Hip hop has flaunted its ravenous need for immediate and universal attention since LL first cheered b-boys for wielding boomboxes at hapless straphangers. But joining public life was always on the culture's agenda, from the moment the first graffiti-covered train car rolled into Manhattan. Now rap radio has become the public's liveliest national forum on sexual politics, and even Lauryn Hill knows her politically conscious pop matters less at the top of year-end critics polls than when blasting out of car stereos between "No Scrubs" and "Can I Get a...?" Today there's a wider range of opinion than ever on gender roles, microeconomics, and sexual availability wading through the R&B airwaves. And rather than civilly dressing down acceptable female postures, a new brand of hip-hop feminism is spouting rude, sometimes contradictory statements about masculinity.
Philly rapper Eve momentarily interrupted that ongoing conversation this summer as the female member of those gruffly humorless Tupac impressionists, the Ruff Ryders. "What You Want" followed a well-trod path to autonomy: the declaration of promiscuity. Unpredictably, its appetite was as masculine and kinky as Eve's short blond curls. "I handcuff niggas but I don't arrest 'em," she quipped, sporting a sexy but tomboyish wardrobe that didn't look pilfered from last month's Vibe fashion shoot. Now Eve's debut disc, Ruff Ryders' First Lady (Ruff Ryders/Interscope), chips at the latest chink in the wall dividing the two separate but equally gendered worlds of black radio's imagination. On one side, men "ryde or die." On the other, jilted women nurse those thugs' abandoned seeds and swoon to Maxwell joints like modern Cinderellas. For her part, Eve primarily talks to and about men. "My Bitches," a rewrite of DMX's "My Niggas," makes its point in under two minutes, with a shout out to "My bitchez that'll change the locks/My bitchez that'll cut up your clothes," before turning into a salute to women who "stay in school," "keep a job," "raise a kid." Female responsibility is a given; female empowerment and sexual freedom are assumed entitlements. Now, she seems to imply, it's up to the brothers to prove themselves.
But it's Eve's first single, "Gotta Man," that fondles the fondest assumption of urban romantics weaned on "Be My Baby" and "Around the Way Girl" alike: the idea that streetwise and cute are not mutually exclusive. The song is also the sharpest pledge of urban male-female solidarity since MC Lyte's "Ruffneck." A preteen giggle of "I gotta boyfriend now" introduces a double-dutch rhyme accompanied by an airily plucked acoustic guitar melody. In the sounds of the city, producer Swizz Beatz seems to hear a symphony. From the Nuyorican cowbells of "What You Want" to the gurgling flow of electronic modulations elsewhere, there's something ornate, even frilly about Beatz's beats--"Gotta Man" flutters with unabashed femininity. Call the results salsa without the florid romanticism, techno without the monotony, or Babyface transplanted to a rougher neighborhood.
Even given the producer's flourishes, one wonders if radio is prepared for the virulent "Love Is Blind." A thug jerkoff rapes, abuses, impregnates, and eventually kills Eve's friend, who remains smitten to the end. "I don't even know you and I hate you," Eve spits at the predator. But her girl has mistaken any sort of male attention for love, and it's not clear who earns more of Eve's anger: "I could have killed you when you said his seed was growing from his semen," she berates her dead friend.
Taken as bookends, "Gotta Man" and "Love Is Blind" offer no easy answers or specific demands, just a range of sexual expectations. So let Susan Faludi appoint herself apologist for emasculated males cheated by postwar social upheaval. I'll take Eve's notion of sympathetic partnership--love is messy but also attainable, if sisters keep their eyes open and brothers of all races check themselves.
Eve knows enough not to take chummy male-female solidarity too far; she eventually smokes that knucklehead in "Love Is Blind." By contrast, her nearest contemporary, Solé, is more typical of the tough talking b-girl who takes the opportunity to hang with the boys as reward enough. Solé may be best known as the female half of J.T. Money's "Who Dat?" a single I've been chanting at any acquaintance unfortunate enough to be unfamiliar with the original. For those of you out of KMOJ earshot, the song has Money and a mass of anonymous thugs repeatedly posing the titular question, as a choir responds with a demonically mnemonic "iy-yi-yi" chant.
That chorus surfaces once again on the aptly titled "Iy Yi Yi," included on Solé's shallow and equally aptly titled Skin Deep, recently released on the far from apt Dreamworks imprint. The hyperactively twitchy cymbals of producer Christopher "Tricky" Stewart seem to insist, as Wu-Tang once declared, that life is getting hectic. That much we already knew; it's up to the new MC to clue us in on how to get by. And while Solé is sharp enough to earn her solo shot, a grubby self-interest seems to provide her the path of least resistance. In the rapper's most carefully realized rhyme, she stalks a streetscape littered with "scandalous hos," mercilessly dispatches said foes, then bitches about a chipped nail. But her most heartfelt rhyme is her single, "4, 5, 6," in which she declares herself open all night for monogamous booty calls--unless her man is stupid enough to stray.
Of course, he'd be an idiot to do so, insists the proud possessor of a na-na so ill that men supposedly lap at her lap even when she's menstruating. Presented with the opportunity to go either this way or that, Solé chooses that: Waxing proud like a dirty-talking Roxanne Shante, she fronts with an attitude that leaves her looking like Lil' Kim with no money.