The music industry relies in part on comparisons. Recommending tunes to friends, fans and critics requires framing a collection of sounds in a series of words that can prove difficult for even for the most eloquent wordsmiths. This problem is doubly an issue for the women of hip-hop. Most recently, NC native rapper Rapsody dropped her second studio album, Laila’s Wisdom to critical acclaim while simultaneously generating discussion of female representation in the craft. Among all these discussions, the argument that resurfaces is phrased something like this – “Rapsody’s not just one of the best female rappers, she’s an all time great!”
It’s easy to understand why listeners frame their understanding of Rapsody’s work under the catch all banner of “women in hip-hop”; likely because, she’s a woman in hip-hop. But cycle through her tracks and the dichotomy that listeners predicate her album on becomes one rife with stereotyping and oversimplification.
In one breath, machismo in rap is a must, with seemingly every male artist basing his persona at some level on a brand of masculinity. Of course, this has its caveats, namely acts like Young Thug or Lil Uzi Vert who may challenge gender norms in their lyrics as well as their dress. But by and large, male artists favor appearing strong, brave or masculine, however they define those concepts. On one end of the spectrum there are acts like LL Cool J, whose womanizing and smooth talking made him an icon in the 90s, but on the other there’s DMX and the Ruff Ryders’ brand of all-black wearing, gun toting gruffness that spoke volumes about masculinity in rap in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Obliterating or reshaping the human tendency to shelve and categorize the world’s stimuli is a conversation best left to those qualified to research just that. However, critics, journalists and fans can profess change by building on dialogues that give a platform to artist not for how neatly they fit into our categories, but on the content and relevance of their music.
For Princess Nokia and her recently rereleased 1992 Deluxe, the Afro-Puerto-Rican American artist remaps the brooding New York sound that dominated around the time of her birth along with the franticly organized sound of mid-2000s one-hit wonders and softly introspective delivery of spoken word into a tape that champions her artistic flexibility.
While the track “Tomboy” is an unfortunate reminder of the drumline influenced days of ring tone rap, and “Kitana” loses much of the sensibility of the intro cut, along with a heavy reliance on the revivalism of the triplet flow, Nokia takes flight rapping on cuts like the “ABCs of New York,” painting a picture of the city that was the backdrop of her youth.
With verses like, “A is for the Apple/ take a bite and spit it out/ B is for Bodega/ Eating on your mama’s couch/… Low lives, lighting Ls/ Pouring down for ones they love/ Thompkins Square, Lower East/ Delancey for the deli meats,” on “ABCs of New York, and equally nostalgic bars on the intro track “Bart Simpson,” Princess Nokia quickly establishes the stage on which all of her musical ideas and motifs take place.
Where Nokia is most polarizing on 1992 Deluxe is in the representation of these sounds and motifs. In an interview with Vice earlier this year, she cites both her New York origins and Lauryn Hill as influences, though the early 2000s NYC sound is more noticeable than anything else. Perfectly cyclical tracks like “Mine” harness the chaotic and grungy aura of the Big Apple, but do little to pave a lane for Nokia.
Though 1992 Deluxe is less cohesive sonically, that point can still be appreciated considering the vocal variety thrown around across the album’s 16 tracks. On cuts like “Saggy Denim” Nokia dons a husky tone most comparable to none other than NY’s own, Notorious B.I.G., while on tracks like “Green Line,” she plays with a spoken word delivery that affirms her fandom for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. By the end of the album, Princess Nokia returns with wholehearted bangers in “Flava,” “Different” and “Chinese Slippers.” Though the hook of “Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Pizza Hut/ McDonald’s, McDonald’s,” is a tad grating on repeat listens, each track lends itself to the Nokia’s flexibility, even if the song organization could warrant a trifecta of releases to sate different sects of her listener base.
More importantly, framing Princess Nokia along the barriers of gender in hip-hop further highlights the destructive force caused by stereotypes preceding legacies. At just 25, Nokia has crafted a diverse subset of work that showcases the variety of personas and experiences in her bag of tricks, irrespective of where she falls in anyone’s categorizations.
1992 Deluxe is available to stream or for direct purchase from Rough Trade Records.