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.

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.

While Tupac is truly broken up about the demise of this young girl named Brenda, everyone in her life is let off the hook for what happens to her. She's described as a pregnant 12 year-old with an absentee mother and a father more interested in drugs than her wellbeing, and she ends up being molested by her cousin. But the impression left is that this is largely her fault for barely having a brain and daring not to know that "just 'cause you're in the ghetto doesn't mean you can't grow." "Brenda's Got a Baby" is near sacrosanct in hip-hop circles, and has influenced the way rappers have approached their occasional nod to "conscious" listeners. Unfortunately, it set a muddled precedent.

There are, of course, some strong, if rare, examples of rap songs that get women right. The difference between them and songs like Fiasco's is they recognized the need to shelve their condemnation and allow the women who served as protagonists to exercise more control over the story.

De La Soul's 1991 record, "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa Claus," is a classic in hip-hop storytelling, the revenge tale of a teenage girl who kills the father who is molesting and beating her. Along the way, no one believes her cries for help, seeing Millie's father as unable to commit such a horrible act because he of his status in the community as a social worker who cares about the future and well-being of the children he mentors. He even volunteers to play Santa Claus at Macy's, the scene of his confessing to molesting his daughter, Millie's rage boiling over, and his death.

There's also the unexpected progressivism from an otherwise chauvinistic T.I. with his song entitled "Freak Though." In it, the self-appointed "King of the South" admits to falling in love with a woman known in his neighborhood for being sexually promiscuous. Instead of embracing the wrongheaded misogyny of the oft-repeated claim "you can't turn a ho into a housewife," he accepts who she is and loves her, not just in spite of, but because of it. Though he still thinks she may be "a tad misguided," ultimately he refuses to allow anyone to judge her or himself for the choices either of them has made.

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. One such case is the Ice Cube song "It's A Man's World," from his debut solo album AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted. Here, Cube invited his protégé Yo-Yo to respond to his crude misogyny and ignorance directly on wax, resulting in some much-needed gut punches to the sexist male ego.

While those songs were able to tap into the lived experiences of women with greater success than most, these young black male rappers are usually at their best when exploring the lives, thoughts, hurt, frustration, confusion, and worldview of young black men. It would have been far better for Lupe to explore in depth some of his past lyrics about his own complicated relationship with the word "bitch." On the track "Hurt Me Soul," he says:

I used to hate hip-hop... yup, because the women degraded
But Too $hort made me laugh, like a hypocrite I played it
A hypocrite I stated, though I only recited half
Omittin the word 'bitch,' cursin I wouldn't say it
Me and dog couldn't relate, til a bitch I dated"

It would be more interesting and a greater challenge to himself and men like him to chart his own evolution from never saying the word "bitch," to feeling there were instances it may apply, to now, where he feels it's his duty to be "killing these bitches." Not only would it have played more honestly, he could have avoided wading into "mansplaining" territory.

"Bitch Bad" has stirred up a lot of talk; late last week, Fiasco threw a tantrum on Twitter after Spin ran a negative review of the song. If one song can kick up this many emotions, it has struck a chord that's going to be struck again. And so imperfect as it may be, "Bitch Bad" is a needed piece in the on-going dialogue surrounding gender politics. It's a misguided step, and one that shows us just how far we haven't gotten, but there are valuable takeaways. Chief among those is that the answer to the misogyny in hip-hop and in the broader culture in general isn't to replace it with a nice-guy-misogyny that's equally as limiting in its definition of women. For now, though, it'll have to do.