Let’s start things off here with some honesty.
Female rappers have an extremely rough go in the business and have to go through great lengths just to get general respect.
Which is why this particular article (which, honestly, has been murmured about for a couple of years around these parts) is important to us.
It’s our way to honor the talents of incredible artists and the article will live on well after the Women’s Month hashtags have disappeared from the timeline.
Photo: Michael Benabib/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
As for the criteria: we divulged in a simple voting process that focused on overall quality, visibility + impact, and the results were pretty apparent without any real debate. It’s also important to note that artists who didn’t see their albums make the cut still were instrumental in influencing all 20 of these projects.
For instance, an artist like Yo-Yo was a pioneer in showcasing a woman who was able to speak their mind freely in the presence of testosterone. Monie Love was a master in displaying self-worth. And though we’re certain The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is decidedly an R&B album, it doesn’t mean the project is any less of the classic that it always will be.
This article wasn’t meant to segregate but more so meant to highlight notable contributions to our culture. Cherish and stream these albums (we doubt you’re as well-versed in them as we are at this point, ha!) because dope music will always live forever. — Trent Clark
[This post has been updated. The following was originally published on March 30, 2019.]
20. Azealia Banks – Broke With Expensive Taste (2014) Notable Singles: “Yung Rapunxel,” “212” (f. Lazy Jay) Believe it or not, Azealia Banks knows how to do more than drum up beef among her peers and social media following. Her studio debut album, Broke With Expensive Taste, proved she was quite astute at putting together a sonically cohesive album starring her own vocals and writing, all while under the direction of none other than herself.
The single “Heavy Metal and Reflective” was aggressively planted in a pot of heavy-hitting bass and nebulous synths, fertilized by poetry born from the jungles of New York City. It was a lucid reflection of Banks impeccable writing skills. On the flip side, she offered the happy go-lucky “Nude Beach a-Go-Go” filled with catchy alliteration about the appropriation of black women — and you wouldn’t even know it. Ms. Banks also delivered salient bars under house reverb, jazzy vibrations, and R&B tonality. Broke With Expensive Taste’s most endearing quality was its blend of true-to-art of Hip Hop while also appealing to worldwide pop tastes.
The making of Broke With Expensive Taste was a tumultuous experience. Banks used social media to candidly war with the music industry, the white men who run it and anyone else who used blackness as a prop for profit. After enduring three years of higher-ups telling her it wasn’t good enough in the spirit of “hits,” she still clashed over with label heads over the single choices of “Soda” versus “Chasing Time.” Her deal with Interscope and Polydor in 2013, leading to a new situation with Prospect Park in 2014. Broke With Expensive Taste earned critical acclaim for being progressively creative and original — it just didn’t get mainstream recognition. Unfortunately, she may never get another shot of releasing such an eclectic package with everyone’s full attention —Cherise Johnson
20. Foxy Brown – Ill Na Na (1996)
Notable Singles: “I’ll Be” (f. JAY-Z), “Get You Home” (f. Blackstreet)
From a technical, bar-for-bar, rap-your-ass-off standpoint, Foxy Brown is one of the illest to ever do it — regardless of gender. The NYC born and bred MC was very much in the “best rapper of right now” conversation back when she released her debut album Ill Na Na.
The 13-track LP was released in the midst of one of Hip Hop’s greatest years in history; 1997. Those 12 months were jam-packed with genre-defining releases but regardless, the sheer consistency and lyrical potency of Ill Na Na couldn’t be ignored.
The album was executive produced by Trackmasters who managed to bring some seriously poignant instrumentals to the background of Foxy’s musing lyrics – especially lead single “Get Me Home” (featuring Blackstreet). Plus, “Big Bad Mamma” was added onto the reissue giving the album another layer of popularity raising Foxy’s stock.
The Fox Boogie doesn’t pull any punches on Ill Na Na as she rips through some essential New York-centric tracks with the help of Method Man, Jigga and Havoc. If those aforementioned male rappers epitomize the menacing New York City mobster of the late 90s then Foxy represents the mob wife that is even more sinister with weaponized sexuality. The themes on Ill Na Na revolve around criminal activity, high fashion and raw sexual energy – all of which are present within Hip Hop as we know it today.
The sheer confidence and astute rhyming Foxy brought to Ill Na Na makes it one of the 90s most memorable albums and a catalyst for the fierce feminine rap wave that followed. —Scott Glaysher
19. Eve – Let There Be Eve…Ruff Ryders’ First Lady (1999)
Notable Singles: “Gotta Man,” “Love Is Blind” (f. Faith Evans)
After a failed short run with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath, Eve became the Ruff Ryders’ Queen, which by 1999, had become a juggernaut rap label. Fresh off the success of her Ryde or Die Vol. 1 single “What Ya Want,” she dropped her official debut Let There Be Eve…Ruff Ryders’ First Lady, a commercial smash that led the Philly-native to become the third female Hip Hop artist to top Billboard 200 (behind Lauryn Hill and Foxy Brown).
Though it went double platinum, making it a commercial success, it’s interesting that upon a revisit of the music, the LP is mostly made up of deep cuts (produced predominantly by Swizz Beatz). Aside from a remix of “What Ya Want” and the earworm “Gotta Man,” the project shied away from crossover fare. The second single “Love Is Blind” for example, despite its guitar-driven melody, is dark — unbelievably so. Even the record “Heaven Only Knows” sees her honestly details her journey from stripper to rapper (albeit without glorifying anything).
Throughout her debut, she never uses her sexuality as a lyrical crutch. From her hometown ode “Philly Philly” with Beanie Sigel to her verse on “Scenario 2000,” what sparkles about Eve is her bars and the ability to hold her own among an incredible cast of lyricists in their prime.
18. Queen Latifah – All Hail The Queen (1989)
Notable Singles: “Ladies First” (f. Monie Love), “Wrath of My Madness”
New Jersey was represented not just lovely but majestically at the dawn of the 1990s with the undisputed empress of rap Queen Latifah holding court. On her 1989 debut album All Hail The Queen, DJ Mark The 45 King’s funky basslines, marching ASR-X drum chops, soul and jazzy horns samples and Latifah’s authoritative vocal style, dexterous and witty wordplay, and African monarch attire that exuded remnants of Nefertiti put feminism on wax.
The album catapulted her to the forefront of rap’s Afrocentric movement alongside her Native Tongue buddies De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian, KMD, and her rhyme partner Monie Love on the album’s breakthrough single “Ladies First.” Latifah made you dance on cuts including “Dance 4 Me,” “Momma Gave Birth To The Soul Children,” the hip-house jam “Come Into My House,” and snap your neck to her impressive flow and chorus on “Wrath of My Madness.”
All Hail The Queen initiated Latifah’s successful career in the rap game and Hollywood that has lasted almost 30 years. Press the play button on the album today, and it will still make heads rock at Latifah’s command. —Dana Scott
17. Lil Kim – La Bella Mafia (2003)
Notable Singles: “Magic Stick” (f. 50 Cent), “The Jump Off” (f. Mr. Cheeks)
Following the release of two multi-platinum albums in Hard Core and The Notorious K.I.M., Lil Kim’s third studio album, La Bella Mafia, forever erased doubts that her place within Hip Hop history deserved to be cemented.
The 50-Cent featured, Grammy-nominated “Magic Stick” cultivated itself into huge cultural moment without streaming, social media or even a magic video to boot.
On “Can’t Fuck With Queen Bee,” she “kindly” asserted herself as rap royalty while reminding naysayers of her primal lead in the game. The passionate “Heavenly Father” and exhilarating Bonnie & Clyde anthem “Thug Luv” (with “Clyde” being Twista) also boosted the project’s strength.
Album closer “Came Back For You” (produced by a pre-College Dropout Kanye West) took marvelous swipes at Eve and Foxy Brown and closed things out in an orderly fashion.
Additionally, La Bella Mafia is arguably Kim’s most cohesive release, as the incorporation of the Queen Bee Radio skits created a layer of experience that is often missing from music post-2012. Her alluring lyrical bravado permeated the tracks with slick gangsta talk, eroticism and confidence throughout.
Unsurprisingly in the commercial wins department, the album peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard 200, was certified multi-platinum in no time and will forever stand as the period when the Queen Bee was the most in-pocket with her music career. —Cherise Johnson
16. Salt-N-Pepa – Very Necessary (1993)
Notable Singles: “Shoop,” “Whatta Man” (f. En Vogue)
Years before Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott took a neo-feminist approach to Hip Hop, groundbreakers Salt-N-Pepa chose to fight the misogynist power with their signature fire-n-ice style. Enter Very Necessary, the duo’s fourth studio album, which was released on October 12, 1993. The album would go on to peak at No. 4 on the US Billboard Top 200 Albums Chart and get certified 5x platinum by the RIAA. The album sold an additional two million copies internationally, for total sales of seven million. It also earned the Queens, NY ladies their biggest hit of their career (“Shoop,” which hit No. 4 on the pop charts), (“Whatta Man,” featuring R&B songstresses En Vogue, which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts), and their first-ever Grammy award (for the Top 40 hit, “None of Your Business”).
Critics and fans alike hailed the album as a success, and Salt-N-Pepa went from rappers to bona fide pop stars.
But as much as the duo (supplanted by DJ Spinderella) had plenty of pop-sounding, radio-friendly hits, Very Necessary also featured songs that reminded their fans about who they are and where they came from. “Somebody’s Gettin’ On My Nerves,” for example, hearkened back to the bars they exhibited on “My Mic Sound Nice,” with Pepa machine-gunning such bars as “You rolled up on me in your man’s Beemer/And I could look at you and tell you was a meat-beatin’ daydreamer.” “Break of Dawn” is another example of the ladies’ ability to spit 16, lifting the bass of the classic James Brown track “The Grunt,” a sample previously used by Public Enemy in their “Night of the Living Baseheads” track, and subsequently sampled by the Wu-Tang Clan and 2Pac.
Regardless of the trials and tribulations that Cheryl and Sandy would subsequently endure, the group’s fourth album was, and remains, a Very Necessary addition to any true head’s album list. —Bernadette Giacomazzo
15. Nicki Minaj – The Pinkprint (2014)
Notable Singles: “Anaconda,” “Truffle Butter” (f. Drake & Lil Wayne)
When Nicki Minaj released her 2009 mixtape Beam Me Up Scotty, it solidified her as Hip Hop’s latest up-and-coming rap darling and earned her a record deal Lil Wayne’s Young Money Records — the hottest label at the time.
Four years later, after she also solidified herself as the biggest female rap act ever with an ardent mix of NYC grit rap and fun, digestible blockbuster pop tunes (sorry Rosenberg), Nicki Minaj released her third studio The Pinkprint absolving the character conceived during her “Pink Friday” era by therapeutically leaving the grandiose costumes, colorful wigs, and out-of-this-world personality behind.
The Pinkprint essentially lives as Nicki’s own personal tabloid built on her truth and is an introspective experience of the life lived by the Queens native born Onika Maraj.
From getting extremely vulnerable on “All Things Go” (a reintroduction to Onika the woman), to divulging into painful relationship issues (“I Lied”), to facing demons head on via the Hot 100 hit “Pills n Potions,” Nicki garnered back respect she may have lost during her aforementioned colorful heyday.
In 2015, she earned a nomination for Best Rap Album at the 57th Grammy Awards. The project’s top record, “Anaconda,” was also nominated for Best Rap Song.
It is important for artists to have the freedom to explore their creativity and push boundaries. Nicki Minaj mastered such by capturing pop and Hip Hop elements (see the classic Young Money collaboration “Truffle Butter) in such an inescapable way that she successfully infected popular culture with her presence for nearly a decade with little competition.
By blending creative elements such as a fire pen game and uncanny ability to pull massive numbers with the singles, The Pinkprint stands as a meditative spot-on project and her best work to date. —Cherise Johnson
14. MC Lyte – Lyte As A Rock (1988)
Notable Singles: “Paper Thin,” “10% Dis”
From the moment the first “fresh” is cut on album opener “Lyte Vs. Vanna Wyte,” it’s clear MC Lyte was intent on making a classic New York Hip Hop album via her 1988 debut, Lyte As A Rock. Just 17 years old at the time it dropped, the album marked the first solo Hip Hop album to be released by a female rapper. The Brooklyn-bred MC had already disrupted her local scene the year before with “I Cram The Understand You,” a gut-wrenching opus about a girl falling in love with a boy who’s trying to hide his crack addiction from her — but fails.
The song was included on Lyte As A Rock along with “10% Diss,” “Paper Thin” and “I Am Woman.” But Lyte wasn’t simply leaning on her femininity — she owned it — and refused to fade away into obscurity like some novelty act. She was a serious artist who delivered hard-hitting rhymes, brutally honest content and authentic boom-bap courtesy of producers Alliance, Audio Two, King of Chill and Prince Paul. She also wasn’t afraid to put misogynist MCs or copycats in their place either.
On “10% Diss,” she set her sights on fellow Bronx rapper Antoinette for allegedly stealing the kicks and snares from Audio Two’s “Top Billin.” “Beat biter, dope style taker/Tell you to your face you ain’t nothing but a faker,” she rapped with unfiltered venom. Although the project only peaked at No. 50 on the Billboard R&B/Hip Hop Albums, it helped usher in a whole new era of confident female MCs, including Bahamadia, Queen Latifah and Monie Love. —Kyle Eustice
13. Foxy Brown – Broken Silence (2001)
Notable Singles: “B.K. Anthem,” “Oh Yeah” (f. Spragga Benz)
This album should’ve been called The Inga Marchand LP because it exposed how physically and mentally ill (na na) Foxy Brown truly was. Fame is a helluva drug and Broken Silence was her figurative return from the rehab clinic to the rap lab. The album’s content turned Foxy’s middle finger to the rap industry that turned its back on her. It didn’t sell units like her multi-platinum debut album or follow-up effort Chyna Doll two years later but it was better.
Broken Silence was about wearing her heart — and Jamaican heritage — on her sleeve and patois-laced flow on tracks like the tough “B.K. Anthem,” the dancehall-driven “Oh Yeah,” and “Tables Will Turn.” She even gave a pop-worthy earworm on The Neptunes’ “Candy” to lighten up the showcase.
To answer questions about her anger management issues and legal troubles at the time, she admitted to being crazy in the street and on the mic on the lyrically bananas, Styx-sampling “730.” Foxy poignantly showed her vulnerability in the heartfelt apology to her mother and brother in “The Letter.”
Going from the top to rock bottom, suffering a sophomore jinx, a publicized breakup with Tha Dogg Pound lyricist Kurupt and the infamous shootout between her own and Lil Kim’s entourage was more than enough laundry for her to air out. —Dana Scott
And Foxy showed that she never folded.
12. Lil Kim – The Naked Truth (2005)
Notable Singles: “Lighters Up,” “Whoa”
On September 27, 2005, two important milestones took place in the life of Kimberly Jones: she started the first day of her prison sentence on perjury charges, and her label released The Naked Truth, her fourth studio album. The album had two very successful singles — “Lighters Up” and “Whoa” — but failed to make the pop culture impact that singles like “How Many Licks” and “Magic Stick” made. But where The Naked Truth fell short on classic tracks, it more than made up for it with groundbreaking comedy skits featuring Adele Givens and a then-unknown Katt Williams.
The Naked Truth also showcased Kim’s more brutal side. Perhaps because she was facing time, or perhaps because she was all grown up, or perhaps because of a combination of both. She took 50 Cent and her former Junior M.A.F.I.A. bandmates to task on such tracks as “Spell Check,” in which she roasts Lil Cease & Co. to the bone (“Bitch ass guys / ‘Cause they took the stand on the D.A.’s side”) and Mr. G-Unit (“Your man, 5-0, I don’t see him in the club/Cause he out in the C-T with a dick in his butt”).
Not to be outdone, Kim roasted her nameless haters alive with “Shut Up Bitch” in which she addresses every rumor ever released about her — from the accusation that Biggie wrote all her bars, to her plastic surgery, and even manages to throw Star Jones under the bus in the process (“Damn! It must feel good to pay less!”).
Over the years, Kim went from super-sexy gumada of a gangster to an industry gangstress in her own right. Although she hasn’t released a proper album since (May 2019 reportedly will change that) she mothered you hoes — she should claim you on her income taxes. —Bernadette Giacomazzo
11. Bahamadia – Kollage (1996)
Notable Singles: “Uknowhowwedu,” “True Honey Buns (Dat Freak Shit)”
A retro-70s Afro Sheen-glistened blowout fade, phlegmatic rhyme delivery with obscure metaphors and battle-ready chutzpah was the arsenal Philadelphia b-girl Bahamadia needed to continue the legacy of hometown rap greats. As the album’s title suggested, Kollage was alluring concoction of East Coast boom-bap for backpackers, and sophisticated jazz and neo-soul worthy of burn in any coffeehouse or health food store.
Gang Starr’s Guru and DJ Premier and Da Beatminerz branched out of their Brooklyn post to lace the majority of production for Bahamadia’s debut album arguably one of the best rap albums of the 90s. It boasted mad singles in the runaway freight train feel of “Total Wreck,” the Ski Beatz and DJ Redhanded-produced jazzy tones of “Uknowhowedu,” the romantic “I Confess,” the groupie parable “True Honey Buns,” and the breakdance-inspiring “Three Tha Hard Way” that made all males make room for any woman who wanted to get her shine on in a cipher.
And you can’t front on Iladelph jazz rap version of the Funky Four + 1 classic “Da Jawn” with The Roots. Actually, you can’t front on this entire project. Sis was mean with it. —Dana Scott
10. Da Brat – Funkdafied (1994)
Notable Singles: “Funkdafied” (f. Jermaine Dupri), “Give It 2 You”
After winning a local rap contest, with the prize being a meeting with Kris Kross, Westside Chicago MC Da Brat was introduced to producer Jermaine Dupri by the boys who told the entire world to “Jump.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Her debut LP Funkdafied is absolutely brilliant even just by sheer context: A guy from Atlanta discovers a girl from Chicago, and they craft a quintessential 90s LP laced in California swagger.
Being developed as a female (and Midwest) answer to Snoop Doggy Dogg, Brat’s bars fit squarely into the realm of gangsta rap of the day, soaked in braggadocio and rawness. But rather than pairing her with hardcore beats, JD created this buttery soundscape built of heavy funk samples that propelled the album up the charts, making Brat the first solo female rapper to go platinum.
The album’s heaviest cut, “Funkdafied,” remains her highest charting — and best selling — single peaking at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. Aside from flipping the Isley Brothers “Between the Sheets” months ahead of Diddy & Biggie’s “Big Poppa,” it also introduced the seamless on record chemistry between Brat and JD. The other two singles, “Fa All Y’all” and “Give It 2 You” both landed in the top 40 and are still dynamite material to this day.
The Brat had/has bars, and JD let her play to her strengths rather than attempt to put her in the box of other female artists who tended to put their femininity into the forefront of their musical personas. Funkdafied is a bona fide classic, brimming with tight, focused, unadulterated funk. —Riley Wallace
09. Rah Digga – Dirty Harriet (2000)
Notable Singles: “Tight,” “Imperial” (f. Busta Rhymes)
As the first lady of Flipmode Squad (first introduced to Busta Rhymes by Q-Tip), Rah Digga is a rapper’s rapper — first and foremost. Having come up in the Lyricist Lounge scene, her keen ability to absolutely murder verses gave Flipmode a secret weapon that didn’t need to rely on gimmicks. Her debut LP Dirty Harriet stands alongside many notable sledgehammer projects, defined by her pen game drenched in gorgeous soundscapes crafted by legends, contributors like DJ Premier, Pete Rock and leading man, Nottz.
The Mr. Walt (Beatminerz)-produced lead single “Tight” set the stage with its haymaker bars, followed up by the single “Break Fool, “which peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Rap Singles. The bulk of the album though, outside of a feature from Carl Thomas, didn’t crack any mainstream glass ceilings, and despite commendable numbers, the project was unable to achieve any sales certifications. Still, it’s a project that (for heads in the know), stands the test of time.
The Premier-produced “Lessons of Today,” and “What They Call Me” produced by Pete Rock (easily one of his hottest beats) have a timeless gloss to them — as does the entire album. With a Rolodex that includes acts like Busta himself at her disposal (he had only one solo feature), she took it upon herself to create a strong body of work that focused on what she brought to the table without aggressively surfing commercial waves, something that the turn-of-the-century industry couldn’t escape.
Hip Hop doesn’t live on the radio. Dirty Harriet proved it lived in the CD player and is worth a revisit. Or a discovery. —Riley Wallace
08. Eve – Scorpion (2001)
Notable Singles: “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” (f. Gwen Stefani), “Who’s That Girl?”
By the time Eve’s second studio album, Scorpion, hit the shelves in 2001, the Ruff Ryders’ First Lady had enjoyed quite a bit of success thanks to her work with her aforementioned Hip Hop supergroup. Preferring to position herself as a “one of the boys,” Eve chose to avoid the uber-sexy clichés that her contemporaries Lil Kim and Foxy Brown chose to embrace.
Instead, she came out of the studio growling and spitting, alternating between the vicious and the vixen parts of her personality with equal ease and aplomb. And she was well rewarded for her efforts: Scorpion debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 with first-week sales of 162,000 copies and became her second consecutive number-one album on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart.
The album, which would eventually be certified platinum, also helped break Eve into the mainstream thanks to her monstrously-successful, Dr. Dre and Scott Storch-produced hit “Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” which featured a special guest appearance by No Doubt frontwoman and The Voice coach Gwen Stefani. The timeless record would also go on to win a Grammy award for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration.
Still, Scorpion announced, once and for all, that the “pit bull in a skirt” had a bark that was just as deadly as her bite…or, more aptly, her sting. —Bernadette Giacomazzo
07. Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy (2018)
Notable Singles: “Bodak Yellow,” “I Like It” (f. J Balvin & Bad Bunny)
A mere two years ago, when Cardi B dropped Gangsta Bitch Vol. 1 and 2, no one would have predicted that her next project would win a Grammy for Best Rap Album; but it did. 2018’s Invasion of Privacy stands as not only Cardi’s first official studio album but a cog in the pantheon of all-time great female rap albums.
The album’s irrefutable commercial and critical success comes from Cardi’s unapologetic self-expression. As she crafts this catchy collection of hits and deep cuts, she remains herself through and through with an emphasis on being the realest and unquestionably, the baddest.
“Bodak Yellow” was used as the lead single and ultimate driving force behind the album but follow up singles like “Bartier Cardi,” “I Do” and “I Like It” charted remarkably high on the Billboard Hot 100 and beyond. Despite the album only being out for less than a year, there is no denying the replay value of those haymaker hits and their potential to be in rotation for the next 10 years. There are also songs like “Be Careful” that put the bad bitch persona on ice and dial-in on love, loss and infidelity which are pain points everyone can relate to.
The album only runs 48 minutes long, which by today’s data-dump standards, is short, sweet and actually pretty damn scathing. There is no telling what the future holds for Cardi B but if one thing is for sure, it’s that Invasion of Privacy should be regarded as a modern-day classic, okurrrr? —Scott Glaysher
[Editor-In-Chief’s Note: Yeah, I could’ve bumped the rating up a bit higher.]
06. Lil Kim – Hard Core (1996)
Notable Singles: “Crush On You” (starring Lil Cease), “No Time” (f. Puff Daddy)
The mid-90s belonged to The Notorious B.I.G. as the heralded King of New York. His Junior M.A.F.I.A. clique’s lone female Lil Kim was their second-best MC. After two straight summers of her memorable verses on the crew’s chart-topping singles “Player’s Anthem” and “Get Money,” the rubber hit the road for Lil Kim upon the release of her debut album Hard Core in the fall of 1996.
On Hard Core, The Queen Bee asserted herself as more than just a lady-in-waiting among the King of New York’s harem. Packing all-time classic cuts such as “Queen Bitch,” “Crush On You,” “Not Tonight,” and the Stretch Armstrong-produced club banger “Big Momma Thang” featuring a still-developing JAY-Z, the album is arguably the most storied female Hip Hop album ever released.
Lil Kim had a Napoleonic complex, one-percenter’s panache with designer fashion elitism (evidenced on the elevator-stuntin’ “No Time”) and sex addict’s libido to beat her male counterparts at their own game. (See the artist-naming “Dreams,” which was recently Xeroxed by Nicki Minaj.)
She kept it real, holding it down for the XX chromosomes in Hip-Hop — while adding another X to keep it raunchy in the process. —Dana Scott
05. Rapsody – Laila’s Wisdom (2017)
Notable Singles: “Power” (f. Kendrick Lamar & Lance Skiiiwalker), “Sassy”
Rapsody’s career reached new heights in 2017 with the release of her album Laila’s Wisdom. The LP was the culmination of years of hard work, dating back to her early days as a member of the group Kooley High.
Under the guidance of 9th Wonder, Rapsody became a widely respected MC during the 2010s and earned critical acclaim for projects such as The Idea Of Beautiful and Beauty & The Beast. But, she seemed to have settled into a spot as an independent stalwart whose music would simply be admired by the more dedicated Hip Hop heads.
That all changed with Laila’s Wisdom. The album was her first release for JAY-Z’s Roc Nation and even became her first album to chart on the Billboard 200. And it instantly garnered props as a traditional Hip Hop masterpiece, which is a rarity in today’s streaming generation.
The increased awareness certainly helped, but the sheer quality of Laila’s Wisdom is what truly made Rapsody undeniable. She took her game to another level with flavorful grooves on “Pay Up” and painstaking life recounts (as heard on the album’s anchor “Jesus Calling” to form a cohesive, finely crafted body of work that resonated with listeners. Collaborations with Hip Hop standard-bearers such as Kendrick Lamar and Black Thought also showed she was more than capable of hanging with the elite.
Laila’s Wisdom would earn a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album and HipHopDX named it the second-best rap album of 2017 in our Year End Awards. Going forward, Rapsody has many more years left to carve out her legacy. But looking back, Laila’s Wisdom cemented her status as one of the preeminent women in Hip Hop. —Justin Ivey
04. Missy Elliott – Miss E … So Addictive (2001)
Notable Singles: “Get Ur Freak On,” “One Minute Man” (f. Ludacris / JAY-Z on the remix)
By the time her third album Miss E… So Addictive rolled around, Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott didn’t have to prove herself to anyone. Having overcome any notions of a sophomore jinx with the impressive Da Real World, she had more than established herself as a hitmaker. However, this time around, having polished and refined her style over the first two releases, she ascended to the next level, spawning massive hits like the infectious “One Minute Man,” featuring Ludacris (and Trina on the remix), and the staple of her discography: “Get Ur Freak On.”
Produced entirely by Timbaland, with Missy prominently credited as the co-producer, the project balances melodic vocals and bars, rarely settling on a consistent vibe or allowing itself to be put in a box. From riding some of Timbo’s trademark drum patterns on the deep cut “Whatcha Gonna Do” to crooning with Ginuwine and Tweet on “Take Away,” which ultimately became an Aaliyah tribute — who passed away three months of after the album was released — the record was a little of everything. Speaking of Tweet, her appearances on this LP served as a formal introduction, snowballing her underappreciated R&B career.
“4 My People” was another critical record, which became a huge dance hit — especially in the European market, further bolstering its international sales. The LP stands as her second most successful body of work domestically, selling over 1.7 million copies and worldwide, a total of 5.3 million copies.
Slap, slap, slap! —Riley Wallace
03. Missy Elliott – Under Construction (2002)
Notable Singles: “Work It,” “Gossip Folks” (f. Ludacris)
Without question, Missy Elliott and Timbaland should be regarded as one of Hip Hop’s most iconic rapper/producer combos off the strength of this album alone. At the time, Timbo’s traditionally hoppy, beatbox laden beats were ascending its apex mountain and taking on a new level of pop appeal. On the contrary, Missy’s clever songwriting was on a similar upwards trajectory manifesting in a damn near perfect album for the early aughts.
Quite literally, Under Construction checks all the boxes that make up a perfectly balanced LP. For starters, there are a handful of hits that define Missy’s career including certified platinum banger “Work It” and the Ludacris-assisted “Gossip Folks.” The former being her biggest solo song to date spawning a generation of female rappers comfortable with rapping about taking sexuality into their own hands. Not to mention both tracks can still be bumped in the club to this day.
Aside from the roof-raisers, there’s a plethora of strong rap cuts that showcase Missy’s lyrical chops. She kicks the album off by half rapping/half harmonizing on the boom-bapped “Bring the Pain,” which includes a tight reprise from Method Man (JAY-Z, Beyoncé and TLC also put in nice work on the album).
It’s throughout these 13 tracks that Missy really starts to intertwine her rapping and singing. “Play That Beat” and “Hot” are examples of Missy handling all the vocals – from rapping the verses to delivering the eccentric choruses and even blurring them together into their own catchy cocktail.
Whatever your mood, whether it be vulnerable, victorious or somewhere in between, Missy’s Under Construction has an undeniable track to match and has only been matched by her own damn self. —Scott Glaysher
02. Rapsody – EVE (2019)
Notable Singles: “Ibtihaj” (f. GZA & D’Angelo), “Nina”
As a prominent member of one of America’s most disenfranchised and disassociated cultural groups, Marlanna Evans knew as a Black woman in 2019, her lyrical statements had to represent the complex narratives her lineage have faced since the dawn of time.
EVE, the North Carolina native’s third studio effort, packs on the layered utility. The album sequence, carved with the blood, soul and tears of African-American female powerhouses, gives listeners a Black History lesson that puts some past February’s to shame. Rap’s unflinching stance to uplift the sisters also transfixes the album’s energy towards the post #MeToo movement where respect should be automatic.
From the offset, the premier MC doesn’t let listeners off easy, quipping on the ember-emoting “Cleo”, “What good is a black women to them? / Raped us in slavery, they raping us again” before analyzing a women’s strength (“Serena”), perseverance (“Myrlie”), complexion (“Iman”) and even swagger (“Michelle”).
With the album employing rich instrumentation and vibrant bass scored by 9th Wonder and other trusty Soul Council denizens, EVE left no room for error while giving Rapsody a major stride in her still budding career. — Trent Clark
01. Missy Elliott – Supa Dupa Fly (1997)
Notable Singles: “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” “Sock It 2 Me” (f. Da Brat)
There’s never been anything small or recessive about Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott. Everything from her voice to her career to her original body shape was larger than life. She was big, black and beautiful — and 1997’s Supa Dupa Fly announced her arrival in the Hip Hop game in an unforgettable way.
Elliott had already received critical acclaim for her songwriting contributions to Aaliyah’s One In A Million album, and those accolades continued with her debut album. She was the first female rapper to perform on the Lilith Fair, and critics and fans alike praised the “futuristic” sound of Elliott’s work with super-producer Timbaland, who would go on to become her longtime collaborator.
The album’s lead-off single, “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” featured a sample of a classic Tina Turner track and had a mind-blowing music video, directed by Hype Williams, that featured Elliott in an inflatable garbage bag shot through a fisheye lens.
But it’s not often geniuses get recognized as such in their own time — and The Misdemeanor was no exception. At this time in Hip Hop history, 2Pac and Biggie had recently been gunned down, and the respective coasts retreated to their corners to lick their wounds and release albums, hoping the music would serve as a salve for their broken bridges.
Where, then, did a big girl from Portsmouth, Virginia fit into the pantheon, especially one in a world where women were little more than hood ornaments?
It’s perhaps only now, after so many years removed from the trauma of the 1990s, that we can appreciate Supa Dupa Fly for the groundbreaker that it was. How can you not marvel over the futuristic nod-and-wink to Musical Youth’s “Pass The Dutchie” (track No. 7 “Pass The Blunt”) as it chin-checks her haters in a playful way? Or the horrifically underrated “Friendly Skies,” which featured a heartbreakingly gorgeous appearance by R&B legend Ginuwine?
The proof is in the package: Missy Elliott was way ahead of her time with her “genre fluidity,” for lack of a better turn of phrase — but Supa Dupa Fly was, and remains a landmark album. For all of music —Bernadette Giacomazzo