Black feminism and hip-hop have a complex relationship. Always have. Intellectual, political and cultural debates about hip-hop’s systemic sexism often leave both communities unfulfilled and dissatisfied. Rappers often use empty rhetoric about hoes, ladies and queens to defend their ill and misguided remarks about and regard for women. Hip-hop’s luminaries complain that Black men in the culture are damaged when Black feminists publicly chide them. While hip-hop feminists embrace the grays that the culture provides, many still resent hip-hop’s unwillingness to address its treatment of women.
There are few hip-hop artists capable of navigating the hypermasculine culture while simultaneously expressing love for women – outside of their mothers and their sisters – in their music. Enter Ab-Soul, an independent artist who’s a member of Kendrick Lamar’s Black Hippy collective. His albums, including the recently released These Days, feature music that addresses the full humanity of women, even while his rap contemporaries degrade them. The Carson, Calif. native’s music covers an array of topics, from aliens to the pharaohs of ancient Egypt; but he’s a gem in the realm of hip-hop because of his willingness to recognize and address toxic masculinity and sexism within and outside of his music.
Ab-Soul’s rebelliousness is best exemplified on “Double Standards,” one of the more provocative tracks on his sophomore album, Control System. The song tells the tale of a man trapped between the expectations of his patriarchal friends and his own desires. Ab-Soul challenges the limited way we culturally understand masculinity by addressing how men often converse with other men about sex and relationships.
The principle character in “Double Standards” wants to be monogamous, but his homies are pressuring him to cheat to prove how masculine he is.
We don’t love them hoes, let’s get this money
He got a main chick, been with her for a while
Love making, and making out
His fellas in his ear, “you acting like a queer”
You going on dates, we tryna get this cake
The pressure be setting in
If you a real man, you would fuck her friend
In that verse, Ab-Soul addresses how a toxic culture of masculinity creates unreasonable expectations for men. He’s detailing the internal conflict that often ensues among men whose manhood is often determined by how many women lay in their beds. Ab-Soul’s willingness to recognize why this is dangerous, and what it means for Black men, in particular, is a rare occurrence in hip-hop, and a feminist act. Hip-hop often mirrors societal ills. Hip-hop isn’t responsible for creating toxic masculine expectations. It simply echoes larger cultural misunderstandings of what masculinity is. Yet, Ab-Soul is indicting hip-hop, and the mixed messages sent to men both within and outside of the culture.
My auntie told me always treat my lady right
My uncle told me only love ’em for a night
You can see the immediate disconnection
Between a man and a woman, the reason for aggression
Toxic masculinity isn’t the only ill Ab-Soul addresses in “Double Standards.” Sexism plagues women. Sexism tells women we’re never enough. It also pits women against each other. Ab-Soul addresses the divisiveness of sexism when he raps about how the main character sleeping with his girlfriend’s friend ruins their friendship.
She a ho, he a pimp
Old girl’ll forgive her man
But her girlfriend’s cut off like Edward’s hands
What’s fucked up is he got at her
Bitches call her a rat, but shit she’s heard worse
While his language is troubling, Ab-Soul is telling his audience how sexism always allows men to escape blame, even when they exhibit poor behavior. For instance, Ab-Soul details the sexual relationship between the unnamed man in his tale and that man’s girlfriend’s friend. The friend seduces him, but he is still a willing participant in the sex. Yet, he’s forgiven, while the friend’s ridiculed and dismissed.
She been jealous of the relationship since day one
But last week he made a pass at her
She knew she had him, her ass a little fatter
Unbutton his jeans and then she fell to her knees
She finally found company for her misery
The onus of blame is always placed on women, or in the case of Amber Cole, teenage girls. In 2011, Cole was at the center of controversy after a sexual act between her and a teenage boy was videotaped and shared through the Internet. Ire was directed at Cole and her parents, but as is to be expected, none was directed toward the boy she was engaging with, the boy watching or the boy videotaping the sexual encounter. Ab-Soul addresses this disparity in “Double Standards” when he raps:
For example, you heard of Amber Cole
But you don’t know that nigga that was getting dome
I’m saying we heard of Amber Cole
But we don’t know that lil’ nigga that was getting dome
Ab-Soul is calling out a sexist culture that pinpoints girls and women, especially Black girls and women, as deviant, hypersexual and promiscuous, but doesn’t hold boys and men to a similar standard. Cole is the embodiment of that double standard, and Ab-Soul recognizing the sexist injustice committed against her is just another example of how his music has feminist undertones.
However, Ab-Soul and his music are flawed. He often features other members of the Black Hippy collective on his albums, and their language and treatment of women on and off wax is troubling. But it’s that complexity that Black feminists – and more specifically, hip-hop feminists – must tangle with as we attempt to love a culture that is hesitant to address its mistreatment of women. It’s these shining moments from artists, like Ab-Soul, that give us hope.
Ab-Soul won’t save hip-hop, but his refusal to be silent as the culture tramples over women and reinforces harmful notions about masculinity is critical – even if he forever flies under the mainstream radar.