From ‘Say So’ To ‘Savage’, Women Completely Dominated Hip-Hop In 2020

2020 has been one of the most successful years for women in hip-hop in history.

women hip-hop 2020 photo

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Hip-hop has never been kind to, or particularly fond of, women. In a genre built on social revolution and the uprising of the marginalised, the misogyny — and specifically the misogynoir — that has permeated through the genre’s illustrious history is often overlooked.

But as the years rolled on and society progressed, the male powers that be (that is, the white label heads) slowly began to let women in on the game. And in 2020, they’re not only in on the game — they’re running the whole damn sport.

On the US charts this year, six female rappers — Doja Cat, Megan Thee Stallion, Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, M.I.A., and Beyoncé — have hit #1 on Billboard, two of them managing it twice (and before you get started, it’s not much of a stretch to call Beyoncé a rapper). That’s eight #1 appearances by female rappers atop a chart that would usually see maybe one top appearance a year. Maybe.

Classy, Bougie, Ratchet

Let’s start with Megan Thee Stallion — arguably the defining artist of 2020. She dropped her SUGA EP in early March, which spawned the mega-viral single, ‘Savage’.

The song was inescapable, thanks, in large part, to its popularity on TikTok. But it wasn’t until Megan’s idol and fellow Houston native Beyoncé stepped on a remix, where she flexed her under-utilised rap muscles, that ‘Savage’ was propelled to #1. It’s now earned three GRAMMY nominations, including Record Of The Year.

But Megan struck gold twice in 2020, teaming up with Cardi B for the all-conquering ‘WAP’. Graphically sexual and completely unbothered by its own explicitness, ‘WAP’ became a cultural phenomenon overnight. It debuted at #1, marking Cardi’s 4th and Megan’s 2nd, and for a brief, pandemic-stricken moment, it was all the world could talk about. It even permeated areas of US politics in an election year, no less.

Megan had set herself up for a massive 2020 at the end of 2019, releasing ‘Hot Girl Summer’ alongside Nicki Minaj. Minaj, one of the legends of rap and who’s generally regarded as one of the GOATs, had never secured a #1 on the charts before 2020 — despite holding the record of most US chart entries by any woman ever.

This year, she did it twice. One of those chart toppers is ‘TROLLZ’ — an objectively terrible song alongside a terrible rapper who also seems like a pretty terrible person. Her other #1 was a remix of (once again) a wildly popular TikTok track.

Doja Cat’s ‘Say So’ is notable for a few reasons — the first being that it was the canary in the coalmine for the year of pop disco that followed. Secondly, it’s a song that owes its success almost entirely to its popularity on TikTok thanks to *that* dance. Thirdly, it was written and produced by Dr. Luke under a pseudonym (Tyson Trax) which seems to be a fact everyone knows and no-one seems to want to reckon with.

But finally, it saw Doja Cat — whose trolling and humour sometimes overrides her art — transform herself from deep meme maker to mainstream pop/rap success. Previously she had existed in the alt-rap world, in a space similar to ‘Paper Planes’ hitmaker M.I.A. Speaking of M.I.A., her appearance on Travis Scott’s ‘FRANCHISE’ earned her a long overdue #1 and the biggest commercial audience of her career.

That’s six female rappers hitting #1 on the Billboard, as opposed to 10 male rappers. While it isn’t quite an equal percentage, it’s a far smaller margin than previous years. 2019 saw four male rappers as opposed to one female (Lizzo), and 2018 saw eight male rappers as opposed to one female (Cardi B). Cardi has had to hold her own against men for a while, with her 2017 breakout hit ‘Bodak Yellow’ being the first Billboard #1 by a female rapper in three years, and the first to do it solo since 1998.

You Got To Keep Me Focused

Aside from the chart accolades, 2020 has also seen these women earn their props critically. Multiple publications, like TIME and The Guardian, have ‘WAP’ as the second best song of the year, with TIME also shouting out Britain’s Bree Runway with ‘Little Nokia’ at #4. The Guardian allotted that same ranking to the ‘Savage’ remix.

Then we look at the GRAMMYs. There are eight artists nominated for ‘Best New Artist’ at the forthcoming ceremony — four of them are rappers, and 75 percent of those rappers are women (Doja Cat, Megan Thee Stallion and CHIKA). If we look at the prestigious ‘Record Of The Year’ category, ‘Say So’ and ‘Savage Remix’ make up 50 percent of nominations by rappers.

Australia hasn’t been immune to the progress happening abroad either. The discourse around the 2020 ARIA Awards largely, and appropriately, focused on Sampa The Great.

She took home three awards last week, including Best Independent Release (beating out the most nominated act of the night, Lime Cordiale), Best Female Artist (beating out ARIA favourites like Amy Shark and Tones And I) and Best Hip-Hop Release. The latter is noteworthy as that category was only introduced last year, where Sampa also won it for her song ‘Final Form’ (she won this year for her album The Return).

I Said Certified Freak, Seven Days A Week

Aside from the glaring fact that their musical output is simply a cut above most others, why, in 2020, was there such a noticeable uptick in success for female rappers? There isn’t a hard and fast answer to this question — but it could be due to each individual rapper’s constant reinvention and adaptation throughout the year.

Take Doja Cat, for example, who transformed the same song time and time again across various performances throughout the year. ‘Say So’, the disco-infused pop-rap anthem, became ‘Say So’, the 1950s-inspired grandiose musical number, which then became ‘Say So’, the searing metal thrasher.

There’s also the way their narratives have played out in the public eye. Megan Thee Stallion, at the peak of her fame, was shot, allegedly by another rapper, Tory Lanez. Tory, who kept silent for months on the matter, opted to address the claims by dropping a full album that no-one remembers. Megan gave him the time of day on the opening song from her debut album Good News, ‘Shots Fired’, before sending him and her doubters on their merry way.

There’s also their constant resilience. Almost all non-male rappers have faced endless questions of their legitimacy. Cardi B had it on her breakout, Doja Cat had it when she dropped ‘Mooo!’ and Nicki Minaj continues to face it over 10 years into her career despite proving — time and time again — that she’s a music icon. Sampa The Great did it just this past week, where she called the ARIA Awards out while performing at the ARIA Awards for not giving her the time they were giving her white counterparts.

After years of dismissal and blatant misogyny, 2020 gave a us a new hip-hop playing field, one where women are finally front and centre.

Jackson Langford is a freelance music and culture writer from Newcastle. He tweets at @jacksonlangford