It’s Hard Out There For a Girl

Female emcees have a tough line to walk. For one they are outnumbered, and their gender-specific paths to appropriately (or distastefully) address issues of sex and romance are less clearly cut than those tread by their male counterparts. Even more importantly, hip-hop culture demands a certain amount of excessive confidence and an aggressive, confrontational stance, but to use their femininity as a strength female rappers must often also embrace emotional openness and vulnerability — attitudes that have traditionally be anathema in hip-hop.

It is a balancing act, and one tellingly similar to a central dichotomy in hip-hop: the difference between poetry and rap. At a talk I went to in 2004, Saul Williams — a hip-hop artist and slam poet, and the musician that, I must disclose, first sparked my interest in the genre — commented that as an emcee you must “act like you know” (claim power and knowledge even when you don’t have it), while a poet uses exactly those doubts and insecurities to create compelling works. Even though some of the freshest artists in recent years have tentatively toed up to and across that line, for male emcees it isn’t required for success.

Between being gangster, being feminine, and all the while still spitting as well as any guy (or better), girl rappers have a hard grind. So when I came upon Brooklyn-based artist Deena Jonez (“The Dream Girl”) and her recent mixtape Memoirs of a Libra, I was pretty impressed. Her rhymes are as good as any of her peers, and she knows how to work the dance/club production on a lot of her tracks. And she takes her time with the songs, a virtue sometimes lost on a lot of underground albums of mixtapes. She is confident and honest, clever without being crude, and her flow, other than being a bit rushed, is pretty clean with just one or two exceptions.

I’ll be honest: Deena Jonez still seems to be a good ways behind my favourite female emcee, fellow New Yorker Jean Grae, whose 2004 masterpiece This Week easily cruises into my top five hip-hop albums of the past decade. This Week discussed alcoholism, regret, the simultaneous fear and attraction of marriage, and a wonderfully realistic Manhattan romance — all in sometimes heartbreaking personal detail. Memoirs of a Libra doesn’t quite reach that level of emotional openness, but a few tracks, particularly “Heartbeat” and “Daughter Of,” do spin that direction. With time I think Deena Jonez might evolve into a more mature, more poetic rapper capable of great storytelling, and I’m pretty excited to hear this when it happens.

In the meantime, Deena Jonez is currently quite talented, if a bit raw, and it is incredibly refreshing to hear women excel in a genre dominated by men. So to find out what a real female emcee can do, download Memoirs of a Libra free at


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