Once the subject of widespread controversy but now a staple on the Billboard charts, we look at the history of sexually explicit bars and imagery throughout hip-hop.
Hip-hop, at its core, is the art of communicating ideas or invoking emotions through beats and rhymes. Limiting as this may seem in scope, it is a testament to the ingenuity of the artists within the genre. Capable of bending language to their will and incorporating regional slang, it’s this lyrical mastery that has allowed rappers to be commended for poignant political statements, gritty street reportage or the depictions of wealth and excess that can come with excelling in the field. Yet in some cases, the thoughts they wish to express are of the carnal variety and as such, sexually-charged lyricism is now hard-woven into the fabric of not only the music, but the surrounding imagery as well. Encompassing scantily-clad video vixens, charged dance anthems and even some comical absurdity with claims of prolific promiscuousness, copulation and hip-hop have gone hand-in-hand for generations now. Much like Elvis' pelvic gyrations had parents clutching their pearls in a moral panic, the journey to sexually explicit lyricism becoming commonplace has been marred by its fair share of controversies as well.
Prior to KXNG Crooked positioning it as one of the culture’s core elements on his sophomore record Sex, Money, & Hip-Hop,there was a time when placing an emphasis on bedroom exploits was subject to no shortage of scrutiny. Years before suggestive lyricism was so ubiquitous that Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” could be slipped into the Angry Birds Movie soundtrack without public upheaval, a pioneering act from the Miami bass scene was fighting for their right to vocalize all their dirtiest desires without federal intervention. Comprised of Uncle Luke, Mr Mixx, Fresh Kid Ice and Brother Marquis, 2 Live Crew may not be the first act to detail their sexual exploits within hip-hop, but they’ll always be remembered as the straw that broke the conservative camel’s back, with their fourth album Banned In The USA serving as the first track to emblazoned with the parental advisory sticker that’s still in circulation to this day.
Banned In The USA
2 Live Crew backstage at a concert, 1990 - Anna Krajec/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Renowned for their pornographic lyrics and undercurrent of juvenile humour, their uniquely Floridian take on a teen sex comedy may be tame by today’s standards. But in 1989, it was viewed as a public ill. Skyrocketed to fame off the back of the album’s lead single “Me So Horny,” 2 Live Crew's third record As Nasty As They Wanna Be wasn’t just certified double-platinum, it was deemed legally obscene. The group’s figurehead and label owner Uncle Luke refused to take it lying down. And as a result, he set a historical precedent that he believes had a notably liberating effect on the sexually charged music to come. "If I did not fight that, then that would've become case law," Uncle Luke told The Fader. "And that case law could've been applied to any rapper right now. They could've said, 'Okay, here's case law. This case law shows that based on what these guys did back then and what these guys are doing right now, it's similar.' And then they could've taken any record off the shelf right now if we never won that case."
2 Live Crew in concert at the Palladium in New York City on July 18, 1990 - Ebet Roberts/Getty Images
Eventually acquitted of all wrongdoing, Luke and his co-conspirators set the scene for a hip-hop landscape that would be indebted to unchaste behaviour. At the same time that 2 Live Crew was teaching Miami and the surrounding areas about the joys of "The Fuck Shop," the West Coast had its own sex-obsessed MC whose impact has echoed through the generations: Too $hort. Classic tracks and albums such as Born To Mack’s “Freaky Tales” and Get In Where You Fit In’s “Blowjob Betty” have endured as the standard for any would-be lothario in hip-hop. In recent years Too $hort has claimed that his persona is “over-exaggerated” for entertainment purposes, but whatever the case, he inarguably paved the way for Oakland’s adopted son, Tupac, to spit game on tracks such as "How Do U Want It," "All About U" and "Temptations" or for Compton’s DJ Quik to rap about his aversion to “salmon sandwiches” on "Can I Eat It?"
Just as East Coast artists ranging from A Tribe Called Quest to Ghostface Killah were engaging in sordid affairs on tracks such as "Hot Sex" and "Stapleton Sex," Too $hort would find a Houstonian kindred spirit in UGK’s Pimp C. The Bay Area MC gave Pimp C the inspiration to dabble in vaguely erotic bars on "Use Me Up," or else, deliver a masterclass in lewdness. Armed with a tendency to ramp up the grotesqueness, verses such as his outing on UGK’s "Tell Me Something Good" showcase the late Sweet Jones’ penchant for vivid depictions of what happens between the sheets. "Ain’t it feel funny when you go down to eat her/knowing that you suckin’ on another n***a’s peter/And when ya get a kiss/do ya feel bliss?/Knowin’ that you swallowed all that semen and that piss?"
Slob On My Knob
Juicy J at the 78th annual Academy Awards - Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Not to be outdone, another Dirty South rap crew from the early 90s would become similarly renowned for taking sexual explicitness to vulgar new terrain. Although it was later re-released under the Tear Da Club Up Thugz banner, Three 6 Mafia’s Juicy J initially committed the depraved “Slob On My Knob” to tape back on 1992. Infamously penned over the course of two history classes, it's widely recognized as a benchmark for sexual explicitness in hip-hop and has been endlessly sampled and interpolated in the process. It’s important to remember that it was, at best, a regional phenomenon and has only been afforded this status in retrospect.
The early 90s spawned a whole host of artists that’d help bring “dirty rap” or “porno rap” from a niche concern into an established facet of hip-hop subject matter for both revered underground MCs and more commercially-minded artists. As with any evolution, though, there is more than one entry point that took us to today’s sexually-charged paradigm. Just as there were trailblazers on the masculine side, there were no shortage of women that helped popularize raunchiness in their own separate, but crucial ways.
Although it may seem preposterous through the modern lens, there was a time where Salt-N-Pepa were regarded as such a phenomenon that their 1995 landmark record Very Necessary outsold Wu Tang Clan’s debut by over 2 million units. Sex-positive before that phrase would enter the collective vernacular, offerings such as "None Of Your Business," "I’ll Take Your Man" and the universally known "Let’s Talk About Sex" cemented Salt, Pepa and DJ Spinderella as vocal proponents of a healthy love life. But as Sandra Denton— better known as Pepa— explained to The Guardian, one of their biggest hits has remained misconstrued to this day. "For 30 years, we have been telling people that 'Push It' isn’t about sex, but no one ever believes us. Honestly, for us, as young girls, it was about dancing. At one show they tried to censor us and the police were called to stand at the side of the stage, waiting for us to say something inappropriate. When we were singing 'Push It', they thought we were singing: “Pussy real good.” I ended up hollering at this policeman: 'It’s Push It! It’s about pushing it on the dancefloor.' We protested so much that eventually they let us go, and we didn’t get arrested."
As ambiguous as the line may have been to some, one year on from Salt-N-Pepa’s commercial highpoint would see the arrival of a landmark project which took sexually suggestiveness to a whole new level. Distinguished as the highest selling record from a female MC of that era, Lil Kim’s Hard Core extracted the essence of the graphic bars that she’d delivered on Junior M.A.F.I.A’s “Get Money” and expounded on them over songs such as "Dreams," "Not Tonight" and the revolutionary sound of "Queen Bitch." Pivoting away from societal expectations in order to deliver herself to the masses with an authenticity that both male and female fans couldn’t help but gravitate to, the Queen Bee reflected on why she enlisted this approach during a 2016 piece in XXL.
Lil Kim, 1998 - Jim Spellman/WireImage/Getty Images
"The sexy part was just me," she explained. "Everyone felt like I should be me. I guess when they met me, by their words, they felt like that was the dope part about me. I was very fly already and super sexy as a young girl. They were also worried about me being so young and sexy and over-the-top provocative. They kind of marketed me as an older girl, even though I wasn’t. They just did not want me to change who I was, because everything I did was super sexy, and they were just like, that was dope, because it had never been done in the hard core, gangsta hip-hop music that I was making."
Placed on a fast-track to superstardom that enabled her to sell calendars featuring the BX’s first lady in a whole host of provocative snaps, her debut’s risqué contents sparked enough moral outrage that it was debated on the Rolanda Watts show under the guise of "Is Lil’ Kim Sexualizing Our Children?" Whatever side of that fence the general public landed on, it didn’t prevent Lil Kim from picking up platinum plaque after platinum plaque and setting the stage for present-day icons such as Nicki Minaj, Cardi B and Slip-N-Slide’s former heiress Trina. Sexual empowerment in today's rap landscape is as diverse as NoName to Young M.A, Saweetie to Megan Thee Stallion, with each individual refuting the idea that doing so somehow hampers a female’s credibility from their own unique vantage points.
Megan; who styled her own Tina Snow alias after her hero Pimp C’s "Tony Snow," told Mic that one of her main goals is to eschew the dichotomy between how a woman’s x-rated bars are viewed compared to that of their male counterparts. "I feel like female rappers are held to a standard," she proclaimed. "Like, you can only rap about peace and ‘Kumbaya’ and you’re supposed to be such a lady. I’m not scared to say what’s on my mind. I’m not scared to say what I want to do. If the boys can do it, we can do it too."
Lauded for her loquacious wordplay, Noname has had no qualms about bringing her sexuality to the forefront in the music. After delivering a mix of poignance and eroticism on Ghetto Sage’s debut track "Häagen Dazs," the rationale behind its poetic content was expanded on by way of a lengthy Twitter statement and put to notion that sexual imagery is only enlisted as a bridge to commercialism. "In this song I wanted to challenge myself to write about sex in a way that I feel is uncommon in public spaces. Like weed or liquor I enjoy sex recreationally but there are times when I’ve had sex as a form of escapism. In this verse I write about sadness as it relates to my partner’s body being synonymous with death. I fear for the lives of all black men globally, but there is something very devastating about knowing there is nothing I can do to guarantee safety for my partner when he goes into the world."
Megan Thee Stallion performing at the BET Hip-Hop Awards 2019 - Moses Robinson/Getty Images
In the same vein as the Chicagoan artist, sexual explicitness in hip-hop is becoming increasingly utilized as a dissenting voice that challenges ignorance or any other constrictive taboos. Exploring the more amorous side of life through hip-hop has been unshackled from any perceived gatekeepers of the past and is now open to all.