On the Grand Scale of Misogyny in Hip-Hop, lyrics like “That pussy should be holding exclusive rights to me,” and a call for "turbo thots” to liven up a party (thot is shorthand for "that ho over there”) are not particularly egregious.
Rapped by Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West in “No More Parties in L.A.,” they are the kind of flyby verses that give every conscientious hip-hop fan a second’s pause, before she hits repeat and chuckles over the line about Kanye’s assistant crashing his Maybach just after getting its windows tinted.
Misogyny in hip-hop is so deeply ingrained that determining whether to ignore or acknowledge it in any given song becomes a game of degrees. How flagrant is the offending line? Is it violent or merely tasteless? Who is the rapper in question — someone known explicitly for their misogyny or someone who is usually more even-keeled? A cycle develops. A rapper says something especially foul. Public indictments masquerading as cultural criticism are written. Maybe the furor is loud enough that the rapper apologizes. Maybe his brand endorsements suspend their relationships with him. Maybe the artist rails against political correctness, asserting his right to do as he pleases. Or maybe (usually) a few feminist writers tweet an admonishing line or two but no one notices or cares, the album is purchased, the song streamed, and no fuss is made. Life goes on.
Who are we to demand that the artists we listen to ascribe to our political ethics, anyway? After all, our Black Male Geniuses are fallible humans with the usual blind spots. Part of the appeal of both Kanye and Kendrick is the way they acknowledge this humanity, admitting their sins openly (in Kendrick’s case) or wrapping them behind layers of bravado (Kanye).
But Kendrick and Kanye have also been hailed — sometimes to a fault — as the vanguard of a group of very commercially successful, yet politically aware rappers in hip-hop. “Alright,” with its trenchant lines about "hating popo" who "want to kill us dead in the street fo’ sho," has become the de facto anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement. Kanye was among the first wave of big-name rappers to denounce homophobia; he has come out in full support of his transgender in-law Caitlin Jenner. His early songs dealt candidly with the economic fallout of systemic racism (“Drug dealing just to get by / We wasn’t ’posed to make it past 25”).
That they can be so progressive in some respects, and so dishearteningly retrograde in others, is the Great Paradox of the Human Condition. But it is also the lens through which they can, and should, be called out for their inconsistencies regarding women. They set their own bar and they have failed it.
To attack misogyny in rap, to do the outrage dance, to give fodder to the conservatives who hate hip-hop on principle anyway, can feel tired, existentially bereft, futile.
But, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, silence is a form of death.
As Kendrick Lamar tackles bigger, more grandiose themes — the emptiness of fame, the corrosive effect of money, racism on a macro level — it’s possible to forget what made him so memorable in the first place: his gift of empathy. Kendrick is an artist capable of incredible self-critique and reflection. Remember “Sing About Me,” the tour de force song off his major label debut Good Kid, M.A.A.D City? In it, Kendrick tells the story of two people, one the brother of a friend who can’t get out of the gang life, whose request that Kendrick sing about him “if I die before your album out” is cut short by two concise gunshots. The other story focuses on the sister of a murdered sex worker first rapped about on “Keisha’s Song,” a track from Kendrick’s 2011 album Section .80. “How could you ever / Just put her on blast and shit / Judging her past and shit?” Kendrick-as-Keisha’s-sister raps indignantly on "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst." “This is the life of another girl damaged by the system.” It’s the "Oh shit," moment of the album, when you see the full degree of Kendrick’s powers, his eagerness to avoid sweeping generalizations, to listen and to self-correct. A more troubling subtext to this story is that both tales in this song, according to a 2012 interview with MTV News, are true. There really was a sister who asked Kendrick not to talk about her though he brazenly did anyway. So is “Sing About Me” a queasy co-opting of her story or an attempt to publicly put himself on blast by admitting it? It’s probably both.
There’s empathy at the heart of “Opposites Attract,” an even older song from his 2010 mixtape Overly Dedicated, which depicts both sides of a failing relationship, the cheating man and the faithful girlfriend: “Why you treat me like I'm nothing? Why you always at a function? / I be wanting to go out but you don't never ask me ... Every time we get into it, I'm the one that's feeling stupid / You don't need me, you gon' leave me, that's your favorite threat,” Kendrick-as-the-girlfriend raps. It’s an accurate depiction of the insecurity endemic in a rocky romantic relationship. (Which isn’t to say that Kendrick doesn’t have his share of saccharine, condescending, faux-enlightened duds (“No Makeup (Her Vice)” and “Poetic Justice” for example). But his ability to render fully realized women in his music is a skill few male rappers of his caliber wield today.
It’s disappointing then to hear Kendrick personifying money and fame as a loudmouthed, materialistic black woman who wants the “28-inch Brazilian wavy” and has no time for "ho-ass niggas" as he does on “For Free?” — easily the worst track on Kendrick’s sophomore album To Pimp a Butterfly. Or to hear him on “Untitled 07,” the eight-minute track on his latest record Untitled, Unmastered, say to his friends as he’s goofing around, “The ho screaming now.” Or to do the blatant male posturing on ASAP Rocky's 2013 earworm song “Fucking Problems.”
Granted Kendrick’s sexist foibles pale in comparison to Kanye’s, whose issues with women in his music have been well-documented. He is much more self-aware on the matter than he lets on though. In 2013, he shared perhaps his most lucid thoughts on misogyny in rap music during a two-hour interview with host Lou Stoppard on British website ShowStudio’s In Camera series.
The question comes in around the one-hour, 28-minute mark: “How do you think your portrayal — through lyrics, visuals, quotes — of the black woman have informed pop culture’s understanding of black women and do you think it is within the function of contemporary black male rappers to lift their female counterparts in the face of adversity?”
This is not actually a question about misogyny, but Kanye logically fills in the blank.
Kanye’s response: “Well, I definitely think, generally, rap is misogynistic. Not saying I’m justifying the culture: I’ve said ‘bitch get out of the car’ in some of my lyrics and stuff like that.”
He goes on to say that rap reflects trends, that Afrocentrism has gone out of style, and then he segues into the frustration that comes with pitching ideas to heads of studios and having those plans rejected. “I’ll come home from one of those meetings and I find myself being more irritated and more rude with my wife. So let’s take that to the idea of a black male in America not getting a job or getting fucked with at his job or getting fucked with by the cops or being looked down upon by this lady at Starbucks and he goes home to his girl. ... You scream at the person that’s closest to you.”
Before going into another digression about racism, he ends with this aside. “You go to the studio and that frustration and disrespect is now coming out, coming towards the woman next to you, or the women around. Like, ‘We can’t wife you, you’re just a thot.’ It’s from lack of opportunity. The lack of ability to see a way out and you just start being frustrated inside of that space, and you go into a studio and that’s what it sounds like: ‘Nigga, don’t touch me; I’m going to shoot you; fuck you, bitch. That ‘fuck you, bitch’ came from America.”
It’s an incredible answer — honest, discursive, contradictory. It certainly contextualizes Yeezus, the album he was promoting at the time, which contains such lyrics as “Black dick all in your spouse again / And I know she like chocolate men” and “I'll fuck your Hampton spouse / Come on her Hampton blouse / And in her Hampton mouth.” When Kanye was writing those lyrics, he was trying to break into that most rarefied of white worlds: high fashion. But why not interrogate that anger? In the words of Audre Lorde, “One oppression does not justify another.” Instead he is all rage and no follow-through, opting for the “boring racism, boring sexism that hearkens back to the black power macho of Amiri Baraka and Eldridge Cleaver at their worst.”
Most of the misogyny in Kanye’s catalog manifests itself in lazy, deliberately sophomoric lines that derail good songs. Take “Father Stretch My Hand Pt. 1,” off Kanye’s latest album The Life of Pablo. You can almost hear the suppressed shit-eating grin as Kanye raps, “Now if I fuck this model and she just bleached her asshole and I get bleach on my T-shirt / I’ma feel like an asshole,” right after Kid Cudi’s sonorous Auto-Tune-aided “Beautiful Morning” intro. Some critics argue that the way he revels in “an audacious commingling of the sacred and profane” is the great genius of Kanye West. But that’s not good enough. Kanye brags about being a 38-year-old 8-year-old, and in one sense, he’s right. His sexism is incredibly childish. One has only to look at Kanye’s obvious corollary, Eminem, to see where such dated misogyny can take you. Once upon a time, Eminem’s maniacal ravings about women (his ex-wife, his mother) in his music were hailed as illustrations of his unfettered id. Now, when he raps about nailing Sarah Palin, almost a year after the 2009 presidential campaign that made her famous, he seems incredibly out of touch, hurtling toward obsolescence, his legacy diminishing as a result. Kanye is a peerless innovator; the real-time, beta-testing editing of his album is proof of that. So if his music can progress, why can’t his views on women?
That Kanye and Kendrick (Kanye more obliquely and less intelligently than Kendrick) are responding to the publicized suffering of black people in this country, and the various movements that have risen in response to it, only makes their misogyny more deplorable. Look around. Do they see how unabashedly female this movement is? Three women coined the phrase "Black Lives Matter." It was a woman who climbed up the flagpole in front of the South Carolina statehouse and took down the Confederate flag. Women are at the forefront of activism in Chicago, St. Louis, and Baltimore. If Kanye and Kendrick want to stay relevant, to continue enjoying the fruits of their wokeness, they have to reckon with this fact. Progress by its very definition moves forward, innovates, questions previously held assumptions, creates new forms. Kanye and Kendrick have shown they are capable of this progress in their music. But to belittle, berate, condescend, and reduce women to their disparate body parts over and over again is to risk being left behind — both in art and our history.