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Review: VH1’s ‘Hip Hop Honors’ returned with a tribute befitting the rap queens who pioneered the genre

Queen Latifah performs during the “VH1 Hip Hop Honors" which aired live on the network July 11.
(Theo Wargo / Getty Images for VH1)

The year 1997 was a remarkable one for femcees. Missy Elliott ushered in a new era of creatively ambitious music videos, literally making visual magic out of a trash bag.

Lil Kim notched her third consecutive No. 1 on the rap songs chart — a first for a female rapper – while pioneering rap trio Salt-N-Pepa celebrated more than a decade of feminist anthems by releasing its final album.

And beyond the rap charts, Queen Latifah had become a Hollywood star. Her sitcom “Living Single” was ratings gold, and she broke into film (years later she’d make history as the first female rapper to be nominated for an Academy Award).

That was but one year in a decade that birthed some of the greatest femcees to conquer a male-dominated genre – one that sadly has historically marginalized and mistreated women.

Taking cues from pioneers such as Salt-N-Pepa and Latifah, Elliott and Kim got their start during that defining decade as did Lady of Rage, Da Brat, Left Eye, Lauryn Hill, Foxy Brown, Rah Diggah, Eve and dozens of other voices that brought brash, daring, provocative, empowering and, most importantly, feminine perspectives to hip-hop.

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VH1 found inspiration in that era when it resurrected its rap ceremony, “VH1 Hip Hop Honors,” on Monday after a six-year hiatus.

The theme was “All Hail the Queens” and the focus of the ceremony was on the ladies that helped define the genre as pioneers, trailblazers and trendsetters.

The telecast, which aired live from David Geffen Hall in New York City and was hosted by Eve, feted Salt-N-Pepa, Latifah, Elliott and Kim in a two-hour spectacle befitting, pun very much intended, a queen.

A mix of beloved veterans, fresh faces and left-field surprises performed the biggest hits by the night’s honorees alongside testimonies that traced the women’s influence in music and beyond. Latifah, who also served as an executive producer of the special, and Kim were the only winners that also hit the stage.

Remy Ma led the impeccable opening tribute to Elliott, running through her bouncy, tongue-twisty singles “Work It” and “WTF” in a medley that saw Nelly Furtado perform “Get Ur Freak On,” Eve and Lil Mo deliver “Hot Boyz” and Trina reprise her blush-worthy contribution to “One Minute Man.”

Latifah offered a reminder of the lyrical prowess that launched her to fame before she became a Hollywood actress and multi-hyphenate mogul.

She led her own musical tribute alongside Rah Digga, Lady of Rage, Da Brat, YoYo and Monie Love with a performance that paid homage to her early, seminal raps — and even winked toward her film career with a spin on the “Chicago” standard “When You’re Good to Mama” (the 2001 film adaptation earned her that aforementioned Oscar nod).

Eve, Ashanti, Keke Palmer and buzzy femcee Dreezy paid tribute to Salt-N-Pepa, the pioneering rap trio that was one of the genre’s first female groups.

“I hope seeing us tonight inspires girls and young women to be bold enough to express themselves every day in the classroom, in the boardroom and, yes, on the stage,” Pepa told the audience when the group accepted its honor.

After a week in which back-to-back police shootings of black men were captured and shared on social media, leading to violence and arrests during protests across the country, Monday’s show addressed the ongoing tension.

Black Lives Matter founders, Alicia Garza and Darnell Moore opened the show with a statement that addressed critics of the movement. “[Black Lives Matter] is grounded in black people’s dignity, justice and freedom. It’s about love, not violence,” Garza said.

“This is not just the work of black people. It is all of our work. We will never stop working to bring about a better world for all of us. Joy is also an important part of our movement.”

Common applauded black women “who have been on the front lines in our ongoing movement for justice,” including Diamond Reynolds, who filmed and livestreamed the aftermath of the police shooting that killed her fiancé, Philando Castile, after they were pulled over for a broken taillight.

“Listen, we all know the world, that our world, is really tense right now,” Latifah said. “I’m hoping that we can somehow manage to channel all of these emotions that we have in a positive way. … Racism is still alive and kicking. And we have to change that. We need to change this attitude.”

The night wasn’t entirely heavy, with plenty of surprises that left Twitter buzzing during Monday’s telecast.

Lil Kim’s tribute was one of the night’s best, largely because of the eerily spot-on channeling of the unapologetically raunchy rapper from R&B singer Teyana Taylor. Kim’s performance, however, was shaky and it didn’t help that special guest Rich Homie Quan mostly forgot the lyrics to Biggie’s verse on “Get Money.”

Faith Evans proved her feud with Kim was history by feting the rapper — making sure to poke fun at their storied beef — and Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs surprised her with an emotional speech.

The show even looked at the women’s reach beyond their music career.

A bevy of models strutted in Kim’s most iconic looks, including the infamous breast-baring purple jumpsuit she wore to the MTV Video Music Awards in the late ’90s.

LL Cool J and Phylicia Rashad led a tribute to Latifah’s Hollywood success, and her one-time proteges Naughty By Nature performed their biggest hit in her honor.

Monica, Fantasia and Tweet performed the R&B hits that Elliott either produced or wrote for them, and First Lady Michelle Obama saluted Elliott and Latifah for their contributions to her “Let Girls Learn” initiative via a pre-recorded segment.

The night ended on an emotional high, with Latifah rapping her ladies anthem “U.N.I.T.Y.” in front of a screen that featured dozens of images of female rappers while generations of performers joined her onstage.

Yo-Yo, Monie Love, Da Brat, Ms Jade, MC Lyte, Nikki D, Sha Rock, Sweet Tee, The Lady of Rage, Suga T, Rah Digga, Mia X, Heather B, Eve and the night’s honorees joined Latifah onstage for the closer — many of them lifted on pillars like queens.

For more music news follow me on Twitter:@GerrickKennedy

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