In my life, there’s great dichotomy between hip hop and academia, and for a genre I never think about critically, it’s ubiquitous. My peers throw around subtle critiques about Kendrick, the words of Dr. Dre underscored my high school homecomings, and my best friend and I still listen to Beats, Rhymes, and Life every time we see each other. But in preparation for an academic dialogue on women’s place in hip hop, I realized that I’ve accepted its gender-related foibles as a fact of the genre.
So I started to reflect on my own listening habits with rap and I noticed my ability to suspend disbelief, in this case, misogyny. Fortunately, major shifts in the hip hop industry have prompted rap as a whole to be a more inclusive and honest genre.
Perhaps the voices of women are more genuinely reflected than ever before, giving us the full, unadulterated take on their experiences, without the added spectacle.
The following dialogue seeks to better understand the ways in which external pressures alter female expression in hip hop and how this has changed for the better in the past few years.
The bigger questions about this trend can only be answered when we choose to closely analyze one woman’s experience. To do this, I’ve decided to study Fatimah Nyeema Warner’s, better known as Noname, “Reality Check.” In doing so, I will examine the production specifics in regards to feminst ideology and the critical reception of women in hip hop. I also want to take a moment to acknowledge that my analysis comes from a musically informed and academic perspective. I cannot speak on the black experience and will never attempt to do so.
“Reality Check” serves as a mark of paradigm shift, wherein women create art without adhering to the presumed laws of femininity. It proves that art that features honest female expression are true marks of feminism in any industry.
ALIGNING WITH THE INDUSTRY
One of the biggest questions I had regarding women in rap was understanding for whom they seek to perform, moreover, for whom their management would like them to appeal. This is tricky.
So much of the production surrounding female rappers of the 90s seemed unnaturally performative. A lot of the work was coming from a place of production appeal rather than honestly. The decisions made by an individual while planting the seeds for a song are shrouded by the ideas of others. Women in hip hop seem to forgo their own credibility to match an industry that has so valiantly tried to push them away. More and more, however, it seems like women in rap can exist without a gimmick.
When you try to dissect hip hop, you are not only breaking down one person’s words, but the suggestions of large production teams, managers, and maybe most of all, a deeply feared and highly anticipated response from audiences.
Having a discussion about one particular woman in hip hop can never be singular, but must include all of the aforementioned. In recent years, perhaps the most profound shift in hip hop has been individualism for artists. There is deep, growing adoration for artists who can be truthful and raw with their audiences. And even if only on a surface level, songs about the mundane can be comforting and relatable. This means that female rappers who were once confined to feigning sex appeal are now able to create art that asks questions outside of the realm of their own femininity.
Analyzing hip hop, regardless of gender, is difficult because it’s constantly shifting and the changes are never completely linear. That being said, musical and technical choices in the genre provide so much background for social context. In any musical study, one must consider accessibility of technology, changes in style, and cultural reception.
Hip hop is a game of phenom; rappers grab onto certain techniques when the moment strikes, but they may not be as popular as charts shift. Take differences between gangsta rap and east coast rap for example. Both subgenres use samples, praise heritage, and break-scratch, but they have completely individual sounds. Melodic hooks tend to characterize the early 2000s and generated drum machines are popular among mainstream rap today, but for indie hip hop, low-fi seems to be making a comeback. “Reality Check” is a perfect example of this transition. The track features bass, synth, and a classic drumset beat, without any post production modulation, i.e. Ableton, Melodyne.
Lastly, it’s important to have good critical framing when approaching hip hop analysis. Sure, Missy Elliot and Nicki Minaj are both women in hip hop, but of course any academic dialogue surrounding them should be unique. Female rappers even just ten years ago were working to fit into completely different social paradigms in rap than we see today.
Beyond the technical and musical understanding comes the social reception, where gender inevitably comes under fire. There is nothing inherently feminist about a woman performing any genre of music. The hip hop industry so frequently confounds the pressence of female artists for feminist motives, rejecting the idea that a woman could perform for the same reasons a man might: entrepenuerism, social justice, industrial power, etc.
“Reality Check” is neither feminist nor social, but rather, it’s a story that exists for one woman. This is not to suggest that rap by women should not intend to rewrite the wrongs of the industry or create a pushback, but rather that it doesn’t have to. Women in rap should be safe to tell their own stories without the expectation of touting an image or creating a facade.
THE SONG IN QUESTION
The first chunk of “Reality Check” that I really digested as a listener was the drumset part. As in this song, newer indie/low-fi hip hop tends to rely heavily on closed hi-hat in place of a drum machine. This gives the percussion a very driving, trebly rhythm. The bass and snare provide a soft syncopated beat and at the end of every measure we hear a short, dotted eighth note fill-in on the snare. Next comes the bass, and like in many hip hop backing tracks, it provides more of a melodic line rather than sticking in the background. The synth comes out on top with a sparkly effect, giving listeners some light, embellished ambiance, so as to emulate a vibraphone. All of this together creates a track that effectively mirrors a very slow, grooving funk rhythm, giving the song a very slight musical and cultural callback to funk rhythms of the 1970s.
Sandwiched between the lyricism and and the technical musical components is the rapping’s relationship with the beat. The track is written in common time with accents on the third beat. In most of Warner’s discography, her rhyming is very fast and every syllable comes in 16th notes. She usually accents words on the 2nd and 4th beat and fails to give any breadth between measures. Because this song is a scattered story-esque rap, it works in her favor, giving us a feeling of chaos and disorganized thought.
In terms of lyrical structure, Noname organizes the song into two verses, interspersed by two hooks, sung by Eryn Allen Kane. This is significant because it turns the narrative of the song into more of a dialogue. The first verse features a veritable monologue about thinking lofty goals while ordering coffee- note the relatability. Heavy thoughts about winning Grammy awards are interrupted by the mundane, like asking for extra sugar. Noname carefully uses familiarity, race, and the possibilities of the unknown to continue building this narrative.
What’s special about the structure is that it allows for a full story to be told from beginning to end. During the first verse she raps, with some intentional hesitation, “Opportunity knockin’, a n*gga was out for coffee… Opportunity knockin, a n*gga just got her nails done,” citing excuses over and over. In the second verse, however, she brings us full circle: “Opportunity knockin’, it’s finally time to answer.” Even though Noname’s laid back flow is a new trend, this full circle approach is not. Creating a narrative gives the audience a structure from which to visualize the story. In Adam Bradley’s “Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop,” he writes that this technique allows rappers to “tell the story you want to tell the way you want… while satisfying the audience’s expectation of rhyme” (136).
Though the structuring is impeccable, Noname’s rhymes and wordplay are certainly not to be taken for granted. Once again, the syllabic 16th notes give her very little room to rest, making for some interesting rhyme schemes. Many of the rhymes are almost forced into the center or end of each bar, creating some weird internal rhythms. Take for example “enjoy the joy ride,” wherein joy is accented both times and aligns with the syncopated drums. She also makes clever double entendres about race and success by using words that bring up ideas of color. Take for example, “She dream in techni-color, live in black and white,” citing not only the heft of her dreams, but the whiteness of the music industry. The first verse is fraught with lines that suggest she’s not living up to her potential, using the plight of her ancestry or suggesting that her grandmother won’t think that she made it. The second verse sees her take on the future, confidently rapping “Whole world inside my rear view,” as we near the end of the song.
Noname’s confusing inner monologue in the verses is then comforted by the hook. The melodic change during the hook provides a catchy couple of bars that subconsciously get the audience’s attention, illuminating the message of the song. It’s as if to say, if we don’t remember anything else, we will remember this section. Now reaching the end of the song, Kane sings again with a deep, comforting timbre, “Don’t fear the light that dwells deep within / You are powerful beyond what you imagine / Just let your light glow.”
What’s so special about “Reality Check” is that it is not a feminist anthem. Instead, it celebrates femininity by allowing a young woman to be honest with her audience, unafraid to share fears. It’s not about female struggle, just about struggle. And while sexual empowerment is still incredibly vital to the genre, Noname’s anonymity and sexual neutrality is what pushes women in rap to a higher dimension. One might even suggest that Allison Bechdel’s famed Bechdel test can be applied in this case: Noname is bathing in the desire to succeed, not the upset created by the absence of a man.
When it comes to the production specifics, Noname takes full charge. This, to me, is the epitome of success for women in rap. Perhaps independence is really the defining characteristic of progress. In an interview with NPR, Noname spoke on her decision to remain independent in saying, “I think ownership, in terms of just maintaining your integrity and how I feel as a woman of color, I just don’t want my art to be owned by a white man”.
Female sexuality and expression will always be a part of hip hop. That being said, we’ve come along way from deeply rooted hypersexualation to get to hear Fatimah Nyeema Warner rap about ordering coffee. There is empowerment both in spectacle and in the mundane. Ultimately, listening to rap that I can see myself in makes me feel heard and welcome. And for a genre so fraught with angst towards women, this is a requisite. Regardless of what the audience sees, “Reality Check” shows us that true feminism involves a woman, her words, and the ability to bring honest ideas to life without the confines of others.
Bradley, Adam. Book of Rhymes: the Poetics of Hip Hop. Basic Civitas, 2017.
Martin, Michel, and Gemma Watters. “’We Need To Exist In Multitudes’: Noname Talks Artistic Independence, Women In Rap.” NPR, NPR, 10 Feb. 2019, www.npr.org/2019/02/10/692701998/we-need-to-exist-in-multitudes-noname-talks-artistic-independence-women-in-rap-a.
Noname, “Reality Check.” Telefone, Akenya, Kane, Eryn Allen, 2016, track 5, Spotify