This past week, a new track from the 19 year-old Brooklyn vocalist with the cringe-inducing nickname Lil' Mama leaked to the internet, entitled “I'm a Diva” (which is not a remix of the Beyonce track of the same name), which will presumably end up on her as yet untitled sophomore release. If you had never heard anything from her before, very little about this track, with its slick production and lyrics about conspicuous consumption, will surprise you. What is surprising (and a little disappointing) is that Lil' Mama built her reputation as a rapper, and should this song prove to be representative of where her career is headed, it seems that she might be abandoning hip-hop in favor of pop stardom.
Why am I disappointed? Not because this move toward diva-dom has brought about a decrease in the quality of her music, as this track is just as catchy in its way as her singles “Lip Gloss” and “Shawty Get Loose” from her debut, V.Y.P.. Nor is it because I feel that artists should avoid “selling out” by adjusting their sound to better fit the demands of the marketplace. As far as I'm concerned, she has every right to capitalize on her success and work the system however she can. What gives me pause is that her move toward mainstream pop (if that is what this is) would deprive the world of a yet one more promising female rapper, in a music scene in which they have become an increasingly rare sight.
Since hip-hop's beginnings some 30 years ago, women have been involved at every level, from block parties to gold records, and artists like MC Lyte, Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott have produced some of the best records in the genre. But women have never been particularly numerous among the acts signed to major labels, and they seem to have grown even scarcer as of late, with acts as diverse as Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill and Foxy Brown seeing either diminishing album sales or leaving the business to pursue other interests. Lil' Mama is a standout among a rather meager freshman class (not counting Sri-Lankan M.I.A., who emerged out of the relatively more female-friendly UK hip hop and indie scenes.)
Veteran rapper Ice-T has been quoted as saying, “It's hard for a girl to rap. Rap is a very aggressive, testosterone-based, hard-core music at its base… It takes a special woman to be able to pull that off.” While just one man's opinion, even a cursory survey of the current hip-hop scene seems to bear him out, and it's no wonder that artists like Lil' Mama would take any chance to get out of the boy's club, even if they had the temerity to crash the party in the first place. My only hope is that the rapped verse at the end of “I'm a Diva” indicates that she hasn't given up on hip-hop, and her declaration that she is a “D-I-V-A baller” is her attempt to find a way to reach for the stars while still keeping her sneakers on the streets. If women stand any hope of maintaining a presence in the genre, we're going to need “special women” like her to play ball.