady's
video are replaced by seemingly random animals in Beyonce's.
database of worldwide female representation, ranks the United States 69th worldwide.

By claiming, erroneously, that girls run the world, Beyonce supports and legitimates the unjust and unequal status quo. Despite all her posturing and declarations of female strength, Beyonce is an apologist for male-dominated society. In Girls (Who Run the World), she sings "to other men that respect what I do/please accept my shine." Still desiring male validation and acceptance, Beyonce doesn't truly want a society run by women, nor does she want real gender parity. Instead, Beyonce is satisfied with sexism with a human face, so to speak. Girls (Run the World), like most of Beyonce's ouvre, promotes the nominally empowering, apolitical message. But implicit in the lyrics is an acceptance, and even reinforcement, of the sexist status quo.

Lady is the most daring female rapper in the world because she appropriates the male language of sexual domination and promotes a vision of a female dominated society. But by using the same images and words as male rappers do, she is pushed to the margins of contemporary popular culture. It's time for the mediators of culture - radio hosts, MCs, and even artists themselves - to promote a genuinely powerful female rapper who is willing to confront our misogynistic society on it's own terms. Influential DJs, like Funkmaster Flex, Cipha Sounds, and Peter Rosenberg should take the lead and give Lady the respect and air-time she deserves. 

1 comment:

  1. You rock; this is a cogent and radical assessment of feminism as it's communicated through hip hop. I especially appreciate your argument regarding the shortcomings of Beyonce's Girls (Who Run the World).