Empowered Sexual Agents: Black Female Rap and R&B Artists in the 1990s and early 2000s

By Daria Martin

In the 1990s and early 2000s, black female rappers and R&B artists reclaimed their sexual autonomy through their songs which celebrated black female sexuality. For modern consumers of music, looking back to this era creates a nostalgia and sense of pride in the women who molded an industry to accept women for daring to express their desire for sex.

In attempting to create a mix of three songs which encapsulated a theme present in the 1990s, I began to question in what ways have female artists challenged the categorization scheme where black male rappers dominated the genre through the use of misogynistic lyrics. This question propelled me to look at the iconic group known as Salt-N-Pepa, which are one of the most successful all female rap groups in history. Their clever lyrics and sexual honesty challenged the norm where black male rappers controlled the confines of the genre with their sexually explicit and objectifying lyrics about women. “Shoop” was one Salt-N-Pepa’s most successful singles, and was a precursor to songs by other black rap and R&B artists and groups who were unapologetic in creating music which put the artists in the position of sexual agents. Salt-N-Pepa paved the way for TLC and Missy Elliot, whose respective songs “No Scrubs” and “Work It” similarly employed lyrics that celebrated female sexuality. Salt-N-Pepa, TLC, and Missy Elliott are just a few examples of artists and groups that sought to create music that allowed women to represent themselves as empowered sexual agents rather than powerless objects of male desire.

Salt-N-Pepa:  “Shoop” (1993) ft Big Twan

“Shoop” challenged the categorization schemes of gender and sexual expression where women were excluded from being sexual agents. According to pop reviewer for the New York Times Ann Powers, “The trio balanced its amiable eroticism with a wholesome self-respect” (Powers, 1999). This is evidenced by the lyrics “I’m not shy so I ask for the digits- a ho, that don’t make me.” Cheryl aka “Salt” is unapologetic in her pursuit of men, and asserts that her forwardness doesn’t make her a “ho.” Additionally, Salt-N-Pepa flips the script by objectifying men: “You’re packed and you’re stacked ‘specially in the back, Brother, wanna thank your mother for a butt like that.” Salt also alludes to wanting to perform oral sex in the lyric “lick him like a lollipop should be licked.” Additionally, this song specifically highlights the appeal of black sexuality through the metaphor of food: “Chocolate dip, honey dip, can I get a scoop?” suggests that Pepa is wanting to get with men of color, either of a chocolate or honey complexion. This plays into a reversal of the categorization schemes because men are now the objects of consumption by women. “Shoop” was one of the group’s most successful singles, and was a precursor to songs by other black rap and R & B artists and groups who were unapologetic in creating music which put the artists in the position of sexual agents.

TLC: “No Scrubs” (1999) directed by Hype Williams

TLC’s “No Scrubs” is also representative of empowered black female sexuality. “No Scrubs” is a relatable anthem for women who were tired of the misogynistic efforts of men to exploit women for their financial success. The women of TLC, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas denounce the act of catcalling and the type of men who harass or try “to holler” at attractive women from the passenger side of their friend’s car. The women are proud of their sexual appeal, and assert within the song that they are unwilling to settle for men who they consider “scrubs.”  TLC explains that “A scrub is a guy that thinks he’s fly, He’s also known as a busta, Always talkin’ about what he wants, And just sits on his broke ass.” These women know they they’re “looking like class” compared to men who are “looking like trash” and are are unwilling to get with deadbeat men.

The music video for  “No Scrubs” won the 1999 MTV Video Music Award for Best Group Video (http://www.mtv.com/vma/1999). The video features the three group members in platform boots and metallic leather outfits, representing the futuristic aesthetic of the late 90s and early 2000s that was connected to styles associated with the new millennium. The video also suggests that modernity encompassed the agency of empowered women who were unafraid to assert themselves sexually. This was showcased by the use of sexual gestures in the video, including Chilli grabbing her behind as she sings that she wont get with a “deadbeat ass” as well as when T-Boz grabs her crotch while singing that scrubs wont get any “love” from her. The crotch grabbing gesture suggests that love in this sense is really sex, and that women will not let men have access to their bodies who do not meet their financial standards.

Missy Elliott: “Work It” (2002)

“Work It” was Missy Elliott’s most successful single, and according to critic John Bush, the song “turns the tables on male rappers, taking charge of the sex game, matching their lewdest, rudest rhymes, and also featuring the most notorious backmasked vocal of the year” (Bush, All Music.com). Missy Elliott does not shy away from sexually explicit lyrics in the song, as she says that she can “put the pussy on like [she] told ya” and asks her partner:  “Listen up close while I take it backwards, Watch the way Missy like to take it backwards, I’m not a prostitute, but I could give you what you want.” In alluding to her genitals and preferred sex position, Missy Elliott normalizes sexual desire, asserting that she does not need to be a prostitute in order to enjoy sex. Elliott also raps the lyrics “You think you can handle this badonkadonk-donk, Take my thong off and my ass go boom.” This lyric served to popularize the term “badonkadonk” to describe the sexual appeal of large butts, and further accentuated Elliott’s fearless expression of sexual autonomy. Missy Elliott’s “Work It” continued the legacy of other black female rappers and R&B artists as she sought further success in the early 2000s.

Works Cited:

1999 MTV Video Music Awards. http://www.mtv.com/vma/1999

Bush, John. “All Music Review of Missy Elliott’s album, Under Construction.” All Music.com. https://www.allmusic.com/album/under-construction-mw0000231192

Elliott, Missy. “Work It.” 2002. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UODX_pYpVxk

Powers, Ann. “POP REVIEW; Spice Girls: Salt-n-Pepa, Still Talking About Sex.” The New York Times. 19 March, 1999. http://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/19/movies/pop-review-spice-girls-salt-n-pepa-still-talking-about-sex.html

Salt-N-Pepa ft Big Twan. “Shoop.” Produced by The Island Def Jam Music Group. 1993. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vaN01VLYSQ

TLC. “No Scrubs.” 1999. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrLequ6dUdM


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