If there's an album that can mark a new era for women in hip-hop, this isn't the one.
Every time I listen to an album by a female rapper, I think, "Maybe this is it. Maybe this will be the album that marks a new era for women in hip-hop." It's idealistic. It's hopeful. It's probably naïve, too, because, for some reason, my wish never comes true.
My optimism continually leads me astray. I'm the guy who's still eagerly awaiting the return of Lauryn Hill. The guy who couldn't wait to hear Foxy Brown's Brooklyn Don Diva on the possibility that Fox Boogie could reenergize the role of the female emcee. The same dude who keeps telling people, "Right, there aren't many prominent females in the game, but wait 'til Queen Latifah focuses on hip-hop again -- don't let her movies and 'easy breezy' makeup commercials fool you." I'm the man who loves MC Lyte, the man who thought Lil Kim's The Naked Truth was dope (yep, I'm still clinging to that one!), the man who can't wait for Jean Grae to blow up in a major way. The same guy who got hopeful at the news that the Lady of Rage, Babs Bunny, Amil, and Lady Luck plan to form an all-femcee super-group called F.E.M. (Females Earning Money). Shucks, I was giddy at the mere use of an acronym. That is so late '80s.
About Latifah, I recently caught her on A&E's Private Sessions and she (1) didn't deny the possibility that she'd be making another hip-hop album and (2) she performed "U.N.I.T.Y." with a live ensemble. She also performed a couple of jazz covers (and, no, I'm still not feeling that move) and introduced one of the performances with a sly, "The female revolution is definitely televised…with makeup and everything." Apparently, I'm easily enthused.
In 2006, it seemed like the ladies of hip-hop were making a push for relevance in the world of rhyme. UK's C-Mone really nailed it with The Butterfly Effect, plus we heard Shawnna, Remy Ma, Lady Sovereign, and Psalm One. There was even a little flavor from Black Eyed Peas front woman Fergie. Granted, I wasn't all that impressed with Lady Sovereign or Fergie's lyrical flow, but the field at least presented the illusion of becoming more level. The ladies were making noise again, building momentum.
Well, now we're in 2008. Foxy Brown's Brooklyn Don Diva did not prove to be Fox Boogie's crowning achievement. Eve's album, Here I Am, keeps getting pushed back. Jean Grae has been talking about retirement. Worse yet, Remy Ma and Da Brat have been sentenced to substantial jail terms. I don't know about you, but I could seriously use a dose of Bahamadia or Missy Elliott right about now.
Which brings me to Khia. Her latest release, Nasti Muzik, is her third musical outing. Khia's claim to fame is her breakout hit from back in the day, "My Neck, My Back" (2002). For her 2006 album, 20 Y.O., Janet Jackson invited Khia for a cameo in the single "So Excited". This year, Khia appeared on Vh1's Miss Rap Supreme, a reality show hosted by MC Serch and Yo-Yo, aimed at finding female rap talent. Khia was an early casualty of the show's weekly elimination format, mainly on the accusation that Khia performed pre-written lyrics in violation of the rules.
Khia is no stranger to the music business, and her approach to making music is somewhat familiar. Raunchiness is the cornerstone of her music, and the subject matter quickly becomes tiresome. The album's introduction and title track, "Nasti Muzik", sets the tone, although Khia puts her singing on display instead of her rapping. As the music begins, she coos, "I'm about to sing you the best song you've ever heard in your life." That, however, couldn't be more incorrect. Over a rush of claps, Khia sings about her "big lips" and "wide hips". She's a "nasty girl" and she "loves to sing", which might actually be true, but truth does not always equal quality musical output.
When she's not enlightening us to the features of her bodily dimensions, as in the awkwardly titled "Ass Walk", she's bragging about her sexual exploits ("Put That P*ssy on His Ass") and battling potential and actual female rivals. Outside of the studio, there's been talk of an ongoing spat between Khia and rapper Trina, but that whole thing is as dull and tired as Khia's lyrical attack. Lyrically, it amounts to a string of taunts aimed at other "b*tches" who cannot satisfy a man as well or as long as Khia can.
This is a troubling pattern in rhymes by female emcees. Again, being too much of an optimist, I had long ago hoped that albums like Boss's Born Gangstaz (1992) would have cured us of it. Unfortunately, it persists, and the constant battle between females over male affection and attention undermines any attempt by these ladies to display their power and independence. Moreover, from a genre standpoint, the female-versus-female attacks insinuate that since females stick to competing against each other, they cannot, and perhaps should not, compete with males in the same way, particularly when it comes to lyrical skill. For the record, I think any such insinuation is patently false. Khia doesn't back me up much when she plays on awkward analogies (like, her body is "the best, extra juicy when it's wet / like some Kentucky Fried Chicken with the biscuits and some gravy") or when you listen to her "Ass Talk" song and you realize Khia really thinks she's being clever with a song about the communicative talents of her own rear end.
So here's the dilemma in a nutshell: does a lady have "power" when her power is derived from the ability to sexually stimulate men? I'd say no. Or does my question presume its answer? Maybe the question should be: can pride in one's physical appearance and sexual expression lead to increased self-confidence and personal power? To that, I'd say yes. Khia's approach fits the first formulation of the issue, not the second.
But let's say I'm wrong. Let's suppose Khia's exaltation of her sexual prowess isn't at all problematic. Fine, but the songs still have to be compelling. The rhymes still have to be tight. Even some Lil Wayne fans admit they don't always know what Wayne's rapping about. Yet, they are still engaged, an indication that subject matter isn't necessarily the determining factor or the bottom line. Khia's problem, in addition to redundant lyrical material, is her delivery.
With few exceptions, Khia's "flow" on Nasti Muzik consists of chants that repeat for the duration of a given beat. It's like one long hook, without any real verses. On "Be Your Lady", Khia pledges herself to having her man's baby, cooking him dinner, and folding his clothes -- for the entire song, over and over. Besides "Geeked Up", a rapid-fire shot through life in the clubs, Khia seems comfortable with her use of repetition. It's probably her best asset, actually, but maybe she's too comfortable with it, happy to substitute her chants in place of true lyricism while emphasizing a few choice descriptions of her anatomy in place of substance. Plus, her chanting style is along the lines of an "eenie meanie minie moe / catch a rabbit by its toe" variety.
In Khia's defense, a couple of songs swing outside of her normal approach. There's the quick tempo of "Geeked Up", as I already mentioned. Another departure is "Get Out", where Khia's vocals take a slightly robotic turn while she's putting an end to her man's cheating ways. The robotic vocals work, though, as the hollow monotone gives the impression that the song's narrator has steeled herself against her significant other. Thematically, she's asserting her independence from a bad relationship, which is another switch.
Nasti Muzik should probably be the last straw for my wish to reverse hip-hop's lack of exposure for female emcees. It doesn't, however, because an increased female presence helps hip-hop as a whole and boosts individual female artists as well -- even the wack ones like Khia. When we've got females serving up an assortment of styles, subjects, and voices, we've got enough choices to enable a contrast principle to take effect.
My theory is that if I can listen to an insightful femcee for a thoughtful socio-political perspective, the choice to listen to a raunchy one for the sexually explicit material becomes more acute. Not only is the burden to represent the spectrum of femininity more evenly distributed, the socio-political rap will seem all the more poignant next to the sex talk and, vice versa, the sex talk will sound more hardcore next to the politics. Everybody wins in this scenario because the rappers who make "nasty music", like Khia, get to take advantage of whatever shock value is left to take advantage of these days, while eggheads like me get to say, "See, there's more to hip-hop than the nasty stuff. Listen to this sista over here spittin' the funky fresh insightful socio-political commentary." The only thing I'll have to worry about is whether anyone still says "funky fresh".
That's why I keep harping on Lauryn Hill and MC Lyte making a comeback, or why I keep whining about the cultural gap, especially in terms of Afrocentric thought and presentation, created by Queen Latifah's ascendancy to "Cover Girl" status. I'm not hating on Latifah or anyone else, I just think we need more choices, and we need them fast. Hip-hoppers, please send reinforcements soon because Nasti Muzik won't be enough to get the job done.