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PART 2/3: LL Cool J’s “Around the Way Girl”

February 6, 2010

“Girl from around way without the L Cool J”

-Nicki Minaj, “Who’s Ya Best M.C.?,” from Suckafree

As the female protégé of a misogynistic rapper, the female version of Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj undoubtedly conforms to certain dichotomized gendered norms. She at times operates in sync with dominant (patriarchal) discourse while at other times resists against the status quo. In her book Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, Hip Hop scholar Tricia Rose theorizes that, as voices who are sometimes in affirmation of the status quo of the dominant society (patriarchy) and at other times in opposition with it, female rappers’ relationship to male rappers must be understood as dialogic in nature.

The two parties, constantly engage one another in dialogue and thus, as Rose terms it, “push and pull” discourse. Rose says: “The concept of dialogue, exchange, and multidirectional communication is a useful way to understand the contradictory aspects and partiality of means of communication [in rap music]” (Rose 1994:148). This dialogue with the male narrative lends itself heavily to the manner in which female rappers fashion their pseudo-masculine personas. In her revisions of the male narrative, via her constant remixes of male rappers’ songs, the complexity and controversial nature of Minaj’s voice as a female rapper lies in the inherent contradictions at work in her remixes.

Implicit in Nicki Minaj’s Signification onto the male narrative is a strategic process of identity construction, relying primarily on the male narrative and male voice to help shape her public image as a hardcore female rapper. In a freestyle titled “Who’s Ya Best M.C.?” Minaj Signifies on male rapper LL Cool J’s “Around The Way Girl,” revising a key trope of Black womanhood within Hip Hop. While there is nothing problematic about Minaj’s decision to engage a male rapper (by remixing his song) and simultaneously disassociate herself from him, her reasons for doing so are nothing short of devastating, as I will explain.

When Nicki’s “Who’s Ya Best M.C.?” is read in relation to LL Cool J’s “Around the Way Girl,” one observes that the differences between the two are vast and distinct; what is notable are the ways in which the around the way girl’s identity is revised and reconstructed (or perhaps “deconstructed” is more fitting).

In comparison to comparable songs which laud the average girl from the ‘hood,’ (which is essentially who the around the way girl is) by objectifying her and citing her sexual capacities as testament to her magnitude-a faulty mode of empowerment often replicated by hardcore female rappers- “Around the Way Girl” is a breath of fresh air. It subjectifies the female subject by honoring her not for her sexual satiation abilities, but for her mental capacities.

In LL Cool J’s song, the identity of the around the way girl is constructed with intent focus on her person. The song focuses on her attitude and thus her agency (as much of her agency lies in her attitude) as she is depicted as a “woman [who] ain’t scared to do her thing” and whose “bad attitude” (in no way affiliated with the Bad Girl motif, which the “around the way girl” predates) puts men “in a good mood.”

What is most notable about LL’s description of the around the way girl are his efforts to (and I would deem success at) grant(ing) her subjectivity as an erotic subject whose desirability is grounded in her womanly strength and her status as a “neighborhood jewel.” The around the way girl is “crazy cool” and desired by all men, ranging from brothers in the ’hood to businessmen in suits. Her identity is constructed in relation to her actions and activities, whether she is “watching all the brothers on the basketball court” or “going to the movies with [her] home girls crew.” Additionally, her “bad” attitude is emphasized as well as the wise and confident air she has about herself. While her outward appearance does play a role in her identity construction, it does not dominate her personhood nor is her appearance overly sexualized. While erotic undertones are embedded in LL Cool J’s rendition, they are not purely sexual nor limited only to her physical self:

Bamboo earrings, at least two pair

A Fendi bag and a bad attitude…

sweet as brown sugar with the candied yams, honey coated complexion…

silky milky her smile is like sunshine…

rayon, silk or even denim…

perm in your hair or even a curly weave

with that new edition bobby brown button on your sleeve

wear your gold in the summer with your biking shorts

With no graphic description of her body save for her pretty face and gorgeous smile, throughout the song’s entirety, she is never once called sexy. Rather, she is described as a “sweet” “independent” “crazy cool” “cutie.” The attractiveness of the around the way girl lies in the depth and fullness of her womanhood: from her flawless skin to her dazzling smile to the ever-changing style(s) of her hair to her designer handbag, this “sista” is “fly!” None of which is lost on LL Cool J: he links the around the way girl’s identity to the commodities in her possession, but he does not define her solely by her possessions nor does he describe her as a commodity herself. Her fashion sense and status as an erotic subject is reminiscent of the Fly Girl subject position (think Salt N Pepa). The body politics of the Fly Girl “highlight[s] aspects of Black women’s bodies considered undesirable by American mainstream standards of beauty (Roberts 1998)” (Keyes 269).

In female rap duo Salt-N-Pepa’s video “Push It,” the femcees whom Keyes credits with the canonization of the Fly Girl image are clad in skin tight, curve-hugging leotards in which they romp about on stage. Whining and grinding, they are essentially owning both the literal and figurative spaces (of) their bodies as sites of erotic empowerment. Via performance, these body politics give voice to the Black aesthetic and privilege the Black female body. By accentuating the buttocks, hips, breasts and thighs of Black women, the Fly Girl works to deconstruct dominant racist ideology which privileges an aesthetic exclusive of Black women’s beauty and harmful to their psyches. Keyes connects this body politics and its embrace of the erotic to Audre Lorde’s theory of the erotic as power, which advocates the transformative power of the erotic (and eroticism) as a potential place of healing, self-acceptance and self-love for Black women. Cultural critic bell hooks elaborates, stating: “…Black women’s erotic consciousness is textualized around issues of body esteem: ‘Erotic pleasure requires of us …the capacity to be in touch with sensual reality; to accept and love our bodies; [to work] toward self-recovery issues around body esteem; [and] to be empowered by a healing eroticism’….” (ctd. in Keyes 269). The Fly Girl subject position, with its purposeful shift in body and sexual politics, is rife with opportunities for female empowerment through the usage of the erotic, but when the erotic is limited only to the sexual, it is impossible for its potential for empowerment to ever be fully realized.

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