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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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide