Women's Hip Hop Milestones


By Niki McGloster

Those who overlook the accomplishments of women in hip-hop view the genre through a broken prism. Sure, lyrical men's bars gleam brightly at the top of charts, but the femmes have exceptionally achieved royal heights in the rap world and beyond. Women like Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill, and Rapsody have elbowed through sexism and misogyny to garner critical acclaim, rack up Grammys and build undeniable empires. There are a few women who’ve bounced back better than Big Sean to become rhyme queens. Today, we’re taking a closer look at female rapper Lauryn Hill. We’ll be spotlighting two more female rappers later this week!

Lauryn Hill

When talking rap queens, Lauryn Hill is easily the topic of conversation. The sole female in best-selling group the Fugees before putting her solo stamp on the music biz, L. Boogie is an unexpected blend of powerful lyricism and sweet, soulful vocals. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, her magnum opus, is still a tour de force that other rap women can’t touch (sorry, not sorry). So what’s that thing that Hill has others don’t? She’s a survivor and the pain and resilience shine through every lyric.

1994: The Fugees released their debut album Blunted On Reality, after a long road of grinding at local high school showcases. Before the deal, Hill learned to rap and began her acting career with roles in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit and soap opera As The World Turns.

1996: Hill and her male counterparts dropped the explosive album, The Score, which wins the Grammy for Best Rap Album. The project’s blend of hip-hop, pop, reggae and rock thrust it into a universally loved stratosphere. That same year, she also founded the Refugee Project, which catered to the transformation of at-risk youth.

1997: Hill and group member Wyclef Jean’s romantic relationship turned complicated causing the group to split. In the same year, despite encouragement to have an abortion, Hill birthed her son, Zion, the child with Rohan Marley who inspired her popular cut, “To Zion.”

1998: L. Boogie blessed her fans with multi-platinum-selling album,  The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which is still arguably the best album to date by a female rapper. It also broke the record for best record first-week sales by a female artist.

1999: For her brilliance and vulnerability on Miseducation, Hill earned 10 Grammy nominations at the 41st Annual Grammy Awards, the most noms for a woman in one night.

2001: She settled out of court with New Ark, a group of musicians, following a lawsuit that claimed she didn’t credit them for their work on Miseducation.

2012: Following years of domestic discord with Marley, tensions with the Fugees and what appeared to be a breakdown, Hill was charged with tax fraud. She was jailed in 2013 for three months for failing to pay taxes.

2017: Today, Hill tours but is infamously late to every show. Still, fans show up to get a glimpse of the female MC’s majestic performance.

Queen Latifah

Her highness, born Dana Elaine Owens, is no fame-seeking Hollywood celeb. Since her dashiki-rocking days singing “U.N.I.T.Y.” and appearing in cult classic film, House Party 2, Queen has created her own lane to success that’s unprecedented for women of color. For Queen Latifah, rap was merely a stepping stone. Spanning across music, film and beauty, the New Jersey-born first lady of hip-hop-turned-mogul has earned countless trophies for her role in front of the camera and behind the scenes. Her journey, however, has not been without setbacks. Yet and still, she now sits in the pantheon of women in hip-hop who reached an untouchable stratosphere (at a net worth of about $60 million). 

1988: Queen is known for tackling black women’s issues in her raps. In her 1989 debut LP, All Hail The Queen, released under Tommy Boy Records, Latifah spits unabashedly about feminism, social politics and girl power. As a Native Tongues member—a hip-hop collective that includes A Tribe Called Quest, Monie Love, De La Soul and other conscious rap acts—she goes on to fight the power through music for years, even venturing into jazz and traditional pop.

1992: Her brother’s death pushed her into depression and alcohol abuse. In 2014, she will explain that time of her life to Good Housekeeping: “Drinking a bunch of alcohol, numbing myself. Every day I would be faded, like a painting that's just not vibrant, whose edges are dull. I wasn't living my full life.”

1993: Queen starred in Living Single, one of the top-rated black sitcoms of its time about four black women living and loving in New York City. Long before Friends stole their swag, the ‘90s hit series compares to fan-favorites like Martin. Simultaneously, the rap pioneer released Black Reign, the first gold-selling album by a female rapper. Its hit single, “U.N.I.T.Y.,” will go on to win a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance in 1995.

1995: Alongside longtime friend and partner Shakim Compere, Queen founded Flavor Unit Entertainment, which produces films such as Steel Magnolias, Brotherly Love and Bessie. Today, not only has the company landed a multi-year film distribution deal with Netflix, but Latifah and Compere have also signed on to relaunch and rebrand BET’s Centric as the first TV network designed for black women.

1999: She premiered her self-titled daytime television talk show, The Queen Latifah Show, which covers a range of human interest topics, including music and had several celebrity guests. Though the first run will only last until 2001, the show is revamped in 2013 to showcase celebrity interviews and musical performances until declining ratings eventually shutter the show in 2015. The upside? She won Favorite New Talk Show Host award at the 40th People's Choice Awards in 2014.

2003: She is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Matron “Mama” Morton in 2002’s Chicago, which wins the same year for Best Picture. This musical film helps her emerge into a bonafide A-list movie star.

2006: She received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. That same year, she also debuted her Queen Collection for CoverGirl, the first of its kind specifically designed to celebrate the beauty of women of color.

2007: Queen won a Golden Globe Award for her performance as an HIV-positive woman in TV film, Life Support.

2014: For the first time ever, the 2014 Grammy Awards served as the location for 33 same-sex weddings, which Queen officiates during Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ performance of “Same Love.”

2015: Latifah won the Primetime Emmy Award for her role as blues legend Bessie Smith in HBO’s Bessie.

2017: Today, Queen Latifah readies the summer ‘17 premiere of Girls Trip, starring herself, Jada Pinkett Smith, Regina Hall and Tiffany Haddish, and a revival of Living Single.

Nicki Minaj

The Trinidadian Queens-bred MC’s trajectory to pop stardom started with gritty, street-satisfying mixtapes. Once she caught the eye of Young Money chief, Lil Wayne, her colorful wigs and over-the-top sartorial choices (and alter egos) amassed millions of loyal followers and a heap of firsts. From multi-million dollar endorsement deals—MAC Cosmetics, OPI, Adidas, Pepsi, etc.—to magazine covers, the self-proclaimed Barbie shattered quite a few glass ceilings. Though it’s been proven that the competitive lyricist can hang with the guys, dominating her own lane has had a multitude of twists and triumphs.

2007: Nicki officially introduced herself to music with three independent mixtapes, 2007’s Playtime Is Over, 2008’s Sucka Free and 2009’s Beam Me Up Scotty. Soon after, she signed to Lil Wayne and Young Money, the beginning of a history-making rap career.

2010: Her platinum-selling debut, Pink Friday, reached no. 1 on Billboard and spawned a handful of hit singles. She was the first female rapper to accomplish the feat since Lil’ Kim. With the album’s lead single “Your Love,” Minaj also became the first female artist to top the Hot Rap Songs chart without a feature since 2002.

2012: Minaj’s 54th Grammy Awards performance of “Roman Holiday” was met with overwhelming controversy. What was supposed to be a Catholic exorcism turned into viral backlash. She defended the on-stage act though the general consensus thought it was terrible: “It’s funny because it was the most comfortable I’ve ever been on stage in my entire life.”

2013: After revealing her more natural look for ELLE earlier in the year, Minaj posed for the August 2013 issue of Marie Claire becoming the first rapper to do so.

2011: Joining the male rap pantheon—Jay Z, Diddy, Kanye, Lil Wayne and more—Nicki became the first female rapper to make the Forbes’ Hip-Hop Cash Kings list.

2012: The world welcomed Nicki Minaj’s first fragrance line, Pink Friday. She also made her film debut in silver screen animation, Ice Age: Continental Drift, as Steffie.

2014: Minaj starred in the comedy The Other Woman alongside Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann and Kate Upton. Months later Minaj split from longtime boyfriend and collaborator Safaree Samuels in a headline-grabbing breakup, which inspired much of the material for her most vulnerable album to date, The Pinkprint.

2015: The Pinkprint Tour was one of the highest-grossing tours of the year, making $13 million.

2017: After releasing “No Frauds” featuring Lil Wayne and Drake, “Regrets in Your Tears” and “Changed It”, Minaj surpasses Aretha Franklin for the most entries by a woman on the Billboard Hot 100, and breaks history with a total of 76 Billboard Hot 100 hits.

Niki McGloster is a Maryland-based writer, producer and co-founder of her sweat. She has written for ESSENCE, Genius, Billboard, VIBE and Teen Vogue. Follow her on Twitter at @missjournalism.