[Editor’s Note: “The Blender” is a new series dedicated to highlighting notable new releases in the mixtape world.]
Behind the Music budgets 30 minutes to Missy Elliott’s dire childhood, 10 to her mid-career weight loss, and approximately 10 to that glorious stretch of singles, albums, and videos wherein the rigid logics of sexism and realism were cast off in a hysterical outpouring of galvanizing cartoon libido. The epochal Miss E…So Addictive-Under Construction-This Is Not a Test! run? Cynically consigned to footnote status. Meanwhile, the needlessly prolonged Nicki-Kim spat has cleared up just in time for no less a nobody than Lil Mama to start her own promotional catfight with Ms. Minaj (the alleged beef is, I believe, wig-related). Adding insult to insult, Minaj has been tapped as a tour opener for Britney Spears, a woman who has never exerted much control over her own career, and whose most recent rehabilitation has been brought to you by the charity of, among others, Robyn, Ke, Rihanna, and Minaj herself.
To be a female MC is to suffer a whirlwind of indignities, with no rumor, no outfit, no unanswered tweet too trivial to divert attention from one’s music. I mean, “Super Bass” is an all-right song, sure, but have you seen the YouTube video where Taylor “T-Swizzle” Swift raps the second verse for that skeezy Nashville DJ? Platinum ceiling be damned, a modern femcee is stridently encouraged to meme all that she can meme. If she also happens to release rap music, the benefit is marginal.
All the more satisfying, then, that June saw two female MCs, a perennial underdog and a promising rookie, body their competition in the mixtape game. Bar for bar, New York’s Jean Grae is stronger on the mic than North Carolina’s Rapsody, though the latter’s Thank H.E.R. Now is, thanks to its terrific guest roster and 9th Wonder’s characteristically strong production, the better mixtape. Not that the two are competing: Grae shows up to trade verses with Rapsody on “Blankin’ Out the Remix,” cosigning her could-be rival and welcoming another lyrically minded female to the rap underground. And it’s not as though Grae doesn’t have cause to be bitter. If rap critics had their way, she’d be the queen of conscious hip-hop, holding court with King Kweli and the Roots of the Round Table, but her last album, 2008’s Jeanius, sat completed and unreleased for four years until Talib Kweli took the initiative and put the album out on his Blacksmith Records.
At long last she’s starting to gain some momentum. Kweli invited her to rap on Gutter Rainbows’s “Uh Oh,” and she held her own with Pharoahe Monch on “Assassins,” a hard-fought standout on this year’s triumphant W.A.R. (We Are Renegades). Both of those tracks are included on Grae’s Cookies or Comas, a holdover until her LP Cake or Death drops later in the year. And both Kweli and Monch contribute fresh material to the mixtape’s highlights, “Live Up” and “Killing Em,” respectively. As her choice of collaborator’s suggests, the average track here is dark, cerebral, and focused, though Grae, like many a backpacker before her, also leavens the material with plenty of nerdy humor (her namesake is, after all, the most mentally gifted of the X-Men).
She also has a penchant for irony: On “Imagine,” she fantasizes about using a “semi-automatic wedding ring” to shoot through her blues, and she somehow manages to incorporate Regis, Kelly, and Chelsea Handler into her braggadocio flow on “You Don’t Like It.” Sadly, Grae isn’t equally as convincing when she turns from street preaching to domestic drama. “Blame Game,” which interpolates Kanye West’s eponymous track from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is a stale slow jam done no favors by Grae’s anemic singing voice. It’s the multisyllabic symphony that’s her true medium; below a certain threshold of words-per-minute, she just sounds sleepy.
Which makes Rapsody’s less technical but surpassingly soulful Thank H.E.R. Now a welcome complement. No mere keepsake, Rapsody’s street album is the type of release that come-ups are made on: 20 tracks of melodic Southern rap with co-signs from the likes of Mac Miller, Estelle, Big K.R.I.T., Murs, and Raekwon. The libretto suggests that Rapsody and Grae are as likely to have met at a comic book convention as a rap show. Rapsody calls herself a “Black Girl Jedi” and name-checks a host of superheroes over the course of the album. When not cutting up with pop-culture references, she’s likely to be rapping about rap itself: good times listening to classic albums on “Sweetest Hangover,” her struggles to earn respect in the game on “Fly Girl Power!,” her impending dominance on “H.E.R. Throne.”
Replete with hooks, guests, and solid beats, the effort is as good as mixtapes get. But while Rapsody’s eagerness to please and willingness to share the spotlight with her famous friends ultimately service the mixtape as a standalone listen, it’s at the expense of making Rapsody a star. Thank H.E.R. Now mostly punts on the question of how well Rapsody can carry an album on her own skill alone, and by working with a producer as well-established as 9th Wonder, she also sidesteps the issue of finding a distinctive sound. Even so, the mixtape is certain to put her on the map, and provided that she follows through with a more audacious second act, she stands a good chance of ascending the ranks of Southern rap.
Anyone with lingering doubts about the need for a stronger female presence in rap need only look to the inexplicable success of CyHi Da Prince’s Royal Flush 2 mixtape. It’s hard to say exactly how much I dislike CyHi, but it’s something like this: Whereas I previously imagined that frat-pack LMFAO existed in a cartoon dimension safely removed from real, hip-hop based rap, CyHi’s career trajectory reaches toward them, asymptotically, as an absolute limit for clumsiness of flow and boorishness of humor. CyHi’s skills, if you will, are awkwardly unfurled on his G.O.O.D. Music mixtape, which sometimes, say when CyHi spits womanizing lines over a Foreigner sample, achieves a perverse entertainment value by virtue of its sublime stupidity—and by that calculus, “Bulletproof” is the Transformers: Dark of the Moon of rap. Working from a sample of La Roux’s “Bulletproof,” CyHi makes a part-jokey/part-preachy commentary on gunplay in the hood, the moral being that no one is…I think you get it. As always, CyHi delivers verbal pyrotechnics: “I am bullet bullet bullet bullet bullet bullet proof/I done already did what they say I couldn’t do/Look at me, no look at you/I am one nigga that you shouldn’t shoot.” This cartoonish world could almost be engrossing, but even the song’s claim to buffoonish charm is dispelled when Yelawolf swings by to remind us what competent rapping sounds like. There’s really nothing to admire about Royal Flush 2, but it has far surpassed Grae and Rapsody’s albums in downloads, proving, as though it needed proving, just how much harder those two will have to work to reach the level of success that CyHi has been handed.