AMC’s Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America is a docu-series that focuses on six individual rap songs that changed the genre. The season finale focuses on Queen Latifah and Monie Love’s masterpiece “Ladies First”
Songs That Shook America concluded its first season on AMC on Sunday (November 17th.) The series has delved into the hip-hop songs that defined a movement, a region of America, and times in history. For the season finale, Queen Latifah’s anthem of women empowerment, 1989’s “Ladies First,” gets the final dissection. As with every other song, “Ladies First” is exalted but ultimately used as a vessel for a deeper dive into the sexist history of hip-hop.
In the episode, Jessica Lynch, the president of Tommy Boy Records when “Ladies First” was released, recalls being mistaken for a prostitute at the Jack The Rapper’s Family Affair convention because she was a woman. Latifah gives first-hand accounts of the lack of money put towards female rappers for marketing and music videos compared to male counterparts. Her “Ladies First” collaborator Monie Love recalls labels only choosing to have one female MC at a time, adding credence to Lyte’s statement later in the episode of “women being pitted against each other.” This episode hammers the point of sexism being the industry standard in hip-hop during the 1980s, often leaving an indelible imprint in the viewer’s mind that reshapes their view of the episode and the series as a whole.
History is complicated. And leaving “Ladies First” as the last episode of the first season helps to add a more nuanced look at the eras the first season discussed. The same 2 Live Crew-sound that was heralded as the sound of Miami in the 1980s by Jermaine Dupri in the “Elevators” episode is attributed to the toxic masculinity of the same era with their song “Me So Horny” by Questlove. Songs That Shook America is willing to cast a bit of a dubious shadow on an era of music it has spent hours praising in service of an accurate retelling of history. The series as a whole, and especially its season finale, are better for it.
The episode never lets you settle into any sort of normalized view of Latifah or “Ladies First.” She’s “the first woman in hip-hop that was political,” according to Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo Movement. She gave women “somewhat of a superhero.” In the episode, Lynch said, “‘Ladies First’ gave a very strong message to white America about Black women.”
The episode does a great job of portraying the song as a collaboration between Latifah and Love in the purest form of that word. Before the making of the song is discussed, the two retell stories of how Love slept on Latifah’s floor to ensure she wasn’t late on the European tour. The exuberance jumps out of every smile and laugh from Love and Latifah. They both recall the making of the song from two different locations, decades later, yet have an almost identical memory of the fateful studio session. “Ladies First” is a song made for women by women who were brought up by powerful women.
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When Latifah speaks on the people that built her into Queen Latifah, she doesn’t mention any rappers. She quotes Nikki Giovanni’s “You Were Gone” poem. She mentions her love of science fiction and author Octavia Butler. She recollects her mother, the late Rita Owens, instilling a goal-oriented mentality in her at a young age. The latter is revered as a matriarch and helps add a tender mother, daughter relationship to the episode, punctuated near the end with Latifah openly crying on stage at Essence Fest in 2018, with Mary J. Blige looking on, almost bursting into tears herself. It’s impossible to watch this episode and not understand how important women are to Latifah, which makes the episode’s treatment of the newest generation of female MCs all the more peculiar.
In the last few minutes of the first season of Songs That Shook America, the conversation shifts to the current state of female MCs — the music changing to the sound of brooding and ominous drums in order to match the critical mood. Lynch acknowledges the success of female rappers today while stating “the queenliness of Queen Latifah” is missing followed by a laugh that probably belies a more vicious indictment. The recent wave of popular female MC’s showing solidarity through collaborations and support is viewed as “camera-ready unity” in this episode. Latifah herself says, “I can’t take responsibility for the female MCs that came after me,” in a tone that sounds coated in disappointment.
In terms of skill, Rapsody is the only MC mentioned as deserving of being part of the lineage of Latifah, and that was an assertion made by Latifah’s “Ladies First” collaborator. Latifah herself doesn’t acknowledge a single female MC who came after her by name in the episode. It’s also revealed that Latifah denied a request from an unnamed artist to remake “Ladies First,” stating they should “do ‘Ladies First’ your way; not Queen Latifah’s way.” In an episode centered on inspiring women, the omission of any current female MCs and Latifah’s almost standoffish relationship with them is glaring and speaks volumes.
Outkast’s “Elevators” was an anthem to let the world know Atlanta had something to say. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” was an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. MC Shan’s “The Bridge” was an anthem for Queensbridge. Though not advertised this way, the season finale of Songs That Shook America shows that Latifah’s “Ladies’ First” was an anthem for something bigger.
Keith Nelson Jr. is a journalist who has covered hip-hop, technology, and movies/TV for VIBE, Revolt, Digital Trends, Flaunt Magazine, and more. Follow him @JusAire