By the 1970s, the dichotomies of opulence and post-industrial destitution were stark. Gunshots, abandoned buildings and fires marred many New York City streets. However, in the midst of the city’s tumult, the extended instrumental section of a song played at a back-to-school party forever changed the landscape of music.
That now-infamous party is where hip-hop was fathered by trailblazing DJ Kool Herc, at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. However, the event itself was the idea of his sister, Cindy Campbell. If it weren’t for her party, we would have never experienced MCing over a song's breaks, which evolved into the cultural phenomenon we now know as rap.
Female MCs have been integral to hip-hop’s musical melange from its inception, beginning with pioneer (and Mother of the Mic) MC Sha-Rock. Over the decades, audiences have been Funkdafied listening to Supersonic sounds, while still Down to Earth. We’ve been blessed with Da Baddest Bitch and even been "Conceited." We’ve sung along to My Melody, experienced Necessary Roughness and if you don’t know, You Better Ask Somebody.
And while all female rappers deserve their flowers for breaking barriers, there are a few women who deserve grandiose gardens dedicated to their accomplishments. After all, if it were not for them walking first, other women would not have been able to (be) fly.
This year, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, we can’t forget to celebrate the female MC’s who blazed the boundless — and euphonious — trails we still travel on.
This list below spans the genre’s humble beginnings, from hip-hop’s "Golden Era," which bore witness to the majority of these historic album drops, to the present day. With the exception of one album, nine of the albums listed are debuts.
Salt-n-Pepa - Hot, Cool & Vicious (1986)
Salt-n-Pepa’s debut album Hot, Cool & Vicious was one of the first rap albums by an all-female group. With its confident and carefree lyrics and seductively sanguine beats, the album features many hit songs such as "My Mic Sound Nice" and "Tramp." However, there is one song on the album that ruled the dancefloor and became one of their breakout hits: "Push It."
Donning gold rope chains, bamboo earrings, custom leather jackets and red boots, Salt-n-Pepa’s commanding stage presence–and fashionable style–was on full display in the video for “Push It.” The subtly suggestive song provided sex appeal alongside an arresting, uptempo beat. Although the original version of "Push It" was on the album, its remix, with its iconic instrumental intro, was added to the album in 1987. The song, which was nominated for the Best Rap Performance GRAMMY, was certified platinum in 1988 and has gone on to become one of the group’s top hits.
The album resonates today because universal appeal and ubiquitous sound still captures a wide audience. It has since elevated the presence of women in the game and still empowers listeners with topics that are still very relevant, such as feminism. Its debut marked a shift from predominantly male-driven narratives found in hip hop at the time, and opened the doors for female-centered storytelling. As such, their impact in the industry has not gone unnoticed. In honor of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, Salt-n-Pepa performed at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
Hot, Cool & Vicious served as a blueprint for future female MCs as it encouraged women to express themselves without apology. Its commercial success garnered mainstream appeal that fortified the album as an important memento of hip-hop’s beginnings. Ultimately, Salt-n-Pepa are pioneers who paved the way for future female rappers, such as those subsequent on this list.
MC Lyte - Lyte as a Rock (1988)
Lyte as a Rock is the first full solo album released by a female rapper, and debuted when MC Lyte was only 17. Lyte’s cadence is robust throughout the album, which demonstrated her ability to MC on songs such as "10% Dis" and the title track "Lyte as a Rock." The album also showed listeners that the rapper would not shy away from important issues that encapsulated the ‘80s. The album's lead single, "I Cram to Understand U (Sam)," detailed drug addiction by personifying cocaine.
Lyte as a Rock’s standout song, "Paper Thin," was written by MC Lyte in her early teens and details infidelity in a relationship. The video features the artist taking the subway after getting a bad feeling her partner was cheating on her. She leaves her perplexed friends (and her "bad Jetta") to board the train, finding her lover in the arms of other women. The distinct, punchy beat on the song’s introduction is layered with samples from music icons Al Green ("I’m Glad You’re Mine") and Prince ("17 Days").
A few years after her album’s debut, in 1994, MC Lyte went on to break history as she became the first female rapper to be nominated for the Best Rap Solo Performance GRAMMY Award.
Lyte as a Rock is a breakthrough album that paved the way for solo female MCs to shatter stereotypes and show audiences they are as competent as their counterparts. It resonates with the experiences of young women across time periods and encourages unapologetic assertiveness–especially when it comes to addressing cardinal issues.
Queen Latifah - Black Reign (1993)
Long before she became an award-winning actress, Queen Latifah made waves in the music industry. Black Reign, which was certified gold in 1994, is Queen Latifah’s third and most successful album. The album cover features a brooding, blurred image of Latifah yelling–and its track list proves she had a few things to say. Popular songs on the album include "Just Another Day" and the chartbusting hit "U.N.I.T.Y."
The song "U.N.I.T.Y." is elegantly assertive and serves as a call to arms for women against insolence from men. Its dreamy, melodious intro features a saxophone sample from Houston-based jazz group the Crusaders. Due to the song’s powerful message, it often was played on the airwaves uncensored. The video, which begins with a brief tribute to the artist’s late brother, visits different scenarios where women are disrespected — and highlights how they combat the disrespect.
The success of U.N.I.T.Y. earned Queen Latifah a GRAMMY for Best Rap Solo Performance. In 2023, she performed at the GRAMMYs in honor of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary.
Black Reign showcases the importance of female empowerment, as well as Queen Latifah’s versatility as an artist. The messages throughout the album have continued relevance to present-day matters, such as gender equality and social justice. Overall, Black Reign showed audiences that female rappers can use their platforms to demand change.
Lil’ Kim - Hardcore (1996)
Lil’ Kim’s debut album Hardcore has lived up to its namesake due to its carnal content and staunch lyricism. The album features hits such as "No Time" featuring Sean "Diddy" Combs, and "Big Momma Thang" featuring rappers Lil’ Cease and Jay-Z. Although the provocative album was bold for the time period, it sparked crucial conversations that are still very germane. Hardcore impugned gender norms and highlighted struggles female MCs faced in the industry–and beyond.
Musically and stylistically, Hardcore has inspired a generation of female rappers. From flow to fashion, Kim’s influence in the industry is immeasurable. Since her debut, almost everything about the Queen Bee has been emulated–from her love of high-end fashion to her provocative and controversial promo poster for Hardcore.
The album cover shows Lil’ Kim surrounded by bouquets of roses, confidently and suggestively posing on a bear-skinned rug. The album’s sexually explicit lyrics pushed boundaries and made listeners take notice of Kim's bravado — and her bars. In 2001, Hardcore was certified 2x platinum.
The song "No Time" is the only one on the album to achieve gold status. However, one of the more memorable cuts on the album is "Crush On You" with Lil’ Cease. The looped, synthesized piano featured on the song’s beat was sampled from Jeff Lorber’s jazz song "Rain Dance." While the album version of the song features the late Notorious B.I.G. on the chorus, Kim’s appearance on the track brings synergy.
The video for the hit single gives a nod to the movie The Wiz, and features colorful scenes where everyone’s outfits match the different dancefloors. Lil’ Kim is no exception, as her outfits (and wigs) also correspond to the colors, making the video utterly unforgettable.
Hardcore was a commercial success that challenged industry expectations of female MCs. Largely, the album proved to be pivotal, and Kim’s aptitude helped establish herself as a force in the industry, even beyond hip-hop. For example, later on in her career, Lil’ Kim earned a Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals for "Lady Marmalade."
The iconic album celebrated sexuality in a unique way the music world had not seen previously, and ultimately paved the way for women to be unapologetic about their self expression. As such, the impact Hardcore had in 1996 can still be felt–and seen–today.
Foxy Brown - Ill Na Na (1996)
Exactly one week after Lil’ Kim dropped her platinum selling debut, then 17-year-old Brooklynite Foxy Brown dropped her seminal album Ill Na Na. The sultry album had a slew of hits, including "I’ll Be" featuring Jay-Z and club anthem "Get Me Home" featuring R&B group Blackstreet. Additionally, the title track featured Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man. The album also featured production from R&B great Teddy Riley and Trackmasters.
Foxy Brown's pairing of smooth R&B elements and hip-hop heavyweights proved to be successful; roughly three months after its debut, the album went platinum. It became one of the fastest albums by a female rapper to reach such a status at that time. The album was re-released in 1997, with the addition of the hit song "Big Bad Mamma" with R&B group Dru Hill. The song landed on the soundtrack to the movie How to Be a Player. The album’s breakout song "I’ll Be" heavily samples R&B duo Rene and Angela Winbush’s ‘80s tune "I’ll Be Good." It is the only song on the album to achieve gold status.
Ill Na Na’s style of sexually explicit lyrics and luscious lyricism followed in the footsteps of her predecessors. The rapper also embraced her sexuality, which further solidified the new level of female empowerment for women in hip-hop that was being incubated in the ‘90s. However, Foxy’s form is clearly her own, and her candor and confidence provide a melodious texture to the album’s tracks.
Ill Na Na is among the important vestiges of 1990s hip-hop, as its elements have a continued impact on modern audiences and rappers alike. The album’s release and success during a time when women were beginning to rise in rap helped sequester any notions of female MCs being fleeting ideas in the industry.
Missy Elliot - Supa Dupa Fly (1997)
Missy Elliot’s debut album, Supa Dupa Fly, redrew rap boundaries with its campy lyrics over salient beats. It also showed audiences that female MCs can be found beyond the borders of the Tri-state area. The album, which was recorded in a mere two weeks, features hits such as "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)" and "Beep Me 911" featuring R&B group 702 and rapper Magoo. Supa Dupa Fly also contained the chart-topping song "Sock it 2 Me," with fellow female rapper Da Brat. The video for the track features Lil’ Kim, and shows the three rappers fighting robotic monsters in space.
Songs on the album were a blend of R&B, funk and rap, paired with anomalous beats that are still easy to dance to. Artists such as Ginuwine and the late Aaliyah were among those featured alongside Elliot. Although the album is now revered as groundbreaking in many ways, Elliot was not aware how much of an impact it would have as time went on.
The innovative album embraced creativity and celebrated eccentricity. For example, one of the most memorable visuals from the album is the oversized inflatable, iconic black suit Missy wore in the video "The Rain." The suit and song lyrics brought a more playful feel to the genre and showed the versatility of female rappers to viewers and listeners alike. The song, which was produced by her close friend Timbaland, samples Ann Peeble’s "I Can’t Stand the Rain."
Supa Dupa Fly empowered women to be confident and independent, and also challenged tradition. The album pushed the perimeter of hip-hop, especially for female MCs. For one, the album embraced Afrofuturism, visually and lyrically. Songs like "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)" and “Sock it To Me” provided audiences with a sci-fi element that inspired future MCs to adopt similar looks and sounds.
Supa Dupa Fly was certified platinum in September 1997, a mere two months after its July 1997 debut. Since its release, Missy has gone on to win four GRAMMY Awards. In early 2023, Missy, alongside other trailblazing female rappers, performed at the GRAMMYs in honor of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary. This November, she will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Lauryn Hill - The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
The accolades for the blockbuster debut solo album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Fugees frontwoman Lauryn Hill, are endless. The album, which had minimal features by other artists, was certified gold by the RIAA only a mere two weeks after it debuted, and in 2021, the album was certified Diamond. It is the first album by a female rapper to achieve the prestigious honor.
Hill manages to balance her bars with sensuous R&B crooning, showcasing her range and versatility, while her smooth lyrics remain weighty and cognizant. Many of the tracks on the album became singles: "Ex Factor," "Doo Wop (That Thing)," "Lost Ones," and "Everything is Everything." The video for "Doo Wop (That Thing)" featured side-by-side scenes of New York City in 1967 and 1998, with everyone styled for both time periods. The song’s lyrics call for men and women to watch out for those who are only about "that thing," which Hill details in dedicated verses.
Songs on the album covered universal themes, such as loss and love. For example, the song “To Zion” is a heartfelt letter penned to Hill’s son, which details the struggles she faced becoming pregnant at the height of her career. Additionally, in between each track are small interludes that can only be found if one listens to songs in continuity. The captivating sounds Hill’s storytelling captured make that easy for listeners to do, which helped the album reach a wide-ranging audience. Thus, the album garnered critical acclaim and pushed its accolades epically into the stratosphere.
In 1998, Miseducation became the highest selling debut album of any female rapper–and any female artist of other genres. Hill again made history by becoming the first solo female rapper to win a GRAMMY; the album was nominated for 10 golden gramophones and Hill took home five. Hill also became the first woman (and rapper) to have the most GRAMMY Award nominations in one night. The awards she won included Album of the Year, which was the first time a rapper had ever won the award. Twenty-five years later, her debut album is still among the best selling albums of all time.
The success and sound of Hill’s album still resonates today, ultimately showing audiences the power of the female MC and the importance of female-driven narratives.
Eve - Let There Be Eve…Ruff Ryders’ First Lady (1999)
Eve wrote all the songs on her debut, Let There Be Eve…Ruff Ryders’ First Lady. The Philly native’s pen proved to be solid, as the freshman album produced a slew of hits, such as "Gotta Man” and "Love is Blind" featuring Faith Evans. Debut single “What Y’all Want” feat. Nokio from Dru Hill was produced by Ruff Ryders’ Swizz Beatz, who also produced most of the songs on the album.
At the time of Eve’s album’s release, Ruff Ryders was an already established, popular rap collective from Yonkers, whose roster included notable rappers such as the late DMX and The Lox. Just like her trademark paw print tattoos, Eve stood out, as she was the only female on the label. The unique position earned her the title of First Lady.
Let There Be Eve showcased Eve’s lyrical prowess and versatility. Songs like “Philly, Philly” featuring fellow Philly rapper Beanie Sigel showed audiences that Eve could hold her own on the mic. On the bold "Ain’t Got No Dough," the rapper teamed up with Missy Elliot to deliver a catchy and conspicuous track. The album eventually went 2x platinum.
The album covered important themes, such as domestic violence. For example, the video for "Love is Blind" features a woman who is in an abusive relationship. Eve plays the role of the friend who advises the woman to leave before it is too late–although the friend sadly dies at the hands of the boyfriend. The cautionary tale Eve illustrates–both visually and lyrically–is touching and powerful, and still resonates today.
Let There Be Eve provides a strong female perspective that feels personal at times. The album was a cardinal shift from male-dominated narratives and reminded female listeners the importance of speaking on salient issues. It served as a capstone of rap albums released by female MCs in the ‘90s, and was a signpost as hip-hop entered the new millennium.
Nicki Minaj - Pink Friday (2010)
The chartbusting debut album Pink Friday by Queens native Nicki Minaj produced a multitude of hits: "Super Bass," "Your Love," and "Check It Out" with will.i.am, just to name a few. The album also featured appearances by Eminem, Drake and Natasha Bedingfield.
Pink Friday showcases the full gamut of Minaj’s lyricism — a balance of sweet (and spicy) for all to savor — while highlighting her versatility and pushing the parameters of the genre. Songs on the album are a blend of rap, pop, and R&B; a few tracks showcased her singing abilities. Additionally, the genre blending allowed the album to appeal to a more wide-ranging audience. Most of the tracks became radio favorites, and by 2016, Pink Friday was certified 3x platinum; it was the second highest selling debut album by a female rap artist. Since her musical debut, Nicki Minaj has been nominated for 10 GRAMMY Awards.
The Pink Friday album cover features Minaj styled as a doll with exaggerated features. In many ways, the design is a nod to Barbie — from the way the work "pink" is stylized, to Minaj’s overemphasized legs stretching the length of the album cover. In a way, the cover is symbolic of Nicki’s bold, confident persona.
The hit song "Moment 4 Life," features Minaj’s labelmate Drake, and details cherishing a moment of triumph. The timbre of its introduction is soft and bright, and begins with a modernized twinkle. The warm sound also ties into the music video’s fairytale concept, which shows Minaj as a fairy godmother–and royal figure.
Pink Friday provides listeners with diverse and unique tracks and tackles various relatable issues. Its success and innovation are influential and the album–as well as Nicki herself– have inspired a slew of rappers. Pink Friday ultimately embraces where female MCs have been–and shows audiences the endless possibilities of where they can go.
Cardi B - Invasion of Privacy (2018)
All of the songs (yes, every single one) on Cardi B’s blockbuster debut album Invasion of Privacy have become certified platinum — the only album in history to receive such acclaim. Featuring hits such as "I Like It" and "Bodak Yellow," Invasion boasts tracks that are raunchy, confident and strong, a nod to her pioneering predecessors.
The sultry, yet assertive, video for the Bronx native’s song "Bodak Yellow," which boasts 1 billion views, primarily features Cardi in a desert in Dubai. Throughout the video, she sports various looks — and even sits next to a cheetah. Cardi’s lyrical authority shines through, as the song confidently explores the glamor of luxury fashion, sexual prowess and of course, "making money moves." The single became the first song by a female rapper to be certified diamond, demonstrating just how far women in hip-hop have come.
Cardi again made history when Invasion of Privacy was nominated for two GRAMMYs: Album Of The Year and Best Rap Album. She went on to win the award for Best Rap Album, making her the first solo female artist to do so.
Invasion of Privacy is pivotal, as it incorporates influences from many aforementioned essential albums. Its success showcases the overall importance of women in hip-hop and helps to open doors for future female MCs to tell their stories–and blaze new, boundless trails for us to travel on.
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