Is the world of rap finally entering the twenty-first century?

With Nicki Minaj, Azealia Banks, Angel Haze and the recent emergence of “queer rap”, we could finally be seeing some progress in a musical genre that's long been dominated by straight men and macho self-aggrandisement.

Singer-songwriter and former Everything But The Girl frontwoman, Tracey Thorn, was recently asked in an interview whether her “not being an extremely hot girl” has held her back in her career. Long-running international music monthly Rolling Stone has just announced the winner of a contest called "Women Who Rock". American lifestyle magazine, Complex, last month ran a feature on the ten “hottest women” at a New York music festival, fitting in nicely with other articles they’ve published this year, including "Ten Sexy Indie Artists You Should Know" and "The 15 Hottest Frontwomen In Rock History".

These are all examples of the sexism female artists face in the music industry, and they’re all from media that covers genres where women have long been successful. So what about a style of music where women are, historically, less likely to make a go of things, such as hip-hop?

Hip-hop has long been known for its negative attitude towards women, its commodification of them, and its view of females as being useful for little more than sex. The average rap video will tell you that, with its legion of semi-naked, booty-shaking dancers. This is a culture where behemoths Jay-Z and Kanye West have both come under fire for their use of the term “bitch” in their lyrics, yet have decided to continue to use it. The closest West came to a one-eighty was when he tweeted: “Is it acceptable for a man to call a woman a bitch even if it’s endearing?” which brings into question Kanye’s understanding of “endearing”. We’re talking about a genre where the opening line to one of its best-known and much-loved songs reads: “Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks”.

All these negative stereotypes in a world of macho self-aggrandisement makes the recent success of a breakthrough band of female MCs, or "femcees", all the more heartening. Nicki Minaj is now a household name, but hot on her heels are Azealia Banks, Angel Haze, Iggy Azalea, Kreayshawn and more.

What all these rappers have in common is that they’re defiantly solo artists and are unaffiliated to a wider group or crew. Perhaps as a result of this, the music press have been keen to play up any potential rivalries, with a brief Twitter spat between Azealia Banks and Kreayshawn generating far more column inches than it should have done.

But in a man’s world, are these women able to succeed on their own terms? Minaj has sold over a million copies of both her studio albums thus far and has been vocal in speaking out against the sexism she’s faced. Yet her most recent LP, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, contains a track called "Stupid Hoe" and a duet with Chris Brown, notorious for his assault on then-girlfriend Rihanna. Critics’ darling Azealia Banks has showcased her frenetic and explicit lyrics, most notably on the song that propelled her to fame, "212", and often refers to herself as a “bad bitch”.

Banks has challenged the status quo and critics alike with her openness about her sexuality and those lyrics. Despite this seemingly anti-commercial stance, she’s received frequent radio play and has been extremely successful in 2012, so much so that she’s likely to be found on a magazine cover near you. This may have contributed to the fact that her debut album, Broke With Expensive Taste, originally due to be released in August of this year, has been put back to February 2013. Banks’ confrontational, no-holds-barred approach have given her a huge following and made her arguably the most famous female rapper behind Nicki Minaj.

Perhaps more interesting though is Angel Haze. The Michigan MC was largely unknown before the release of her debut single, New York, but had soon sold out her show at the Hoxton Bar & Grill. What’s particularly striking about Haze is her range of lyrical themes, most clearly evidenced on her mixtape, Classick, which she put online in October. She’s about as far away from the hip-hop video dancing female stereotype as it’s possible to be, as she takes on matters of confidence and self-image, and contemplates the effects domestic violence have on the wider family. Classick also features a cover of Eminem’s confessional Cleaning Out My Closet, with the lyrics rewritten into a jaw-dropping autobiographical account of childhood abuse. While it may not be a comfortable listen, it handles a near-impossible subject to cover in an unflinchingly honest but mature way.

Of the rest, Kreayshawn has followed online hit, "Gucci Gucci" (over 39 million YouTube views at the time of writing), with an underperforming album, and Iggy Azealia is expected to sign with a major label before her debut full-length LP comes out next year.

All this seems a far cry from the time when to hear of a female rapper was genuinely rare, with Missy Elliott being the main exception to that rule. Whether the new breed of MCs trade in raw, gritty rhymes or conform to a more mainstream view of what a woman in rap “should” be, their very presence can only be a positive thing. Add to this the recent emergence of a strain of hip-hop made my predominantly gay males, known as “queer rap”, and it seems the world of rap may finally be ready to enter the twenty-first century.

Nicki Minaj is now a household name. Photograph: Getty Images
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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear