Queering the Bad Bitch

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Towards the beginning of her multi-platinum debut album, Pink Friday, Nicki Minaj—the most famous female rapper in American culture today—snarls, “I’m a bad bitch.” Over the course of the album, Minaj uses the phrase over a dozen times to describe herself, the women in her clique, and the women that she desires. This classification might seem derogatory, at least partially, but in this case, bitch appears to be a good thing, even a necessary thing. Female rapper Azealia Banks tells a jealous girlfriend in Fantasea, “here with your man, hand on my hip… a bad bitch do it like this.” Male artist Young Jeezy bemoans in his single “Leave You Alone,” “All I need is a bad bitch to run through the city and spend this cash with.” You almost feel for Chris Brown when, in “My Last” he stutters he stutters like a toddler on Santa’s knee, “I just want the… I just want the baddest bitch in the world here on my lap.”

Urban Dictionary, the Wikipedia of slang, certainly makes the “bad bitch” out to be a positive thing. According to the most up-voted definition, the “bad bitch” is “totally mentally gifted and usually also fine as hell.” Another popular definition describes the “bad bitch” as “a self-respected, strong female who has everything together. That consists of body, mind, finances, and swagger. Also, a female who does and gets hers by any means necessary.”

Rappers—both male and female—also assert the positivity of the “bad bitch.” The language originally designed to deplore women now seems to be used to bolster their status. But when looking at the history of the term, and how the term has changed in recent years, the usefulness of this re-appropriation is questionable.

The “bad bitch” trope didn’t start with Nicki Minaj, Azealia Banks, Jeezy, or C. Breezy. It’s unclear who the first “bad bitch” was, but the term became ubiquitous in the mid-1990s, with the rise of the first hugely successful female MCs like Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown. The rise of those female MCs paralleled dramatic changes in the mid-90’s rap landscape. During the mid 90’s, the politically conscious raps of groups like Public Enemy and N.W.A were losing popularity to the much more commercially successful “hustler narratives” of artists like Notorious B.I.G and Jay-Z. Though both Notorious B.I.G and Jay-Z criticized the conditions that created their need to “hustle,” or engage in illegal activities like drug dealing and gang banging in order to make money, their music simultaneously glorified a lifestyle of violence and sexual promiscuity that came with running with a gang, or with the fast money of drug dealing.

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A similar shift was simultaneously occurring in the admittedly smaller world of female MCs. As the male hustler narrative was becoming increasingly popular, so too was a kind of female hustler narrative: the bad bitch. The lyrics of rappers like Salt-n-Pepa, who called for female sexual empowerment, were overtaken in popularity by rappers like Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim, who accepted a certain degree of objectification—for a price. As Lil’ Kim, a self-described “bad bitch,” raps on “Magic Stick,” the single from her third album La Bella Mafia: “my head game have you head over heels, give a nigga the chills, have him pay my bills, buy matchin’ lambos with the same color wheels.” Lil’ Kim makes clear her willingness to self-identify as a sex object, so long as her rims match the paint color of her Italian sports car. Similarly, Trina, another self-proclaimed “bad bitch,” offers a lesson to younger girls on her single “Da Baddest Bitch”: “I got game for young hoes—don’t grow up to be a dumb hoe… Sell the pussy by the grands, and in months you own a Benz. If I had the chance to be a virgin again, I’d be fucking by the time I’m ten.” Just as the male hustler, the 2Pac or Notorious B.I.G, used what they had—drugs, guns—to assert their power and to get paid, the female hustler uses what she has—her body—to assert power and make money. Rather than being victims of hip-hop misogyny, the “bad bitch” becomes the victimizer, working within those terms to assert her power over her helplessly sprung male counterparts. 

This is not to say that all female rappers in the last two decades have succeeded by adopting the “bad bitch” narrative. Lauryn Hill sold over 19 million records encouraging sexual discretion rather than promiscuity or sexual fluidity. Missy Elliot, at least for most of her career, refrained from so overtly sexualizing herself and still had six albums go platinum. The point is not that all female rappers have used the “bad bitch” narrative to gain popularity and attention, but rather that most female rappers that come to mind have articulated themselves as such. Adopting the “bad bitch” narrative, it appears, is an easy way to assert female power in a male-dominated genre.

But the notion of the power of the “bad bitch” is clearly complicated. Even when “bad bitches” like Lil’ Kim and Trina appear to be expressing female sexual power, they use the same sexually exploitive images and personas as their male peers. The “bad bitch” might articulate themselves as victimizers rather than victims, but, as Professor of Africana Studies Tricia Rose has written, they do so while affirming “the male-empowering terms of hustling, victimization, and sexual domination as legitimate power,” leaving those terms not only intact, but legitimized. Male heterosexuality becomes the narrative, the normative force, for all genders—and sexual orientations—without regard to authenticity.

The question of queerness becomes crucial when talking about the newest crop of bad bitches, particularly Minaj. When, in 2008, Nicki Minaj declared herself the “baddest bitch” in the rap world, she was declaring that the torch had been passed from her female predecessors, that she was culmination of nearly twenty years of female MCs articulations of identity, sexual and otherwise, in hip-hop. However, while Minaj has adopted many of the same aspects of the “bad bitch” as her predecessors, she does something else: Nicki Minaj plays with the representation of her sexual orientation. Minaj encouraged speculation on her sexual orientation through making statements such as that she would “Minaj-up [female R&B artists] Lauren London and Cassie” if given the chance.

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In a sense, Nicki Minaj queers the “bad bitch.” But in looking at the trope itself, it’s relevant to ask if this actually does anything positive, or different than before. With Trina and Lil’ Kim, it was alluring to the (largely male) rap consumer base to adopt heterosexual male attitudes towards sex. Bisexuality, or rather the idea that female sexuality is inherently fluid, is a similarly alluring image for the male gaze. In looking at Nicki Minaj as the only successful, mainstream female MC to articulate anything other than an explicitly heterosexual orientation does the queer “bad bitch” do anything to open up hip-hop as a space for the discussion of LGBTQ issues? Or, does her portrayal of her sexuality perpetuate inauthentic notions of queerness as always centered around males?

First, a clarification – Minaj has gone on record saying that she’s not, in fact, bisexual. “I think girls are sexy,” Minaj is quoted as saying in an article with Rolling Stone. “But I’m not going to lie and say that I date girls.” LGBTQ bloggers have subsequently questioned this statement, believing it to have come from pressure to conform to the heteronormative confines of hip-hop. But Minaj’s actual sexual orientation, whether the “bad bitch” is, in fact, queer, doesn’t change a whole lot. Rather than speculate as to whether or not Minaj is actually bisexual, it’s more relevant to look at how Minaj has represented her sexuality in her music. Perception is key, and if Minaj is not perceived as actually being sexually attracted to girls, then her image isn’t alluring. She must, at least for the consumer, embody authentic queerness, which is what makes an exploration of her sexuality relevant.

Minaj initially distanced herself from the idea of bisexuality, rapping on “Baddest Bitch” off her second mixtape, Sucka Free, “I only fuck with the baddest bitches, no homo.” Minaj is conveying her relationship to other women, based on their status as fellow “bad bitches,” as purely heterosexual, even going as far as to use a potentially offensive qualifier (“no homo”). However, on her third mixtape, Beam Me Up Scotty, Minaj began to flirt more with a looser representation of her sexuality. She raps on “I Get Crazy”: “I keep a bad bitch… but I leave her in a second for a thick girl.” Minaj seems to be embracing her bisexuality, while also aligning her sexuality in the same terms a male rapper might—she rejects monogamy when other, better prospects might arise. Her apparent bisexuality seems to be used solely as a tool to raise her “bad bitch” status. The previous “bad bitches,” as Rose points out, used the kind of  “male-empowering terms of hustling, victimizing, and sexual domination as legitimate power,” but directed that power at men. In directing these same ideas towards women, Minaj, in a sense, transcends her female peers—if, as Rose points out, a “bad bitch” is the female expression of the male hustler, by articulating male notions of power towards women, Minaj becomes the ultimate “bad bitch.”

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However, this is what ultimately becomes problematic about Nicki Minaj’s representation of her sexuality. While her appeal to women boosts her status, in framing her sexuality largely around male notions of power and sexuality, she seems to close off hip-hop for the discussion of authentic queerness. Perhaps the clearest example of this in a guest verse Minaj provided for male R&B artist, Usher. She starts her verse on “Little Freak” with a seemingly harmless assertion of her sexual orientation to another woman: “Excuse me lil’ mama, but you could say I’m on duty, I’m lookin’ for a cutie, a real big ol’ ghetto booty.” However, she goes on to frame her sexuality through her relationship to the song’s artist, Usher: “I really like your kitty cat and if you let me touch her…I’ll take you to go see Usher…the girls want a Ménage, yeah they wetter than a rainman, Usher buzz me in, everybody loves Raymond.” While Minaj uses the “bad bitch” model of trading sex for material gain—in this case, an encounter with Usher—the ultimate prize is that sexual encounter with a male. For Minaj’s “bad bitch” bisexuality, women are a symbol of status (as they often are, in hip-hop, for men), but the ultimate prize for those women—regardless of their orientation– is the ability to sleep with a man.

Similarly, on a guest verse for rapper Big Sean on his single “A$$”, Minaj expresses a similar kind of bisexuality for the male gaze. She begins with an assertion of her own appeal to the opposite sex: “Ass so fat, all these bitches’ pussies is throbbin’, bad bitches, I’m your leader…” Her appeal to women both makes her more attractive and unattainable to the male who is ostensibly watching this encounter, while simultaneously cementing her status as the preeminent “bad bitch.”

However, while Nicki Minaj’s articulation of her sexuality may not open up hip-hop as a space for the discussion of queerness, it is relevant to ask whether or not other aspects of Nicki Minaj’s music might do so. In an interview for Lopez Tonight in 2010, for example, Minaj described herself as having an alter-ego in her rhymes, Roman Zolanski. Zolanski, according to Minaj, is a “gay boy… he’s very angry, he says the things that I can’t say.” Racialicious blogger April Gregory writes that, in having an aggressive, queer youth as an alter-ego, she “challenges heteronormativity by portraying queer youth as authoritative rather than marginal…” In addition to empowering queer youth, Gregory seems to argue that Zolanski’s presence could potentially open the narrow, heteronormative confines of mainstream hip-hop. But does Zolanski actually serve this purpose? In Zolanski’s most aggressive song, “Roman’s Revenge,” Minaj-as-Zolanski raps along side Eminem, who raps as his hyper-aggressive, self-proclaimed “evil” alter-ego, Slim Shady. However, even as Zolanski, Minaj doesn’t make any explicit reference to either Zolanski’s queerness, or queerness in general. Furthermore, one of Minaj-as-Zolanski’s verse’s are immediately followed by Eminem-as-Slim-Shady proudly declaring, “all you lil’ faggots can suck it, no homo, but I’ma stick it to ‘em like refrigerator magnets.” Zolanski’s presence on the song, without challenging Eminem’s overt homophobia, could be seen as condoning Eminem’s words. At best, it seems, Zolanski provides a confusing message to queer youth, and at worst, he potentially encourages the kind of homophobia that his presence is supposedly working towards eliminating.

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Nicki Minaj’s queering of the “bad bitch” might be problematic, but it seems to have opened up the door for a number of other female MCs who articulate a similarly non-heterosexual orientation. Azealia Banks, the 20-year old Harlem rapper who garnered attention for the song “212,” came out in the New York Times to little fanfare. In two lines that appear near the end of the story, a profile of Banks, rather than of Banks’s sexuality, the article reads: “Ms. Banks considers herself bisexual, but, she said: ‘I’m not trying to be, like, the bisexual, lesbian rapper. I don’t live on other people’s terms.’”

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Banks’s assertion of her sexuality seems like a positive step towards acceptance of LGBTQ in Hip-Hop, and her lyrics are certainly less exploitive of her sexuality than Minaj’s. Banks raps on “Esta Noche,” and although she raps about wanting to sleep with a man who “spend dividends, benjis, residuals,” she also talks about stealing another man’s girl—for her pleasure. In “212,” she raps that she wants to “kick it with ya bitch who comes from Parisian… now she wanna lick my plum in the evening, and fit that ton-tongue d-deep in. I guess that cunt getting eaten.” Banks still objectifies other women—but she’s getting down with a woman as an assertion of her own power and her own sexuality, rather than to satisfy a male spectator.

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Perhaps the most exciting figure is up-and-coming female rapper Angel Haze. At the beginning of September, Haze was given a record deal by Universal Republic based on the strength of her mixtape, Reservation. Though she identifies as a pan-sexual, Haze rarely references her sexuality in her music, seemingly preferring power to sexual power. As Haze stated in an interview with The Observer about her goals as an artist, “As a female rapper, you have to sell your body, you have to be attractive, you have to be promiscuous. You never see any female rock stars being told, ‘Take off your clothes, be sexy.’ I want to have that type of freedom but still be able to say whatever I want as a rapper.” Perhaps Haze is proof that hip hop is ready to embrace a mainstream female rapper who doesn’t have to sell inauthentic queerness for success, who can assert her sexuality for what it is. And when Haze weaves cleverly decimating lines like “you niggas bout to be bitches, you bitches bout to be Casper,” it’s hard to believe that her ambitions aren’t possible.

– Josh Schenkkan, Contributer

Photo Credit to Google Images

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