20 Classic Female-Fronted Hip Hop Tracks

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Oh, Rolling Stone. Sometimes you make it so easy. We try not to spend too much of our time nitpicking the amusingly out-of-touch pontifications of Jann Wenner’s empire, but occasionally something comes along that annoys us so much that it’s hard not to react. So it was recently, when the magazine’s editors came back from the mountain with stone tablets purporting to contain “The 50 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time.” In fairness, reading RS for hip hop recommendations is like reading Trucking Monthly for advice on bicycles, but even so, if you’re going to claim to make a definitive list, you don’t relegate Nas’s “NY State of Mind” to #31 (11 places behind 50 Cent’s risible “In Da Club”) — and, more annoyingly, you don’t make the mistake of including only three songs featuring female vocalists.

The only women included in the RS vision of hip hop’s finest moments are Salt-N-Pepa (“Push It” at #46), Lauryn Hill (“Lost Ones” at #45), and Missy Elliott (“Get Ur Freak On” at #38). Hip hop’s enduring fascination with dick-waving has long been one of the genre’s least appealing characteristics, and seeing it reinforced like this is kinda depressing — so as something of a riposte, here’s a bunch of our favorite female-fronted tracks that we reckon should have made the list.

Angel Haze — Cleaning Out My Closet”

It’s no surprise to see ’80s tracks dominating Rolling Stone‘s Top 10 — after all, this is a magazine that’s made a living for the last two decades out of purveying the myth of the capital-c Classic. But frankly, this coruscating, harrowing piece of naked confessionalism shits all over most of RS’s Y chromosome-centric canon — it’s braver, smarter, and features better rhyming to boot. It’s far and away our favorite track of the year, and we don’t need 20 years of hindsight to know it’s a classic right here and now.

MC Lyte — Ruffneck”

Seriously, Rolling Stone, no MC Lyte? If we’re going to venerate the halcyon days of old-school hip hop — and shit, we like ’80s hip hop as much as anyone — then we’re struggling to see how Lyte didn’t make the cut. (It’s pretty great seeing the vintage footage of NYC in the above video, too.)

Queen Latifah — UNITY”

And while we’re on ’80s royalty, what about Queen Latifah? We appreciate that some of the songs we’re gonna talk about into this feature were never gonna realistically make it into the pages of Rolling Stone — but seriously, how did they miss this anti-misogyny anthem?

Jean Grae — A-Alikes”

From ’80s royalty to more contemporary royalty — Jean Grae is one of our favorite MCs of the last decade or so, regardless of gender. She’s remained largely underground over that time — a shame given the plaudits handed out to demonstrably inferior rappers over recent years — but those in the know appreciate her talent.

Missy Elliott — Work It”

With the greatest respect to “Get Ur Freak On” and its cutting-edge bhangra-sampling production, if we’re only picking one Missy track, it’s this one. All together now: “It’s your fremmonitiawyahangahoop!”

Foxy Brown feat Jay-Z — I’ll Be”

It’s something of a reflection on the hip hop industry that Foxy Brown, along with several other artists on this list, was largely relegated to guest verses and cameos over the years when her talent demanded so much more. She turns the tables on this track, though, overshadowing guest vocalist Jay-Z and showing what she could do when given the space and opportunity to shine on her own.

Junior M.A.F.I.A. — Get Money”

It’s kinda sad that anyone under about 23 probably only knows of Lil’ Kim because of her ongoing spat with the ghastly Nicki Minaj, especially because Minaj is basically Kim’s post-millennial mini-me. It’s also kinda sad that Kim’s career has taken such a nosedive, because back in the 1990s, she was pretty great. On a similar note to “I’ll Be,” The Notorious B.I.G. takes the first verse here, and while the great man was rarely upstaged, Kim’s second verse absolutely owns this track.

Nicki Minaj — Did It On ‘Em”

Still, much as we regard La Minaj with a mixture of suspicion and mild amusement, she has had her moments — there’s her verse on “Monster,” of course, but as far as her own tracks go, this pretty much defines her aesthetic, a gloriously potty-mouthed rant that, amongst other things, contains the gender binary-spanking line “If I had a dick, I would pull it out and piss on ’em.” We’re sure you would, Nicki.

Roxanne Shanté — Roxanne’s Revenge”

The return of ’80s hip hop pioneer Roxanne Shanté after a two-decade hiatus has been one of the more welcome developments of recent years, but she’s got something of a battle to recapture the glories of her earlier career. This track is her first single and finest moment — remarkably, it was apparently improvised at the mic at Marley Marl’s apartment in Queens, a testament to Shanté’s skill and inventiveness. We generally don’t like to buy into the “rappers were better in the ’80s” debate — but still, we’d like to see Kanye or Lil Wayne pull off something like this.

Neneh Cherry — Buffalo Stance”

One of the other irritating aspects of the Rolling Stone list was its US-centricity, a tactic that might have flown in 1982, but is myopic in the extreme in 2012. As far as female-fronted hip hop from outside the UK goes, how’s about this killer track from Neneh Cherry? It still sounds as fresh and exuberant today as it did in 1988 — which is more than you can say about the output of a lot of Cherry’s contemporaries.

M.I.A. — Galang”

Also from across the Atlantic — say what you like about M.I.A., but Arular marked the arrival of a fascinating talent, and Kala delivered upon it in spades. It’s hard to go past the globe-conquering, Clash-sampling majesty of “Paper Planes,” but she doesn’t actually rap on that track, and in any case, we’ve always had a soft spot for the track that first defined her singular aesthetic. Nearly a decade after it first dropped on vinyl, it still sounds startlingly fresh and innovative.

TLC — No Scrubs”

This is really worth the price of admission for the killer verse by the ever-idiosyncratic Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, whose singular talent elevated TLC from fairly middle-of-the-road neo-R&B balladeers to globe-bestriding ’90s superstars. Her death in 2002 robbed hip hop of one of its most distinctive rappers.

Azealia Banks — 212″

And while we’re on distinctive talents, this track announced the arrival of a new one. We’ve mentioned this before, but our jaw really did kinda drop the first time we saw this video — Banks looks like a kinda 2000s answer to Neneh Cherry… right up until you realize that she’s saying, “I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten.” It’s hard to think of a more attention-grabbing debut.

Rye Rye — Bang”

Before there was Azealia Banks, there was Rye Rye — the precocious Baltimore MC and M.I.A. protegée looked like she’d be the Next Big Thing when she released this thoroughly awesome track in 2009. Her career’s rather gone sideways since, but the long-delayed release of her debut album Go! Pop! Bang! in May this year seems to have gotten things back on track.

THEEsatsifaction — Enchantruss”

We’ve rather enjoyed the cerebral brand of hip hop that’s emerged in recent years as something of an antidote to the dick-waving sub-gangsta mumbling that dominates commercial rap in the 2010s. We first heard THEEsatisfaction on Shabazz Palaces’ fantastic Black Up, and their own debut record explores similar territory, placing the vocals over woozily detuned samples and a fractured breakbeat. It’s several orders of magnitude more interesting than half the stuff on Rolling Stone‘s list, that’s for sure.

Salt-N-Pepa — Shoop”

We’re not arguing the inclusion of “Push It,” which is one of the very best tracks of the ’80s (and also home to one of the most squirm-inducingly filthy basslines ever), but just for the sake of completeness, we can’t help but mention Salt-N-Pepa’s “other” enduringly awesome paean to getting it on. And god knows where they found the dude who plays the guy in the three-piece suit, but he’s the type who makes us creep home from the gym in despair.

Da Brat — Give It 2 You”

Also from the glory days of the ’90s, what about this track from Da Brat, an artist who looked briefly like she was destined for proper stardom before her career stalled in the early 2000s? This is taken from her platinum-selling Funkdafied, and while “Fa All Y’all” and the title track were bigger hits, we’ve always had a soft spot for this leisurely funk jam, in which Da Brat comes off like a female Snoop, her rhymes loping lazily over Jermaine Dupri’s oh-so-chilled G-Funk production.

Eve — Who’s That Girl”

Who, indeed? Eve announced her arrival to the world with this lead single off her second album Scorpion, a track that looked to pave her way to a long and successful career. In a pattern that’s all too familiar for artists on this list, though, that career rather stiffed after the release of Scorpion‘s follow-up, Eve-olution, in 2002. She hasn’t released another album since, due to a combination of record label troubles and a generally unsuccessful foray into acting, although apparently a new record called Lip Lock is due out in April next year.

The Lady Of Rage — Afro Puffs”

The first lady of Death Row certainly had her moments, even if we can’t help but conclude that her career wasn’t exactly a priority for Suge Knight et al — while this track from the 1994 soundtrack to Above the Rim was both her biggest hit and her most memorable moment, it took another three years for Death Row to release her album. We’d love to have heard more from her over the years, because she always seemed to promise so much more than her label was able to deliver. And her Afro puffs were pretty awesome, too.

Yo Majesty — “Don’t Let Go”

Shit, there aren’t nearly enough strident lesbian Christian hip hop groups in this world, if you ask us.