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Best Female Rappers: 20 Women In Hip-Hop Who Deserve Recognition
List & Guides

Best Female Rappers: 20 Women In Hip-Hop Who Deserve Recognition

Holding their own against their male rivals, the best female rappers prove that gender is irrelevant when it comes to skill and vision.

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When it comes to skill and spirit, gender in hip-hop absolutely makes no difference. While most of the artists on this list of the best female rappers of all time have explicitly or implicitly expressed solidarity with their sisters and foremothers in the rap game, they would also likely reject the tag of “female rapper”. As Little Simz said in 2016: “Why does it always have to be about my gender? Why can’t I just do what I want freely without feeling like people are trying to put me in a box all the time? Do you know how annoying that is?”

However – and very unfortunately – “rapper” is still too often seen as being synonymous with “male” (and sometimes with machismo). How many “best rappers” lists only contain one woman? This all serves to prevent women and trans or non-binary rappers getting their due credit.

Back in the year 2000, an independent film was released called Nobody Knows My Name. Made by filmmaker Rachel Raimist, it was about women in hip-hop – the female rappers, turntablists, organisers and B-girls who struggled to be heard and seen. The women of Nobody Knows My Name (including independent rappers Medusa and T-Love) were disheartened by the enormous barriers they had to overcome if they wanted to be recognised as females in hip-hop – including the expectation to be highly sexualised in order to gain attention. Sadly, the first two decades of hip-hop are littered with stories like these, of deeply unfair treatment – from shelved albums to rigged rap contests.

In the past 20 years, things have undoubtably improved in terms of industry sexism. The diversity of styles, subject matter, flows, subgenres and characters of those in this list of the best female rappers – along with how successful they have been – proves the dial has shifted. Here, then, is a celebration of what these artists have achieved, and an invitation to dig deeper into their catalogues.

Listen to our Hip Hop playlist here, and check out our best female rappers, below.

20: Trina (1978- present)

The defiant Katrina “Trina” Laverne Taylor was born and raised in Miami, Florida. She was working as a real-estate agent when she made her rap debut in 1998, guesting on a Trick Daddy track, and it kicked off her controversial career. Along with Foxy Brown and the legendary Lil’ Kim, Trina was part of a wave of women unafraid to express their sexual desires and disappointments in verse, putting forward an openly female perspective on modern relationships. “My mom opened a beauty salon, so I grew up around women,” Trina said in 2022, revealing her inspirations. “That’s all I saw, all day, every day, girls getting their hair done. At the hair salon, you heard it all. So, when it comes to women, I’ve always come up in that uplifting environment.”

Must hear: Da Baddest Bitch

19: Latto (1998- present)

One of the most exciting rappers to emerge in the past few years, Latto won the 2016 series of TV’s The Rap Game at the age of 16 – only to reject the prize of a record deal in favour of becoming an independent artist. She was inspired by Nicki Minaj (“When Nicki came out, she touched me. I watched her come up. When I saw her do it, I’m like, Oh, I can do this, for real”), and Minaj’s spirit is there in Latto’s no-fucks-given style. One of the best female rappers of recent years, Latto almost got knocked off-course by the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit just as she was beginning to break through. She made no secret as to how she felt: “I got discouraged so many times just because I felt like the world was over,” she says of that period. “I just signed my first major deal, [and] it’s over.” However, she worked through it and emerged stronger, with her second album, 777, released in 2022, indicating that she will be a major force in the future.

Must hear: Bitch From Da Souf

18: Salt-N-Pepa (Cheryl James, 1966- present; Sandra Denton, 1964- present)

The chart success of Salt (Cheryl James) and Pepa (Sandy Denton) helped hip-hop become the all-conquering crossover musical force it is today. James and Denton met while studying nursing and working in the department store Sears. Also working part-time at Sears was one Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor – who also happened to be studying record production. He asked Denton and James to be part of his class project, and the pair, calling themselves Super Nature, obliged. The result was the 1985 single The Showstoppa (Is Stupid Fresh). Changing their name to Salt-N-Pepa and teaming up with DJ Spinderella, James and Denton then embarked on a spree of fresh, bold, catchy rap that pretty much everyone who grew up during this period remembers with extreme affection.

Must hear: None Of Your Business

17: Angel Haze (1991- present)

Angel Haze identifies as neither male nor female: “I don’t consider myself of any sex,” they have said. “I consider myself an experience.” Proud to represent queerness in hip-hop, Haze is influenced by Eminem’s unapologetic wrath (an early track, Cleaning Out My Closet, relocates the title of a Marshall Mathers song into Haze’s horrific personal experience of sexual abuse). Their music is an intense experience of trauma and blasphemy, battle and potency, love and catharsis. “I thrive off that shit,” they have said.

Must hear: New York

16: Lizzo (1988- present)

Lizzobangers, Lizzo’s debut album, from 2013, had near-universal appeal; as a result of hearing it, Prince – a fellow Minneapolitan – asked her to guest on his 2014 album PLECTRUMELECTRUM. Riot grrrl alumni Sleater-Kinney embraced her inclusive feminist stance, and Lizzo joined the band on their reunion tour. She’s even sung with professional piss-taker Har Mar Superstar. However, Lizzo’s gleeful tracks shouldn’t obscure her skills on the mic, which have only intensified over the years. And she does all this while remaining positive and outward-looking in her subject matter – something which has already made her one of the most influential female musicians of her generation. “I had to blaze a trail,” she says. “There was no Lizzo before Lizzo.”

Must hear: Juice

15: Megan Thee Stallion (1995- present)

A fierce, belligerent Texan, Megan Thee Stallion gained attention by posting her freestyles on social media, and was able to develop her vicious flow in her own time while studying for a degree in health administration. As uncompromising as her raps are, she has spoken from the heart about how she wishes there wasn’t so much bad blood between female rappers, reflecting that spats and beefs on the internet can set women against one another before they even meet. “I love her, she was so easy to work with,” Megan has said of Cardi B, with whom she collaborated on the unstoppable 2020 single WAP. “But like, when we first met I feel like we was both like, ‘We good?! Everything OK?’” Acknowledging that the best female rappers have to stick together in a male-dominated industry, Megan picks her battles, most of which are with record companies rather than other women. “I’m always going to fight for myself, I’m always going to stand up for myself,” she has said. “How dare anybody try to silence me?”

Must hear: Shots Fired

14: Queen Latifah (1970- present)

Queen Latifah, aka Dana Owens, began as a beatboxer in the group Ladies Fresh, but soon graduated to rapping as part of The Flavor Unit. Her early conscious raps included material on domestic abuse, racism, misogyny and female solidarity – and led to an affiliation with the Native Tongues collective of artists. Along with the UK’s Monie Love, Latifah recorded the seminal Ladies First (for her 1989 debut album, All Hail The Queen), a high-water mark of feminist rap. “I knew it was important for us to empower ourselves and feed other women self-esteem,” she said in 2021. “To say: Hey, ladies first. U.N.I.T.Y. You don’t have to be out here fighting in the streets over somebody or over something stupid or tearing each other apart – let’s lift each other up. It was always important to share those messages because I know we needed it. Black women are always being torn down by the world so we need to build each other back up.”

Must hear: Ladies First

13: Bahamadia (1966- present)

“I don’t feel like I have anything to prove because I know that my legacy speaks for itself,” Bahamadia said in 2016. “You’re always relevant to someone somewhere.” Indeed she is. Bahamadia’s strength is her clarity and balance. Emerging as a force in Philadelphia during the mid-90s, Bahamadia’s debut album, 1996’s Kollege, was made in collaboration with Guru and DJ Premier, of Gang Starr, and is very much in character with that famous duo’s pioneering jazz-rap style. Deep and thoughtful, as well as being effortlessly cool, Bahamadia has long been in favour of greater support between female hip-hop artists. “There’s so many of us globally and so much of the time we don’t have any voice,” she has said. “Imagine if Nicki Minaj wore a Bahamadia T-shirt in a video or something like that. Or if she had a poster in the background of Rah Digga or somebody. She wouldn’t have to say anything.”

Must hear: Total Wreck

12: Nicki Minaj (1982- present)

Nicki Minaj is what a rapper would be if painted by Salvador Dalí. Constantly shapeshifting in terms of voice, flow and character (even in the space of a few bars), she mixes spiked candy surrealism with monochrome goth hardcore. Doing this requires enormous skill and flex, as well as a soaring imagination, and Minaj displayed all these qualities right from the release of her first mixtape, 2007’s Playtime Is Over. To this day, Minaj values following her own inner muse rather than fretting about what others are doing – something which has seen her blaze a trail as one of the best female rappers of the 21st century. “Once anyone has success with anything, everyone jumps on the sound,” she said in 2022. “There’s a price to pay for doing that. If you jump on every trend, you become faceless.”

Must hear: Lookin Ass

11: Lauryn Hill (1975- present)

Lauryn Hill is a renaissance woman, easily able to shift between jaw-dropping raps and the sweetest R&B. She grew up listening to Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, and ingested their soulful spirits; when she joined rapper and producer Pras in a group called Translator Crew (later The Fugees) she brought this to the group’s heady mix of hip-hop, reggae and rock. The Fugees degenerated into an interpersonal mess after the enormous success of 1996’s The Score, but this meant that Hill was able to follow her own path with 1998’s The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. On that album, she set out to “write songs that lyrically move me and have the integrity of reggae and the knock of hip-hop and the instrumentation of classic soul”, and the results received rave reviews. But fame affected her wellbeing and she retreated (“I had to step away when I realised that, for the sake of the machine, I was being way too compromised,” she has said). Hill has since recorded a few isolated tracks, but as yet there has been no follow-up album.

Must hear: Lost Ones

10: Rah Digga (1972- present)

Growing her skills at Lyricist Lounge (open-mic nights in New York City), Rah Digga, aka Harriet Thugman, scored her break with the support of Q-Tip, of A Tribe Called Quest. She then joined the Flipmode Squad at the request of Busta Rhymes. Digga was inspired by Rakim and Kool G Rap, and her rasping, gritty delivery and strong rhymes made her conscious subject matter even more powerful. Her intelligence seeps through every syllable of her debut album, 2000’s Dirty Harriet. “When I write rhymes, I’m always reading it over and over again. I’m proofreading, I’m rewriting,” she has said. Digga was also the mother to a very young daughter at the height of her success and has expressed solidarity with other females in the rap game balancing parenthood with their career, saying, “When you see someone like Cardi B still doing shows and staying true to her form, whether you agree or disagree that it’s a good look, it still empowers the next woman that’s pregnant that feels like she has to put her life on hold because she’s having a baby.”

Must hear: Break Fool

9: The Lady Of Rage (1966- present)

The hardest of the hardcore, a teenage Robin Allen was jokingly called “The Lady Of Rage” by a classmate. She liked it so much she sprayed it on the bathroom wall, and a persona was born. As brilliant as she is, there have definitely been frustrations in Rage’s career. Her debut album, Eargasm, was meant to be released in 1994 on Death Row Records, but the label prioritised Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle instead, and Rage’s record was shelved. In lieu of her own album, she became known as a collaborator, but held her own with Snoop and Dr Dre on their records, proving that the best female rappers were more than a match for their male counterparts. “Yes, I was in a league of extraordinary gentlemen, but I was on the same level that they were,” she has said. “It wasn’t like they had to write my rhymes or hold my hand. I held my own.” Finally, Rage got her own album in 1997, Necessary Roughness, but by that time, the Death Row empire was fracturing and the album never got pushed. Necessary Roughness stands today as a key, if underappreciated, part of West Coast rap’s legacy.

Must hear: Get With Da Wickedness

8: Lil’ Kim (1974- present)

The “Queen Bee” herself, Lil’ Kim is a complex figure who transformed the subject matter for women in hip-hop, breaking every taboo around explicitness, expressiveness and empowerment. Hard Core, her 1996 debut, is one of the most torrid albums of all time – liberating and provocative – but this would mean nothing without its creator’s exceptional rap skills. Kim had a tough upbringing, with domestic abuse and family conflict leading her to find her own way, outside of the family, from the age of 14. Making a connection with The Notorious B.I.G., Kim thrived as a rapper with catchy tracks and a strong image. She has attracted lots of negative press in her career, had a spell in jail, and has feuded with (among others) Foxy Brown and Nicki Minaj. “I think people have a misconception of me, period,” Kim said in 2013. “My life has been a whirlwind sometimes, but it’s different to what people think.” There is an enigma at the heart of Lil’ Kim, which is why she remains such a fascinating figure.

Must hear: Big Momma Thang

7: Cookie Crew (MC Remedee, 1967- present; Susie Q, 1967- present)

“We’ve always stayed true to our roots because we were very patriotic about London, and about South London particularly,” Debbie Pryce (aka MC Remedee) said in 2021. “All the narratives on the tracks are based around our experiences, even though the delivery might have had that American tone, because that was our reference point. Our subject matters were very, very British.” Proof that the best female rappers don’t all come from the US, Cookie Crew were very important in the early UK rap scene, the speed and dexterity of their work still glorious to behold. A pair of teenage friends, they started writing and performing their own raps, and won a nationwide rap contest in 1985 by rapping super-fast over Afrika Bambaataa And The Soul Sonic Force’s pioneering electro hip-hop cut Planet Rock. Their biggest hit, however, came with the production trio Beatmasters (who also worked with British rapper Betty Boo), in the form of Rok Da House, a pioneering example of what came to be known as “hip-house”.

Must hear: Born This Way

6: Cardi B (1992- present)

Cardi B is a tornado, a “real bitch, only thing fake is the boobs”, as she rhymes on Get Up 10. She’s a woman whose life story runs through her lyrics like blood. Raised in the Bronx, Cardi first came to prominence through the VH1 reality show Love & Hip-Hop: New York. This path to fame meant her enormous skills blindsided many who expected a lightweight talent. Frank rhymes, determination, wordplay and humour have been hallmarks of the best Cardi B songs, right from her first mixtape, 2016’s Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol.1, through to her 2022 single Hot Shit. WAP, her huge sex-positive anthem with Megan Thee Stallion, is a story in itself, and cements her place not only as one of the best female rappers of all time, but the key rapper of the last five years.

Must hear: WAP

5: Yo-Yo (1971- present)

Born Yolanda Whitaker, Yo-Yo hails from Compton and is a rapper’s rapper – absolutely adored by real heads. In her early days, she was closely associated with Ice Cube, first appearing to the world as a feature on his It’s A Man’s World. He returned the favour on You Can’t Play With My Yo-Yo, a standout track on her brilliant debut album, Make Way For The Motherlode, from 1991. Strongly feminist and defining herself as an activist, Yo-Yo founded the IBWC (Intelligent Black Woman’s Coalition) and the Yo-Yo School Of Hip-Hop, aimed at supporting young women to empowerment and knowledge through rap. “[The] message I was trying to send was to give them a little history on hip-hop and music and how powerful it really is,” she has said of her work as an educator. “I just wanted to talk about living within your truth and inspiring them to be great.”

Must hear: You Can’t Play With My Yo-Yo

4: Little Simz (1994- present)

“People think I’m rude, or antisocial, or awkward, because I’m not chatty,” Little Simz has said. Sometimes she might be an introvert. This British rapper is very much of the new school – she had self-recorded and uploaded four mixtapes by the age of 20 – but has something of an old soul. There is nothing superficial in her music, which creates an epic, almost theatrical atmosphere along with Simz’s use of experimental glitches and sharp lyrical insights. By turns confessional and oblique, Little Simz has already pushed hip-hop in fantastical new directions, and has more than earned herself a spot among the best female rappers. “Above all, it’s me saying my truth and I think there’s great power in that,” she has said. “There’s great strength in vulnerability, so I persevered and I’m really happy I did.”

Must hear: Introvert

3: MC Lyte (1970- present)

In April 2022, MC Lyte organised and helmed I Am Woman: A Celebration Of Women In Hip Hop at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Featuring Da Brat, Trina, Remy Ma, Monie Love, Mumu Fresh, Yo-Yo, Mama Sol, Tierra Whack, Ra Brown and DJ EQUE, it was a showcase for all that women have achieved and continue to pioneer in hip-hop. As one of the best female rappers of hip-hop’s “Golden Age”, MC Lyte is someone who has fought, kicked against expectations and produced some of the greatest rhymes in the business. I Cram To Understand U, written when Lyte was just 12 years old, and first released when she was 16, is every bit as outstanding today as it was in 1987. From her debut album, Lyte As A Rock (which also includes the takedown Paper Thin), through its follow-up, Eyes On This, and all the way to the enormous 1996 hit Cold Rock A-Party, a dive in the MC Lyte catalogue is varied and formidable. “I am just elated that Lyte As A Rock has been able to stay around and be such a part of ‘The Golden Era’ of hip-hop,” Lyte said in 2018. “When I look at all the albums that were released that year alone, it was just like a birthing of a new type of hip-hop. We had all listened so everyone before us, and it was just our turn, and we came and came so differently, so unique in our own space.”

Must hear: Cha Cha Cha

2: Roxanne Shante (1970- present)

Listening to Roxanne Shante is to experience a kind of blinding fury and primal scream. Her perfect words fly like daggers, and no one is safe from her whirligig wrath – other male rappers, other female rappers, idiot guys on the street, idiot girls on the street… on it goes. And all of this talent, skill and energy came from a 14-year-old girl. Shante grew up in Long Island, in New York state, around street rap, and as a youngster was “able to rhyme all the time about anything”, she has said. “Hearing other people battling from the window and thinking, Just wait until my turn comes.” Soon it did, as she cut the very first diss track (1984’s Roxanne’s Revenge), in response to U.T.F.O.’s Roxanne Roxanne. Her style caught fire across the world, inspiring thousands of teenagers to pick up the mic. Shante has really had to struggle for recognition – famously, she should have won a 1985 battle rap contest against Busy Bee Starski, the judges admitting they voted against her because she was female – but she has unquestionably paved the way for all the other rappers on this list.

Must hear: Brothers Ain’t Shit

1: Missy Elliott (1971- present)

The innovation of Missy Elliott is undeniable and – even more remarkably – has been sustained over 25 years and counting. Topping our list of the best female rappers of all time, Elliott transcends genre to take her place among legends such as Prince, David Bowie and Madonna. “For my first album, I didn’t listen to the radio. I didn’t watch videos. I didn’t do any of those things, and I didn’t realise how much that helped me at the time,” she reflected in 2021, in conversation with Doja Cat. “But it helped, because me and Timb[aland, her collaborator and producer], we didn’t mimic. So if we did something far-left, we weren’t afraid, because we didn’t know what was hot anyway.” This charting of her own course has served Missy Elliott well over the decades. From the very start – her tremendous 1997 debut album, Supa Dupa Fly – Elliott has used samples innovatively, rapped using fierce intellect and unconventional rhymes, and created tracks as radio-friendly as they are groundbreaking. And she has always stood up for women. “This is an album for the females,” she said at the time of 1999’s Da Real World. “It’s a build-a-self-esteem album, ​’cause it’s still a male-dominated world… And I feel like it’s time for us to get our own, set our own boundaries and goals.”

Must hear: Work It

Find out where Missy Elliot ranks among our most influential female musicians of all time.

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