When rap chameleon Nicki Minaj dropped her 2010 commercial debut, "Pink Friday," hip-hop fans wondered if the former underground mixtape queen wasn't the beginning of a resurrection.
In her cotton candy-colored wigs and space-age sex kitten garb, Minaj marked the return of something rare: the female MC. Her lyrics were smart and edgy — and her flow? Intriguing as it ricocheted between venomous and sugary sweet.
Now she's behind a dozen hit singles, a new artist Grammy nod, a Super Bowl appearance with Madonna and bountiful endorsement deals. But more important, Minaj has cut a path for new talent in her wake. More and more young female rappers are emerging from the underground, marking the beginning of a "femcee" movement that could prove as robust as that of the 1990s, when Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill and Lil Kim topped the charts.
"I'm excited that people use the word 'revive' in association with me and female MCs. I never thought I would be such an instrumental part of anything," Minaj told The Times on the eve of her debut. "It's like, the best thing to hear, because not only am I doing this for me but I'm doing it for so many other girls."
Since the superstar began straddling pop and hip-hop with her polarizing sophomore release (April's "Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded"), rap and indie blogs have grown disenchanted with Minaj's balancing act. That criticism even led Minaj to pull out of a radio gig after one of the hosts poked fun at a recent crossover hit.
Now a new roster of female rappers is wooing Minaj's fans and detractors. Though stylistically the work of these up-and-coming artists ranges from subtle to brash, all look at their craft as empowering — and as a conduit to recognition beyond the mixtape scene.
Australian bombshell Iggy Azalea, former background dancer Nyemiah Supreme and Miami's Brianna Perry are just a few of the names being bandied about. As the search for the next "it" girl intensifies, here's a few of the women worth the hype.
Nothing about the rapper, born Amethyst Amelia Kelly, reads hip-hop. She's from New South Wales, Australia, and her blond hair, milky complexion and Grace Kelly looks reignited the "can a white girl really rap" debate that soured after viral sensation Kreayshawn hype turned to novelty.
But her brash, aggressive flow on her mixtape "Ignorant Art" was enough for multi-platinum rapperT.I.to mentor her.
The 22-year-old also snagged a slot on XXL magazine's coveted Freshman Class issue, which sparked a beef with Azealia Banks — the bad girl behind the deliciously profane anthem "212" — after she challenged a verse in which "master" appears close to "runaway slave." "People think I can't say certain things or I should say things that are Australian or what white people should say, which I can't tell you what that's supposed to be," said Azalea.
"When people heard my mixtape they said, 'Oh, you sound black,'" she continued. "You've gotta realize there's more than stereotypes."
Azalea signed with Interscope head Jimmy Iovine, making her rivals label mates until the deal fell through. A source close to the rapper said she ultimately couldn't agree with the contractual terms. She is still affiliated withT.I.'s Grand Hustle imprint. Azalea is prepping an EP, "Glory," that will precede her forthcoming debut, "The New Classic"
If Perry feels familiar it's because out of the new class, the Miami rapper hearkens back to the era of Foxy Brown, Lil Kim, Eve and Trina, when these fashion-conscious femcees got as raunchy as male counterparts.
Where Azalea's flow feels studied, Perry's was culled from age 9 as a latchkey kid spending afternoons in the studio, which led to her landing on a Trina track, "Kandi," before entering fifth grade. She spits precocious lyrics about keeping "penny candy in a Prada purse."
"I knew from that moment that's what I wanted to do," said Perry, 20. "Over the years Trina has become like family. I can go to her for music advice or about life. She's been a mentor."
Her "Face Off" mixtape and freestyle remixes to "Slight Work" and "… Paris" are filled with arrogance and braggadocios, but like Banks, her music is supported by her precise lyrical grit: "I'm Hollyhood, arrogant, don't I look good?," she asserts in one catchy hook.
Perry, who signed to Atlantic, got a major endorsement when Beyoncé posted the video to her ubiquitous single, "Marilyn Monroe," on her website calling it one of her current favorites. The shout-out is major, considering Perry is one of the few women not backed by a male mentor.
"I know it's a male-dominated game in hip-hop and rap," she said. "But I feel like girls are coming back strong right now. The female empowerment is coming back. I'm a bit more bolder in my moves and decisions I'm making because I don't have that male co-sign."
She is readying another mixtape while prepping her debut and working on a business degree at the University of Miami. Perry also appears in the upcoming film "Must Be the Music."
Dominique Young Unique
Armed with a machine-gun lyrical delivery, this 19-year-old immediately dismisses assertions that Minaj's success is the reason why she's on everyone's radar now.
"Lot of people say, 'Oh, Nick opened doors for female MCs.' No, she did not," she says via Skype from her Tampa, Fla., home. "It was Missy Elliott, Eve, Trina and all of them. They opened doors. Nicki is just … the only female right now getting attention."
Much like Banks, she taps into electro-club beats and speedy wordplay (the two have already come to blows in an ugly Twitter battle over style), which tears her from the competition that leans heavily to street sounds. Listen to tongue-twisting verses on "Show My …," "War Talk" and "Hype Girl," in which she quips "I'm at the finish line … yeah, it's my time."
"You have to be different. If they know you're trying to act like Nicki or whoever else is in the game they won't like you," she said. "You have to stand out. I just leave the other girls in their own little lane and I do myself."
After issuing three mixtapes, Sony Music UK Chief Executive Nick Gatfield signed Dominique, boosting her powerful backing that includes Chicago-based Windish Agency as her U.S. booking agent. Whether she will admit it or not, her aspirations sound Minaj-like.
"I just don't want to be a black hip-hop underground girl. I really want to go commercial and be the biggest star and go on top of the world," she says with a smile. "I just don't want to have one kind of fan base. I want to take this to a whole new level."
A few years ago, Supreme was touring with Chris Brown and Lil Mama as a background dancer. It didn't take long for the Queens-bred femcee to step up to the front of that stage.
"I wanted to be the star of the show," she said. "It inspired me to take control and start my own thing."
The 22-year-old first took a side gig as an assistant for the Dipset's Juelz Santana, affording her the opportunity to sit in on recording sessions for the Harlem rap outfit. After honing her craft and booking her own sessions, she got the attention of Jim Jones, Dipset's co-founder, who put her on his single "Everybody Jones."
Being surrounded by men prepped her for entering a genre where females have long been exploited and outnumbered.
"Sex is a big thing with people paying attention to women. With the sex being absent, I don't think people were interested in looking and listening at the same time," she said. "When Nicki came along, the pink hair had [your attention], but there was more behind the theatrics, there were actual lyrics."
Where Azalea and Dominique aren't afraid to flaunt overly feminine edges, Nyemiah channels the sultry tomboy swagger of the late Aaliyah, while pushing the feminist through-lines of Roxanne Shanté, Salt-N-Pepa and TLC . "Why you think you got the right to really even know … If I ain't ya mother, daughter, cousin, or your auntie," she yells on the female anthem "None of Ya Business."
"I represent girl power. I'm that voice that's gonna stand up for the women that don't have a voice and represent with the ones that do," she said. "I have a thing called, 'Supremacy.' It's the top, the highest. That's where I'm running and nowhere else."