Atoning For Hip-Hop’s History of Misogyny: From Dr. Dre to Kanye West
Straight Outta Compton and Dr. Dre’s history of abuse toward women have reignited the cultural conversation surrounding the way hip-hop treats women. And it ain’t pretty.
Hip-hop’s penchant for rampant misogyny has gotten an increasing amount of pushback in the last few years, with incidents like Rick Ross’s “U.O.E.N.O.” lyrics and the legacy of iconic gangsta rap group N.W.A becoming flashpoints for conversations about the genre, it’s history, and the way it portrays and polices womanhood. Misogyny in hip-hop is a byproduct of misogyny in society, and the music has always reflected how many men value women as nothing but trophies and mother figures.
The rock standard “Hey Joe” was popularized by Jimi Hendrix and tells the story of a man shooting his woman for cheating—a dark scenario revisited in other popular songs like Neil Young’s “Down by the River” and, 30 years later, in D’Angelo’s “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker.” Bob Dylan famously sang that a former lover could “Take just like a woman. Fake just like a woman.” The Rolling Stones sang about everything from slave rape (“Brown Sugar”) to statutory rape (“Stray Cat Blues”) to rape and murder (“Midnight Rambler”) with a bawdy carelessness that likely wouldn’t be tolerated today. Even earlier Rolling Stones hits like “Under My Thumb” wallow in sexism as frontman Mick Jagger sings about getting a strong-willed woman to submit: “It’s down to me—the way she talks when she’s spoken to. It’s down to me. The change has come. She’s under my thumb.” In “I’ve Got a Woman,” an exuberant Ray Charles sang that his lady “never goes out and leaving me alone. She knows that a woman’s place is right here in her home.”
But in hip-hop, the misogyny tends to be much more explicit, even if it is born of the same toxic mix of fragile male egos, accepted gender roles, double standards, and entitlement. It shouldn’t be news that rappers of the ’80s and ’90s could often be unapologetically misogynistic. Slick Rick is one of the wittiest rappers to ever grab a mic and arguably the genre’s greatest storyteller. But his music was consistently misogynistic and borderline hateful towards women, as revealed on songs like the self-explanatory “Treat Her Like a Prostitute” and “A Love That’s True,” which opens with Rick advising a youngster, “You don’t trust no bitch, OK?” Eightball and MJG gleefully rapped about physically abusing women on songs like “Pimps” and “Lay It Down.” And from the moment he broke through in 1999, Eminem has achieved multiplatinum success with dark tales about murdering the women in his life—from his ex-wife to his own mother.
But this is a kinder, gentler age of mainstream rap music—right? We hear rappers making love songs all the time now and hip-hop stars send kissy Twitter messages to their boos and post sentimental photos on Instagram. But even in an age where romantic hip-hop songs are fairly routine, there is still rampant misogyny in the music. Drake is the poster boy for the sensitive Millennial rapper, but he regularly presents women as either lost children to be saved or shallow dream chasers looking to exploit rich and famous men. The approach has shifted from the kind of “Bitches Ain’t Shit” anthems that made gangsta rap so controversial to more supposedly “benevolent” diatribes about women who supposedly lack direction. And rappers like Drake seem to embrace being able to be as patriarchal as they wanna be.
“She coulda paid tuition five times, still stripping
I just throw a couple bills, and she’ll have a pair of heels
Oh no, there I go, magic tricking on your ass
Throwing every president except for Nixon on your ass.” – Drake (“Round of Applause”)
The Madonna/whore binary is the new old standard. Rappers drop a single about the “good girl” who stuck by them even when they were cheating or disregarding her feelings, then follow it up with a track about the strip club and how much they judge and despise the women who work in them. The entitlement and lack of self-awareness means that these artists never have to be honest about their weaknesses and hypocrisy.
In hip-hop, the “you can’t turn a ho into a housewife” mantra has been accepted as fact for decades—often uttered by rappers who have kids spread across states by various women. 2 Live Crew founder and Miami bass godfather Luther “Uncle Luke” Campbell (six kids, five different women, FYI) voiced his disdain for “rappers wifing hoes” during a recent interview where he bemoaned Kanye West’s “influence” on rapper relationships.
“It used to be a difference, before Kanye West, rappers wasn’t wifin’ all these hoes,” Uncle Luke said during a WatchLOUD interview. “Rappers would be secure with they woman. You look at Ice Cube. He’s always been with his wife. You look at Will Smith. He’s always been with her. Hip Hop was different.”
“We didn’t get caught up in the Hollywood thing, where, ok rappers are now marrying Hollywood girls, leaving one, going to the next one, leaving this one,” Uncle Luke continues. “We didn’t do that. I mean, we were like real secure. We wasn’t marrying girls or wifing girls for the Internet to blow up.”
Luke is correct to look at Kanye West as a major influencer on this generation of rappers—but Luke’s patriarchal perspective keeps him from seeing what’s truly problematic about Yeezy’s influence. It’s not “wifin’ all these hoes,” Luther. If anything, Yeezy is the father of sad sack pseudo nice guy rap. Ever since 2008’s melancholy 808s & Heartbreak, Kanye has consistently dropped songs that reference how women have “broken his heart” while making it sound like they’ve simply bruised his ego. The entitlement permeates almost every moment of that album and provided a template for the Drakes of the world. When Kanye opened up and got in his feelings, on songs like “Heartless,” it became clear that his “hurt” was the result of entitlement—how dare she not forgive me for never taking this relationship seriously?
And in 2013, when Kanye West was newly married and awaiting the birth of his first child, he released Yeezus, a dark, industrial-influenced album that confounded many fans and exhibited intense anger towards women. For a new husband and soon-to-be father of a baby girl, ‘Ye’s music voiced a heightened contempt for women, musing that a “Black girl sippin’ white wine / Put my fist in her like a Civil Rights sign” and “One more fuck and I can own ya.” This wasn’t the same kind of ignorant spite that fueled Too $hort, but it’s just as dehumanizing and hateful—only dressed in designer clothes and added intercontinental luxury.
In the wake of Straight Outta Compton’s success, hip-hop misogyny has once been again drawn into the national dialogue. The film’s erasure of notable women in the N.W.A story, its mishandling of Dr. Dre’s beating of TV host Dee Barnes, and the music of N.W.A itself have all been called into question, and rightfully so. We have to be honest about all that hip-hop is if we believe that hip-hop can change. Academy Award-nominated director Ava DuVernay grew up in Compton and in raving about the film on Instagram during its opening week, she acknowledged the difficulty in being a woman who grew up with and loves hip-hop.
“I saw @ComptonMovie last night w/ friends at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in South Central with a beautiful, alive, invested audience. Invested because many of them, like me, were there. Teens at the very time and in the very place depicted on screen,” she posted. “It had better be right.”
She also addressed the elephant in the room.
“I saw the cavalier way that women were treated in hip hop spaces early on. Window dressing at most. Disposable at worst. Yep, that happened,” she continued, also adding “To be a woman who loves hip hop at times is to be in love with your abuser. Because the music was and is that. And yet the culture is ours. From depictions of the origins of ‘Bye Felicia’ to watching Cube bring his wife Kim to business meetings. That’s hip hop. A curious thing.”