Rap's Long History of 'Conscious' Condescension to Women

Lupe Fiasco's "Bitch Bad" is only the latest example of a male hip-hop star trying to empower women but actually demeaning them.

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Lupe Fiasco's latest single, "Bitch Bad," is exactly the sort of song the world has always expected Lupe Fiasco to make. When the Chicago-bred emcee debuted in 2006, he quickly became a favorite among critics and hip-hop fans in part because he represented a departure from the well-worn themes that had come to dominate mainstream rap music. He traded guns for skateboards, drugs for anime, and stale gangster posturing for a genuine political awareness rooted in concern for the future of his community. At his best, he has represented the revolutionary potential of hip-hop.

Six years, some bad public relations, and one truly disappointing album later, Lupe isn't as universally adored as he once was, but he still knows how to grab attention. His desire to critique the genre and call other rappers to task for the messages and images they project inevitably sparks dialogue, and that's never been truer than with "Bitch Bad," his lyrical attempt at breaking down the hip-hop trope of the "bad bitch."

The problem is, it's just not very good.

In the best cases, these rappers realize the best way to accurately portray the lives of women is for the women to do it themselves

The song's lyrics are lazy, but worse, "Bitch Bad" reveals Lupe's unfortunately uncomplicated thinking on ideas of gender, and yet presents itself as a cure all for our gender woes. We can add it to the long line of well-intentioned songs from male rappers attempting to come off as feminist but actually reinforcing the ideas that make feminism necessary.

The chorus is simple, repeated as if by someone trying to memorize the names of all 50 states and their capitals: "Bitch bad, woman good/Lady better, they misunderstood." Here he sets up a simplistic and demeaning hierarchy of womanhood, in which one can choose to be a bitch, woman, or lady - without even attempting to define what those terms might mean. In the background, he can be heard lightly bellowing the phrase "I'm killing these bitches!" as a way of inverting what would usually be heard as a violent threat to instead say that he's going to eliminate the mentality that creates "bad bitches." The message is unsubtle: Bitches are bad.

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In between, the verses tell separate stories of the way one young man and a young woman come to understand "bad bitches." The boy hears his mother refer to herself as a bad bitch as she repeats what she hears on the radio in front him, at an age where he's too young to know what he's hearing is a form of disrespect. The girl in the second verse watches videos on the Internet without her parents' knowledge, takes in the images of scantily clad women dancing along merrily while being called bad bitches, and can't help but want to grow up to be just like them. When the two meet in the third verse, their warped senses of right and wrong collide and chaos ensues.

Not directly implicated or admonished are the men calling women bitches in the first place. The blame is placed on the mother repeating lyrics in front of her son or the little girls sneaking around to listen to the offending songs. Men escape the responsibility for establishing the disrespectful terms of the debate, and any nuance about why a woman may choose to call herself a bitch (Lupe seems to feel it's a sexual thing and doesn't note that women are constantly called bitches for adopting traits that are typically celebrated when practiced by men) is left to the listener's imagination. The accompanying video is an obvious nod to the 2000 Spike Lee film Bamboozled, but does less to crystallize Lupe's critique as it does to make it appear hokey and cartoonish.

Of course, "Bitch Bad" is only one song, and Lupe didn't arrive here on his own. Hip-hop is littered with examples of men, most of whom mean well, treading into the lives of women and getting it flat wrong. The Atlanta collective Goodie Mob is one of the most talented and thoughtful groups to emerge in the mid-1990s, but even their ode to black women, the targets of the vast majority of the disrespect in hip-hop, falls short. In "Beautiful Skin," group member and eventual solo star Cee-Lo offers up this lament:

At one time my mind couldn't conceive, a woman had to dress a certain way to believe.
But in the same breath, allow me to say, that
If you believe young lady, you wouldn't dress that way, and I,
Was attracted to yo' class, I could not see all yo' ass, and I was very content

The chorus then says that "you got to respect yourself before I can," invoking the destructive notion that women who dress "provocatively"—a term whose definition is always in the eye of the beholder—aren't ever deserving of respect.

"Sally Got a One Track Mind" from rapper/producer Diamond D and "Black Girl Lost" by "greatest of all time" contender Nas both chastise young women who chase the fast life, trading sex for money and material goods, but offer no critique of the men on the other side who would take advantage these girls. Perhaps the most famous offender comes from the late Tupac Shakur, and his first hit single "Brenda's Got a Baby." The song is notable for constantly being used by hip-hop's most ardent defenders to inoculate against claims of sexism and social irresponsibility, but take a close listen and we're back at square one.

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Mychal Denzel Smith has written for The NationEbony, and The Guardian.

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