Hip hop is not a democracy. I'll be damned if misogyny hasn't morphed some of the world's greatest lyrical thoroughbreds into whiny little kittens scratching and meowing at the genre's back door. Apparently the CNN of the streets only hires anchors with penises. The bad news is it's not just a gender thing with hip hop. As an international artist you haven't a chance in hell of hitting the big time if you ain't rapping in English. You're confined to your linguistic market, which, be it Spanish or Mandarin, keeps you at a distance from the real taste makers of the game, if not the real money and the almost tangible global cache. Outside of the odd Sean Paul, Pitbull, or Tego Calderon collabo with one of hip hop's finest, there's very little cross cultural pollination between American hip hop and the music generated in local hip hop markets. France's MC Solaar was one of the few non-English speaking rappers to achieve even a modicum of mainstream recognition. For the most part, if it ain't male, English-speaking and American, it does not exist.
Case in point: Sunday before last at the Method Man-Redman show here in Barcelona. Fresh off a win for Best Urban Song at the Latin Grammy's for "No Pidas Perdón" Cadiz-born, Barcelona-based rapper, La Mala Rodriguez was posted backstage left, rocking "Chinese bangs" (in the words of Nicki Minaj) and the shortest blue and yellow striped dress I've ever seen in my life. She was dancing with an attachment, inhibition, and zest you only really see in nonblack hip hop fans. So when one of the promoters pointed her out to me, I said something like, "Ah. Cool.", and turned my attention back to Red and Meth. Ice cold and fresh to death, I didn't even bother getting a photo, much less an interview.
Turns out, La Mala is, for all intents and purposes, Nicki Minaj's Spanish equivalent: she holds the weight of women in [Spanish] hip hop on her shoulders. On a whim this weekend, I downloaded her most recent album, Dirty Bailarina and immediately regretted not approaching her last week. Dirty Bailarina is stellar!! So stellar that Nicki Minaj is hereby relinquished of her sole savior duties forthwith. Minaj's debut album, Pink Friday, drops this week, but you should all consider buying Dirty Bailarina, too. Why? First, there's the fact that in La Mala, we have the chance to promote a dope woman MC while simultaneously undermining the strangehold the English language has on the genre. Two birds, one stone. But also, there's the fact that I believe La Mala is genuinely a better artist than Nicki Minaj. (Yeah. I said it.) Here's how they match up:
Minaj's ass is legendary. No question. La Mala's is not. But ass does not an MC make. Furthermore, while Minaj's sense of style revolves around Harajuku and Barbie (she stays with 2 sticks in her bun), la Mala tends to be a bit more of a fashion peripatetic. She indulges in a little Chinese straw hat action in the video for Bajo Otra Luz with Nelly Furtado, but she also plays Swedish milk maid in 2007's anti-domestic violence anthem, Nanai (the chorus? Mírame los ojos si me quieres matar/ Look me in the eye if you want to kill me... WOW), then time travels to futuristic frau in Toca Toca, only to land in an in unidentified beyond as a Tim Burton-inspired doyenne in 2010's Un Corazón off Dirty Bailarina.
Though Mala's voice doesn't have the emotional heft of an L-Boogie (claro), she riffs some jazzy, unconventional paths up and down the scale, especially on joints like Por Eso Mato and Un Corazón. Most importantly, she does not use autotune. Don't need to say any more.
La Mala, too, rocks famous collabos:
Minaj has got three fewer albums than Mala, but she's already been anointed by the likes of Lil Wayne and Will.I.Am (who seems to be on a quest to pump the most pointlessly catchy music into the atmosphere as BillBoard will allow). Mala, however, is no wallflower. She's been featured on a remix of Akon's Locked Up, multiple tracks with Calle 13, Puerto Rican godfather of rap and reggaeton, Tego Calderon, and most recently Massive Attack, for una combinación mágica. Bajo Otra Luz with Nelly Furtado is also light, poppy, and so different to most of her other work in terms of content that it's not only a cute song, but a testament to the Mala's range.
In Minaj's world (like much of American hip hop), dope girls are cool. On her remake of Lil Kim's Jump Off: "Where my girls that'll transport bricks? You could get it". In just one line she cosigns drug dealing and co-opts bisexuality in order to male-identify.
La Mala's La Niña is the tragic story of a woman who grows up to deal, just like her daddy. She makes buckets of money and wears clothes she once only dreamed of, but her life's a nightmare. The video was banned in Spain for it's depiction of a little girl selling drugs. Drug dealing? Mal.
The biggest difference is that Nicki rides solely for the Game, while La Mala Rides for us all. To her credit, Nicki is conscious of the fact that she is the projected savior of women in hip hop. On Still I Rise, Minaj addresses her female haters, "If Nicki wins, all y'all bitches getting meetings". That is, the future of women in hip hop rides on her success. But thus far, she hasn't gotten much deeper than that. (Yes, I heard her autobiographical song about her mom's murder. Yes, it was kinda good). Nicki's commitment to the game is admirable and unshakeable, and the best of it comes to us via her early mixtapes, in clever remakes of BIG's 'Warning' and the aforementioned 'Jump Off'. Nicki understands her place in the game. But in the world beyond it????
Mala's bird's eye view is as evident in the song and video for which she won a Latin Grammy just weeks ago, as ever. Check out'No Pidas Perdón'.
La Mala comes to an increasingly international stage, inasmuch as shipping yards represent borders. She's some corsetted, Tarantino/Robert Roqriguez badass glamazon, wielding big guns (but not actually shooting them) and dousing fools with gasoline (but not actually lighting them on fire). The lyrics have much more bite. Check the chorus-
Mi madre va a llorar, tu madre va a llorar
No pidas perdón si no lo vas a lamentar
Es, asi la ciudad todo cambia
Cógelo con calma
El amor no desaparece, oye
My mother's going to cry, your mother gonna cry
Don't ask forgiveness unless you regret what you've done
It be's like that. The city changes everything
Take it in stride. Love doesn't disappear. Listen.
Is it me, or is that 'oye'(listen) drawn out suspiciously to sound like 'Oh yeah'? Making it a catchy point of entry for non Spanish speakers? It's like, 'listen anyway.' Listen despite what you see, even when what you see is a shameless flaunting of capitalist markers: the unprotected shipping yard; containers marked 'Gold', 'Capital' and Hyundai. Though things have changed (definitely in terms of her current image) and we may be such a disappointment that our mothers would cry to see us, it's the natural order of things to be worse before they're better. It's what modern life ('the city') has done. It changes people, changes priorities. But love is indestructible. For my money, in a year when La Mala crosses the Atlantic to accept a major award, Mala's 'city' is the globe. And her words are for every one in it. Indeed, "humanidad"--
Estoy tejiendo una tela
Humanidad en vela la cosa encandela
Y ahora te pones en pie
I'm weaving a tapestry
Humankind watching, moved*
'Humanidad en vela' could mean so many things. 'Vela' as in candle? Humanity lit like a candle? 'En vela' as in vigilant, watching? Everyone's watching? If her Grammy's any indication, that lyric is not just impressively dense, but prescient. The world, or at least a wider audience than has been available to her thus far, is watching. We should all be watching. And listening, regardless of native tongue. As Mala says in Ama, Liberate del 4 por 4, or come out the box, free yourself of linear thinking... or does 4-by-4 refer to your gas guzzler? The woman is mean, I tell you.
*encandelar is 'to irritate' but I'm gonna interpret it to mean 'to move' or 'to itch'; to inspire to action, like standing up.