Kreayshawn has a slow and cutesy approach to rapping.
K.Flay has a more melodic and semi-sung flow.
The cosmology of American celebrity requires several blond white women be major planets at all times. From Marilyn Monroe to Madonna to Britney Spears to Paris Hilton to Lady Gaga, our culture refuses to allow a void in the job called America’s Favorite Blonde. (Some might say the woman currently holding that office is Beyoncé.) Given that cultural law, how long will it be until some blonde — or any white woman — rises to fame through hip-hop? I daresay it’s inescapable. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already. Well, it may happen soon. We now have a small movement of white female rappers who want to be taken seriously, including Iggy Azalea, Kreayshawn and K.Flay.
There are too many cultural consumers who love rappers and who love blondes to keep a collision of the two from occurring, especially when the dominant hip-hop consumer is the young white suburban male. Imagine if Pamela Anderson could flow, allowing him to get his hip-hop fix and his soft-core pornography fix at the same time. That would blow his mind.
There is nothing about the skills required to be an M.C. that makes it impossible for white women to rhyme. It’s not that their mouths can’t do it. The true barrier to entry is that there is an essence at the center of hip-hop that white women have an extraordinarily hard time exuding or even copying. For many Americans, black male rappers are entrancing because they give off a sense of black masculine power — that sense of strength, ego and menace that derives from being part of the street — or because of the seductive display of black male cool.
Black women and white men who have been successful in hip-hop have found ways to embody those senses and make them their own. But hip-hop coming from a white woman is almost always an immediate joke. Take Gwyneth Paltrow, for example, showing how much she loves hip-hop by earnestly rhyming the lyrics to N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” on a British television show or Natalie Portman furiously spitting rhymes in gangsta-rap style on “Saturday Night Live.”
As soon as white women start rhyming, no matter what they say, it’s seen as cute and comical, like a cat walking on its hind legs. Seeing them try to embody the attributes of hip-hop’s vision of black masculinity is a hysterical gender disjunction: they wear it as convincingly as a woman wearing her husband’s clothes.
Even when a talented vocalist like Lykke Li tried to make Rick Ross’s song “Hustlin” her own, she simply could not rise to the level of the song. The sense of danger or cool that black male rappers manifest so easily is hard for white women to display. Of course that won’t stop those who want to rhyme from trying.
If a group of white teenage boys conspired to construct their dream white female rapper they might come up with Iggy Azalea, 21, a sexy rapper with long blond hair, a model’s enticing looks and the detached, hyperconfident air of a dominatrix. She has an aggressive vocal approach and a silky flow. There’s nothing cute or comical about her rhyming. She lives in Los Angeles and grew up in a tiny Australian town idolizing Tupac and Grace Kelly. Now she’s a highly sexual M.C. in the tradition of Lil’ Kim and Trina. If the white women of the world can possibly produce one superstar rapper, Iggy Azalea could be it.
The best song on her mixtape, “Ignorant Art,” is all about her sexual power. It’s title is unprintable. There’s an ominous tone to the song, as if she could kill you in bed or turn you into a hopeless addict. “Hook ’em like crack,” she rhymes. “After shock/Molten lava drop/This should be outlawed/ Call me Pac.” Linking her bedroom potency to the power of the most important name in hip-hop is a bold statement but a familiar gesture in modern hip-hop.
The video features Iggy Azalea in yellow skin-tight, high-waist pants and high heels, flinging her ponytail and licking ice cream suggestively. It was shot in the same sort of South Central Los Angeles neighborhood we saw in the movie “Boyz N the Hood” and in Snoop Dogg videos, placing her in an area that is recognized by longtime hip-hop fans. She raps as she sits on a stoop and dances in front of an ice cream truck, surrounded by black people. The video begins with her eating breakfast as an older black woman watches. Although their relationship is not clear, all this proximity to blackness characterizes Iggy Azalea as a person who is no stranger to black culture and communities, suggesting it’s no anomaly for her to rock the mic.
Strangely, for a video so overtly sexual, she spends a lot of time with a black boy, maybe 6 years old, sweetly draped on her back or playing at her feet or making sexually suggestive moves on a toy horse. Is she bad at baby-sitting or does he represent a man she’s been with and dominated so completely she’s infantilized him? Iggy Azalea is unsigned, but she has high-powered management, so she won’t be for long. Expect a lot of noise to surround her 2012 debut album.
Where Iggy Azalea works at establishing her hip-hop bona fides, Kreayshawn, a 21-year-old from Oakland, Calif., plays with hip-hop signifiers but sees no need to establish her cred. She has black men in her video for “Gucci Gucci” but spends most of it with her white female D.J., who oddly looks like her twin, at her side. The first time I watched “Gucci Gucci,” which has become an Internet sensation with millions of views, my primary thought was “interloper.” Does she really understand or respect what hip-hop’s all about? I doubt it, but if her audience doesn’t, then it won’t hold her back.
She rhymes, “I’m lookin’ like Madonna, but I’m flossin’ like Ivana,” tying herself to rich white women as well as childishly simple rhyme patterns. The song is about a rejection of label worship. She says she doesn’t wear Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Fendi or Prada because everyone does, explaining that she’s liberated from the fashion establishment and able to create personal style without buying it from them. But in the video she hangs out on Rodeo Drive and at a party in a room at the Standard Hotel in Hollywood dancing in front of Warhol-print curtains. She wears a large Minnie Mouse-inspired bow on her head as well as the door-knocker earrings that were stylish decades ago in hip-hop, making her look like a retro caricature.
The song basically attacks a central tenet of hip-hop: Many rappers embrace labelism as part of their celebration of upward mobility as well as a postmodern sentiment that you are the brands you wear. Her rejection of that reeks of white-girl privilege. But similarly privileged people may find her message refreshing.
Kreayshawn has that slow, nasal, staccato, cutesy approach to rapping that you might expect if a white girl was making a rap song as a lark. She doesn’t come across as sexy or even very sexual. She’s more nerd chic. She calls her crew the White Girl Mob (as opposed to Iggy Azalea’s White Girl Team), and in her songs she repeatedly refers to women she loves as “bitch,” making certain we hear her doing what black rappers routinely do, using a pejorative slur in a transgressive way.
At one point in “Gucci, Gucci” she says, “I got the swag and it’s pumping out my ovaries,” which is intended to sound hard core but is kind of gross and self-satirical. She attended film school, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this were part of a guerilla documentary making fun of hip-hop.
More skilled and perhaps more interesting is K.Flay, 26, a Stanford graduate and a talented vocalist who uses rhyming as a sonic technique. Culturally she is not trying to push her way into hip-hop; she’s more of an indie rock chick. Her rapping is melodic and semi-sung, and on her most recent mixtape, “I Stopped Caring in ’96,” she samples indie groups like the xx and the Vines and talks about alienation:
Mind in a permanent state of flux
Mental double Dutch
Had a bag of Cheetos ate ’em up
3 p.m. and I’m still waking up
Wishing I could save myself, but I’m not brave enough.
She dresses like an un-self-conscious hipster, wearing T-shirts and Nike high-tops, little makeup and barely styled dark hair. K.Flay has no black people or hip-hop signifiers in her videos. She represents a generation of white kids who grew up with hip-hop but who weren’t obsessed with it so they feel rhyming is theirs to use without needing to pay homage to the culture.
Does the slight rise of white women pose a threat to the soul of hip-hop? Will this moment be recalled years from now as a crucial step toward the whitening of hip-hop, toward a world in which hip-hop looks the way rock ’n’ roll does: a neighborhood that’s been so completely gentrified that the kids have to be reminded that rock was once a black space? I don’t think so. It will take a lot more than a few white women to fundamentally impact hip-hop, which remains unbreakably connected to the spirit of black masculinity, for which America continues to hunger.