To paraphrase a wise sage, you come at the queen, you best not miss. Indeed, Remy Ma’s ongoing war with reigning rap-pop monarch Nicki Minaj is a high-risk, high-reward gamble. Executed well, a publicity-generating rap battle can be a boon to both artists, burnishing reputations and showcasing lyrical acumen, all while stoking sales and streaming stats. But this particular battle has even higher stakes. It stretches back a decade to a Minaj mixtape verse, reigniting last year following Remy’s six-year jail stint and accelerating this winter with Minaj’s verse on Gucci Mane’s “Make Love” and Remy’s salvo of diss tracks, including the Nas-jacking “SHEther.” Remy’s time behind bars coincided perfectly with the stunning rise of Minaj’s career, from mixtape scrapper to rap-feature MVP to platinum-seller to “American Idol” judge. It’s hard not to picture her behind bars all that time like a crazed De Niro, seething at Minaj and biding her time.
At the heart of many long-running rap beefs is a fight for sales steez and commercial accolades. That fact is exaggerated all the more by the elephant in the room here: gender. You can hear it in the verses where Nicki not only insults Remy’s skills as an MC but takes direct aim at her sales prowess: “Silly rabbit—to be the queen of rap, you gotta sell records, you gotta get plaques.” Simply put, the music industry has supported only a handful of platinum-level female rappers throughout hip-hop history. One rap queen generally reigns at a time, while a handful of others hang on at a lower commercial tier. There was one particularly fertile period at the turn of the millennium where the industry supported several women rhymers concurrently, but beyond that glorious moment, the history of female rappers as sales forces is thin. And in the 21st century, it’s steadily gotten worse.
Consider this: In the entire history of Billboard’s Hot 100, solo female rappers have fronted a No. 1 single just twice—Lauryn Hill’s 1998 half-sung “Doo Wop (That Thing),” and Iggy Azalea’s 2014 Charli XCX–backed “Fancy.” (That paltry number rises from two to 2.25 if we count Lil’ Kim’s equally billed verse with Christina Aguilera, Mya and Pink on their 2001 remake of “Lady Marmalade.”) And female rappers aren’t even guaranteed proper credit when they do support a chart-topping hit. On “No Diggity,” the classic 1996 BLACKstreet smash, Dr. Dre and Queen Pen rapped on virtually equal bars, but only Dre was listed on the single; Pen went unmentioned on both the CD-single cover and the Hot 100. Even Remy Ma herself has experienced a buried credit. As part of Fat Joe’s Terror Squad crew, she rapped on the summer 2004 chart-topper “Lean Back,” but despite equal billing with Joe on the single, only the group name was credited on the Hot 100.
This has long been the story of women in rap—a combination of disrespect, underinvestment, and relative invisibility. Given this unjustly narrow lane for women rappers to cross over into the mainstream, you might want to keep chart history in mind while you’re watching the blow-by-blow of Remy’s fight for Nicki’s crown. Let’s review.
Note: The history of female rappers is obviously older than 26 years, but 1991 is when Soundscan began tracking sales data for the Billboard charts, so we begin there.
Rap Queens: Salt-N-Pepa
Lower-Selling Ladies-in-Waiting: Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Yo-Yo, Monie Love
Artistically, at least, the late ’80s and early ’90s was for female rappers what it was for all rappers: a Golden Era. Queen Latifah and Monie Love joined the Native Tongues crew, Ice Cube and the West Coast scene nurtured Yo-Yo, and MC Lyte made history as the first solo female rapper to release a full album, 1988’s Lyte as a Rock (unlike earlier pioneers as Roxanne Shanté, who broke on singles). But for all of their acclaim, none of these ladies scored major radio hits or platinum LPs. The era’s most recognizable female rapper, Latifah went on a five-year hiatus from recording in 1993 to focus on acting, right after scoring her biggest (albeit still modest) chart triumphs: the Top 40 pop/Top 10 R&B hit “U.N.I.T.Y.” and the gold album Black Reign, a disc that took half a year to squeak to a half-million in sales. New York’s MC Lyte eventually scored her biggest hits after this period, minting gold with a handful of sample-heavy singles in the mid-’90s that did little to improve her album sales.
In this early period of rap-to-pop crossover, only pioneering Queens trio Salt-n-Pepa truly thrived commercially, thanks to a mix of provocation, hooks, and flow that got them over at radio. The group’s success predated the ’90s—they broke in 1985 on a Doug E. Fresh answer record (credited to Super Nature) and scored a platinum single in 1988 with their raunchy club classic “Push It,” which did even better at pop radio (No. 19) than at R&B (No. 28). But Salt-n-Pepa really came into their own as a commercial force in the early Soundscan era: 1990’s Black’s Magic rode the charts for nearly two years, spawning the slow-growing 1991 hit “Let’s Talk About Sex” and reaching platinum by 1992. Finally, in 1993, they dropped one of the few true multi-platinum blockbusters by any women in rap: the quintuple-platinum Very Necessary, featuring the smash party records “Shoop” (No. 4 pop, No. 3 R&B/HH) and the En Vogue–supported “Whatta Man” (No. 3 pop and R&B/HH). To this day, Very Necessary remains the only female rap album not affiliated with Lauryn Hill to sell that well. But Salt-n-Pepa couldn’t follow it up: 1997’s Brand New sold roughly one-tenth as much. It was a pattern that would repeat with women rappers, who were tasked with remaining not only sharp MCs but also on-trend pop stars.
Rap Queen: Da Brat
Lower-Selling Ladies-in-Waiting: The Lady of Rage, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes
Da Brat holds a unique place in the history of women in hip-hop. The Midwestern rapper born Shawntae Harris not only scored rap’s first platinum album by a solo lady (1994’s Funkdafied), she also achieved this without pandering to femme-pop glamour demands. To be sure, Da Brat had a look: the gangsta era’s main boo, kitted out in baggy gear like an early version of Snoop from “The Wire.” By modern standards, her Jermaine Dupri–produced hits “Funkdafied” (No. 6 pop, No. 2 R&B/HH) and “Give It 2 You” (No. 26 pop, No. 11 R&B/HH) sound shamelessly poppy, but at the time they coexisted on hip-hop radio alongside Snoop Dogg’s and 2Pac’s more melodic hits. At Da Brat’s peak, Mariah Carey called her in for a remix of “Always Be My Baby,” during the same album cycle where Mimi teamed up with Ol’ Dirty Bastard. While Da Brat’s reign as gangsta queen was fairly brief—her 1996 follow-up, Anuthatantrum, sold half as well as Funkdafied and generated smaller hits—she did manage to hang in long enough for the late ’90s high-water mark of commercial female rap, going platinum one more time on 2000’s glossier, flossier Unrestricted.
During Brat’s mid-’90s peak, her competition was, frankly, thin. The Lady of Rage had arguably stronger gangsta cred thanks to her Death Row affiliation, but her albums sold poorly, and her best-received work was guesting on tracks by the likes of Tha Dogg Pound. As one-third of pop-and-B troupe TLC, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes racked up many multiples of Da Brat’s sales. If she’d ever gone permanently solo she might have been huge, but before her passing in 2002, her featured rapper appearances were few and far between.
Rap Queen: Lauryn Hill
Lower-Selling Ladies-in-Waiting: Pretty much everybody
Any article on the topic of industry achievements by women in hip-hop must include numerous sentences ending with, “…besides Lauryn Hill.” She is in her own league, her career overlapping with other platinum rap queens who did a fraction of her sales. But it must also be said that what broke Hill’s multihyphenate persona was her singing more than her rapping. The Fugees’ sextuple-platinum The Score was led by the rap-and-reggae joint “Fu-Gee-La” (including some great L-Boogie bars). But the fifth-best-selling album of 1996 blew wide open via a cover of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly”—like many of the Fugees’ hits, a showcase for Hill’s husky contralto.
Two years later, Hill dropped her singing-and-rapping solo tour de force The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, an octuple-platinum album that is exceptional on every level. It spawned female rap’s first Hot 100 No. 1 (“Doo-Wop (That Thing)”) and remains its best-selling album by a country mile—as well as the 12th-best-selling rap album, period (eighth-best-selling if you remove RIAA-double-counted double albums). Perhaps even more notably, Miseducation was the first hip-hop album ever to win the Album of the Year Grammy—a title only one other rap album, OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, has ever matched. This is why I give Hill an overlapping slot on the hip-hop women timeline: In the mid-to-late ’90s, she was undoubtedly the Queen of Rap—but then again, she was basically the Queen of Everything. If she hadn’t infamously self-immolated her career at the start of the millennium, she could well have held the first lady of hip-hop title for a decade.
The Peak: 1997–2000
Rap Queens: Missy Elliott, Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Eve
Lower-Selling Ladies-in-Waiting: Amil, Queen Pen, Mia X, Rah Digga, Khia, Charli Baltimore, Gangsta Boo
The turn of the millennium was a platinum age for female hip-hop: the only period in Billboard history where more than one lady MC was regularly topping the album chart and/or Soundscanning in the millions. It was the mirror image of the early ’90s, in terms of breadth of styles and personae—Lyte/Latifah/Salt-n-Pepa begat Missy/Eve/Kim-v-Foxy—except in the latter period, the ladies were all shifting tonnage. Of course, in those peak-CD years, the entire music industry was generating outrageous revenue—a rising tide that lifted all boats, including female hip-hop.
We’ll get to Missy Elliott—artistically, the queen of this class—because her dominant era lasted well into the early aughts. But the main event of late ’90s female hip-hop was Lil Kim vs. Foxy Brown, a parallel rise in careers that, predictably, turned into a Bette Davis vs. Joan Crawford battle royal. Kim ultimately had the more durable career: three platinum albums (Hard Core, Notorious K.I.M., La Bella Mafia) and a half-dozen Top 40 pop hits including that “Lady Marmalade” diva-off and her earlier, seminal work with Junior M.A.F.I.A. But between the two, Brown actually scored the chart-topping albums: the collaborative 1997 LP by the Nas-fronted supergroup The Firm, and Foxy’s sophomore album Chyna Doll, which hit No. 1 in a slow January week in 1999 and ultimately generated lower sales and smaller hits than either Foxy’s debut Ill Na Na or anything Kim was releasing. The Kim/Foxy feud may have been trumped up by the industry—at one point industry kingmakers even tried to get them to record a Thelma and Louise concept album—but the fact that, commercially, both sold in the millions was a sign of female rap’s strength in this period.
Foxy wasn’t the era’s only female album-chart-topper, nor Kim the only one to emerge from an established all-male crew. Marketed hard as “Ruff Ryders’ First Lady,” Eve leveraged the blockbuster success of lead Ruff Ryder DMX (then at his peak) into a trio of gold and platinum albums. Sensing the wind shift, Eve turned poppier after 2000 and was rewarded with such massive crossover hits as the Gwen Stefani–supported “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” and the Alicia Keys–supported “Gangsta Lovin’” (both No. 2 pop hits and Top 10 R&B/HH hits). On these Eve smashes, women were delivering both the bars and the melodic hooks. Such mutually empowering team-ups between ladies were exceptional even then, and they would become rarer still in the 2000s.
Rap Queen: Missy Elliott
Lower-Selling Ladies-in-Waiting: Remy Ma, Trina, Shawnna, Jean Grae
As the music business began its decade-long post-Napster slump, women rappers saw an outsize dwindling of their chart fortunes. But not all of that can be blamed on the industry—hip-hop changed contours, too, relegating women to hook-girl roles once thug-n-love rap took off in the era of Ja Rule and Nelly. Arguably, the biggest ladies in hip-hop of the early-to-mid ’00s were women who didn’t rap at all: Ashanti and Beyoncé outsold any female rapper of the period and—to give them their due—were vital to the hybridization of R&B and hip-hop in pop.
But among ladies who actually rocked the mic in the early aughts, Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott stood tall. The greatest of several rap queens in the late ’90s mega-platinum era, Missy essentially outlasted the industry implosion of 2001—and the waning of Kim, Foxy and Eve—and probably could have remained rap’s female MVP right up to 2010 if she hadn’t gone into hiding when the decade was only half-over. Her presence could be felt in hip-hop even after the left the scene.
From the jump, Elliott defied stereotypes about how women in rap should look, owning her fearless freakiness and sex appeal even as she struggled with a thyroid condition that affected her weight. Beyond Elliott’s cutting-edge sonics, natural flow, and critical acclaim, her commercial stats are stellar: a half-dozen studio albums from 1997 to 2005, all of them platinum except her last full-length, The Cookbook, which is merely gold. Elliott was also a reliable hit generator, racking up more than a half-dozen Top 40 songs before her hiatus. Her peak came in 2002, when Under Construction went double-platinum and generated a chart record infamous to us Billboard nerds: the longest-running No. 2 single in Hot 100 history, “Work It,” which sat behind Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” for 10 straight weeks.
This mid-aughts period is also when Remy Ma emerged, joining Terror Squad in 2004 in time for their second album and biggest hit “Lean Back,” and dropping her own solo debut There’s Something About Remy: Based on a True Story in 2006. But it must be said—with one’s flak-jacket securely fastened—that outside of her own acclaimed mixtapes, Ma never really achieved full rap-queen status: Something About Remy peaked at No. 33 and sold less than 200,000 copies. (And even with their No. 1 hit, Terror Squad never scored a gold or platinum album.) With 20/20 hindsight, this makes Minaj’s choice of Ma as a mixtape target in 2007 fascinating. Remy had a major profile, yes, but unlike the acclaimed and beloved Elliott, she was also a manageable bullseye.
Rap Queen: Fergie
Lower-Selling Ladies-in-Waiting: M.I.A., Lil Mama, Lady Sovereign
In 2005, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences eliminated the Best Female Rap Solo Performance Grammy, lamenting the lack of available candidates. The award had only existed for two years, and Missy Elliott had won it both times. Female rappers, led most vocally by MC Lyte, protested the award’s swift eradication, but in hindsight it reflected a sad market reality. The female rap game had already been drying up commercially in the early aughts, and once Elliott began her unexpected semi-retirement in 2006, hip-hop was left without a consensus platinum-selling queen for about a half-decade. Into this gap stepped a young mixtape brawler named Nicki Minaj, a British–Sri Lankan hip-hop hybridizer going by M.I.A., and a singer/actress/arriviste rapper known as Fergie.
Does Stacey Ferguson, veteran of “Kids Incorporated” and pop trio Wild Orchid, even belong on this timeline? After all, the whole point of Fergie joining onetime backpack-rap troupe Black Eyed Peas—primarily as a singer—was converting the crew to pop schlockmanship. But however tempting it is to write Fergie out of rap’s herstory, she is essentially the inverse of TLC’s Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes: a pop star incubated within a rap crew, who eventually dabbles in hip-hop. The fact is, in the late ’00s, Fergie was the only lady spitting bars and selling platinum, which speaks volumes about how low the bar for success in this field had fallen. (Just how low? For a hot second in 2006, British enfant terrible Lady Sovereign was topping “TRL” with her snotty “Love Me or Hate Me.” It was a dark time.)
After mostly singing on her first album with BEPs, Fergie’s MC coming-out was 2005’s “My Humps,” which might’ve stayed an album cut if Top 40 radio programmers hadn’t forced its release. The ungodly ode to “lady lumps” swathed in designer couture not only reached the Top Three on the Hot 100 but also the Top 10 of Billboard’s Rap Songs chart. One year later Fergie dropped her solo joint The Dutchess, which went triple-platinum by 2007 and spawned five Top Five hits, two of them No. 1s helmed by Ludacris producer Polow da Don: the single-entendre “London Bridge,” and the self-hagiography “Glamorous.” Before the album’s run of singles was done, Ferguson was already reverting to midtempo adult pop (“Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Clumsy”), priming herself for a Madonna-level follow-up that never quite arrived. But even with her solo career on hiatus, Fergie kept rapping with her crew—as credibly as one can on a Black Eyed Peas record—on such chart-toppers as “Boom Boom Pow” and “Imma Be.”
If there’s any upside to the elimination of the Female Rap Solo Grammy, it’s that the Recording Academy inevitably avoided awarding it to Fergie in 2007. But the Academy also missed out on giving a gramophone to M.I.A.—one she deserved in 2009 just for performing on the Grammys nine months pregnant, backed by the kings of rap. In a better world, Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam would have become the platinum-level rapper she deserved to be in America. As late as mid-2008, it was inconceivable that the indie favorite would score any chart hits at all, at least before *Pineapple Express’ *trailer made use of the year-old “Paper Planes” and turned it into an improbable Top Five hit. Kala, the album containing “Planes,” quietly went gold in 2010, but she never troubled the upper reaches of the charts again. Of course, by then, America finally had a new chart-topping rap queen.
Rap Queen: Nicki Minaj
Lower-Selling Ladies-in-Waiting: Iggy Azalea, Azealia Banks
In 2010, the situation with women in rap had gotten dire enough that future *Selma *filmmaker Ava DuVernay produced a BET documentary called My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women in Hip-Hop, asking where all the female emcees had gone. DuVernay chronicled the music industry’s rap-industrial complex, which had pushed women to emphasize their sexuality over their bars, or underinvest in them altogether. At one point a rueful MC Lyte lamented of rap’s top label, “I don’t believe Def Jam ever held on to two [woman rappers] at one time.” Ironically, DuVernay’s doc premiered just a couple of months before Nicki Minaj dropped her major-label debut, Pink Friday, which either defied the premise of My Mic Sounds Nice or reinforced its arguments about what it took for women to compete in rap.
With hindsight, Minaj probably didn’t need to pick a fight with Remy Ma on her Playtime Is Over mixtape in 2007—if the line, “Tell that bitch with the crown to run it like Chris Brown,” was even calling out Remy at all. As evidenced by Fergie’s “reign,” the field of top-tier, commercially viable female rappers was tiny by the late aughts—and Remy wasn’t even totally in the conversation on the charts. With her head-spinning flow, colorful personality, and literally colorful wardrobe, Nicki essentially lapped the field just by showing up.
Knowing what female rappers are up against, it’s impossible to assess Minaj’s exquisite career without viewing it through the prism of her predecessors over the previous two decades. Salt-N-Pepa’s raunchy fearlessness? Check. Lauryn’s telegenic sing-and-rap presentation? Check. Lil’ Kim’s flamboyance? Eve’s pugnaciousness? Missy’s quirk? Check, check, check. This cover-all-the-bases, hedged-bet strategy even led to momentary pushback by the hip-hop community, via a shady 2012 fight over her glossy pop hit “Starships” that resulted in New York radio station Hot 97 essentially forcing Minaj off their rap-centric Summer Jam festival.
Even with these minor speed bumps, Minaj has sucked so much oxygen from the room—three very pink and very platinum chart-topping albums, an “American Idol” judging stint that read like a stunt by the end—that she’s essentially held the rap queen crown for the duration of the 2010s. An occasional challenger has hacked off a piece of the kingdom, but not for long.
Australian interloper Iggy Azalea looked on paper like a label executive’s fantasy—a combination of Fergie’s pretty-white-girl looks and M.I.A.’s foreign status, crossed with a studious approximation of an American male rapper’s flow—and the industry primed her with more than a year of hype before The New Classic dropped in 2014. It sold gold and streamed platinum, but Azalea’s credibility and popularity fell off rapidly, and three years later her follow-up is still unreleased. With her firework of a debut, “212,” Azealia Banks looked like the decade’s most promising hip-hop newcomer in 2011. But self-sabotage and a feud with Interscope Records led to a split with the label and delayed release of her proper debut, Broke with Expensive Taste, which won critical acclaim but poor sales. And yet, half a dozen years later, we head into the thick of summer-song season with Minaj still dropping radio-ready tracks and setting Billboard chart records.
As MC Lyte said in DuVernay’s documentary, rap as a business has shown a remarkable inability to cultivate two queens at the same time. Like all rap beefs, Remy Ma’s undercard with her old rival might be, on some level, an indicator that hip-hop is still tussling with stakes and excitement, like living, breathing art forms should. But wouldn’t it be nice to imagine a world where both ladies could come out of the ring with their gloves raised?