The Female Rappers Who've Proved Rap Was Never Just a Man's Game
From Queen Latifah to Cardi B, these are the female MCs who've ruled the rap world.
"Us women have always been talented. But it was a thing where there could only be one woman [rapper] at a time. You got all these guy rappers out here who ain't really talking about a lot! [Laughs.] But we all would commend them, as many as they come."
That's how Megan Thee Stallion described the state of gender equality in the rap game to Billboard in late 2019. And she's not wrong. The male-dominated genre—not to mention its fan base—has long had a complicated relationship with the female MCs daring to edge in on their turf and spit bars like the best of them.
And yet, at every point in rap's storied history, you can find women pulling the spotlight, proving that they just might be "the best" of them.
From the pioneers like MC Lyte and Queen Latifah to the '90s queens like Lil' Kim and Missy Elliott, the modern divas like Nicki Minaj and Cardi B—who celebrates a birthday on Sunday, Oct. 11—to the rising stars like Meg and Doja Cat, there are queens reminding these so-called kings that this has never been just their kingdom.
"The culture doesn't move without women, and it's great because it shows there's room for all of us—and we're doing it at elite levels," Rapsody told Billboard. "We make some of the best music that's out right now. We don't have to fight each other for one spot, because that's an illusion. It's been super-diverse, especially if you look at music outside the mainstream TV and radio."
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In honor of Cardi's birthday, we thought we'd celebrate her and 19 of her sisters. This list is by no means meant to be exhaustive, but it is a great thing to send to the next fool on your TL who parrots Jermaine Dupri and asserts, as he did in a 2019 People interview, that the women in the game are "all rapping about the same thing…It's like strippers rapping and as far as rap goes I'm not getting who's the best rapper."
Years Active: 1984-1996
Iconic Track: "Roxanne's Revenge"
As a member of the Juice Crew, she was just 14 when the above track made her the first popular female MC. She released two albums, Bad Sister (1989) and The Bitch Is Back (1992), before retiring from the industry almost entirely by 25.
Years Active: 1985-1997
Iconic Track: "Shoop"
Comprised of Salt (Cheryl James), Pepa (Sandra Denton) and DJ Spinderella (Diedra Roper), the group released five studio albums during their active years. (They still perform together, but haven't released any new material since the late '90s.) Their debut album Hot, Cool & Vicious sold over 1 million copies, making them the first female rap group to achieve both gold and platinum certification. Their fourth, Very Necessary, remains the highest-selling album by a female rap group in history, with over 7 million copies sold. In 1995, their track "None of Your Business" won them the Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group, making them one of the first female rap acts to be awarded by the Recording Academy. (Queen Latifah also won that same year.)
Years Active: 1988-2015
Iconic Track: "Keep On, Keepin' On" feat. Xscape
As one of the pioneers of female rap, Lana Moorer has the distinction of being the first solo female rapper to released a full-length album with 1988's Lyte as a Rock. In 1993, single "Ruffneck" made her the first solo female rapper to achieve gold certification. After a 12-year hiatus, she released her eighth and most recent album, Legend, in 2015.
Years Active: 1989-2009
Iconic Track: "U.N.I.T.Y."
With everything else she's accomplished in her storied career, it's easy to forget that Dana Owens got her start as a groundbreaking feminist rapper, influencing many of the other women on this list. Her 1995 Grammy win for Best Rap Solo Performance made her one of the first female rappers to take home an award, and her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2006 was the first one ever presented to a hip-hop artist.
Years Active: 1992-2002
Iconic Track: "Waterfalls"
Though we never got to see the full potential of a solo career realized before a car accident in Honduras ended her life at the age of 30, Lopes left her mark on the genre as one of the driving creative forces of girl group TLC. With an almost taffy-like elasticity to them, her flows became the main attraction of any TLC song for a large portion of their fan base.
Years Active: 1994-present
Iconic Track: "The Jump Off" feat. Mr. Cheeks
Discovered by The Notorious B.I.G., Kim Jones got her start as a member of his group Junior M.A.F.I.A. before going solo in 1996 with her debut album Hard Core. With five studio albums released thus far, Kim's explicit sex-positive feminist lyrics—which always place female pleasure ahead of a man's—and fashion-forward, assuredly feminine look were breaking new ground when she began, paving the way for grande dames like Nicki Minaj and Cardi B to pick up the baton and run with it when they arrived on the scene.
Years Active: 1994-2016
Iconic Track: "Funkdafied"
After winning a rap contest sponsored by Yo! MTV Raps brought her into Jermaine Dupri's orbit, Shawntae Harris released her debut album, Funkdafied, in 1994. Selling over 1 million copies, the LP made her the first female solo rap act to earn platinum certification and second overall after Salt-N-Pepa. With four albums released through 2003—a few standalone singles have dropped as recently as 2016—Harris utilized a masculine "gangsta" persona, with Dupri grooming her as the "female Snoop Doggy Dogg" and the first female "reality-based" rapper.
Years Active: 1994-present
Iconic Track: "Doo-Wop (That Thing)"
First as the lone female member of The Fugees and then on her own, Hill holds the distinction of breaking barriers for female rappers, bringing melodic rapping into popularity. On 1998's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, her Grammy-winning lone solo album, Hill proved that she could rap and sing with equal mastery, popularizing the neo-soul genre with her socially conscious lyrics. There's a reason that, even 22 years later, fans still dream of the day Hill might make a full-throated return to the industry. And it's because very few ever did it as well as her.
Years Active: 1996-present
Iconic Track: "I'll Be" feat. Jay Z
Legal issues have often overshadowed Inga Marchand's career, but beginning with her 1996 debut album Ill Na Na, she helped popularize an enduring formula, looping R&B tracks into hip-hop hits. She often stood in Lil' Kim's shadow, but her forthright femininity can't be overlooked. There's a reason Nicki Minaj continues to pay homage to her, even inviting her for a feature on "Coco Chanel" off the 2018 album Queen.
Years Active: 1997-present
Iconic Track: "Work It"
What is there to say about Missy Elliott that hasn't already been said? Beginning with her debut album Supa Dupa Fly in 1997, she refused to be pigeonholed at every turn, creating with Timbaland a sound that would push the genre ever closer to pop while revolutionizing what a hip-hop music video could look like. One of the all-time greats, a peerless icon.
Years Present: 1998-present
Iconic Track: "Let Me Blow Ya Mind" feat. Gwen Stefani
As the First Lady of the Ruff Riders, Eve's debut 1999 album became the third ever by a female rap artist to peak at No. 1 (following Lauryn Hill and Foxy Brown). In recent years, her music career has taken a back seat to other endeavors, such as her current gig co-hosting The Talk, but she's still releasing new tracks here and there.
Years Active: 1998-present
Iconic Track: "Here We Go" feat. Kelly Rowland
Rising out of the Miami rap scene after catching the attention of Trick Daddy, Katrina Taylor has six studio albums thus far and been dubbed by XXL Magazine "the most consistent female rapper of all time."
Years Active: 2003-present
Iconic Track: "Paper Planes"
Arriving on the scene in the mid-'00s, the London-born Sri Lankan Tamil artist Mathangi Arulpragasam proved that rap had gone global, using the genre as an incendiary form of protest. Incorporating dancehall, jungle, electro and world music into her sound, her career has been a provocative subversion of Western stereotypes.
Years Active: 2004-present
Iconic Track: "All the Way Up" with Fat Joe, feat. French Montana
Discovered by Big Pun and rising to prominence as a member of Fat Joe's group Terror Squad, Reminisce Mackie's career is another that's been marred by legal issues. (She spent six years in prison from 2008 to 2014.) However, she is one of only six female rappers to ever top the Hot 100 and one of only four multiple winners of the BET Award for Best Female Hip-Hop Artist, which she won in 2005 and 2017.
Years Active: 2007-present
Iconic Track: "Anaconda"
Since her arrival in the late '00s as a part of Lil Wayne's Young Money squad, Onika Maraj-Petty has more than earned her title as one of the most influential female rappers of all time. Her technical skill is unparalleled across the gender spectrum, she's earned more entries on the Hot 100 than any woman in any genre of music, she's one of the most in-demand guest artists in the industry (seriously, her feature game is prolific), and she's proven she can go in any direction—be it pop, electro, or straight rap. It's hard to challenge the idea that she is the Queen of Rap.
Years Active: 2007-present
Iconic Track: "Power" feat. Kendrick Lamar, Lance Skiiwalkler
Known for her smooth flow and powerful, thoughtful lyrics, Marlanna Evans has crafted a career around the ethos of "Culture Over Everything." As she told Vibe in 2012, "To me, it's about culture more so than money or anything. I make music for the people of the culture we're in; that comes first. If you touch the people first, the rest just falls into place. That's what it means to me, just preserving and respecting the culture."
Years Active: 2014-present
Iconic Track: "Juicy" feat. Tyga
First garnering fame with viral sensation "Mooo!," Amala Dlamini has proven that, controversies aside, she's got real chops. With two albums released thus far, she blends inventive flows with sung vocals while dabbling in different genres. When the disco-kissed "Say So" hit No. 1 after Nicki Minaj jumped on the remix, it became the first-ever female rap collab to top the Billboard Hot 100.
Years Active: 2016-present
Iconic Track: "Bodak Yellow"
Between her aggressive flow, candid lyrics, and outspoken personality, Belcalis Almánzar has quickly risen to the ranks of rap royalty. She may only have one album—2018's chart-topping Invasion of Privacy—under her belt, but it made her the only woman in the game to win the Grammy for Best Rap Album and have multiple billion-streamers on Spotify. In the last 15 years, she's also the only female rapper to land a nomination for Album of the Year. So, yeah, she's a force to be reckoned with.
Years Active: 2016-present
Iconic Track: "Savage (Remix)" feat. Beyoncé
Repping Houston, Megan Pete only has three EPs and a full-length mixtape to her credit thus far, but she's already managed to make a stamp on pop culture. (Hot Girl Summer, anyone?) And when Queen Bey hopped on the remix of "Savage," she landed her first No. 1 on the Hot 100.
Years Active: 2017-present
Iconic Track: "Whack World"
Rising to prominence in 2017 with intentionally unintelligible "Mumbo Jumbo," Whack has challenged genre expectations with an eccentric and endlessly creative approach to rap. Clocking in at just 15 minutes, yet still 15 songs long, her debut album Whack World was a whopper, a visual album that tipped her as the Missy Elliott of her generation.
(Originally published July 11, 2020, at 12 p.m. PT.)
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