“Mama Told Me,” Feminism, And The Hip-Hop Duet

I’ve been thinking a lot about why I like Big Boi and Kelly Rowland’s “Mama Told Me” so much, other than the fact that it’s an utterly irresistible, summery jam that came out just as winter’s descending:

I think it’s mostly that it reminds me of a piece I’d like to see a hip-hop historian write, about the shift from sampling, which renders the sampled voice, be it male or female, passive, to the much more prevalent practice now of having female artists record original hooks and choruses for hip-hop songs that renders so many of them effective duets.

This is, of course, not, a new phenomenon. Jewell, in an oral history of The Chronic published last month in honor of the album’s twentieth anniversary reflected on her role in bringing women’s voices into hip-hop songs, saying ” It all worked. My singin’ over their hard rap lyrics; rap had never accepted that before. I put my soft, sultry R&B singing on their records. Now every rapper has to have a female on their songs.” My regular Twitter interlocutor Soul Honky, to whom I am much indebted suggested an earlier structural explanation: that the popularity of “It Takes Two,” which heavily sampled singer Lyn Collins, prompted a crackdown on sampling that made it legally and financially more expedient to have a female singer record original vocals for a track.

Whatever the origin is, there’s something fascinating about the fact that hip-hop, a genre that gets slammed for the misogyny of its lyrics by legitimate commentators and concern trolls alike, with hugely varying degrees of fairness, is also probably the kind of music that puts men and women in musical conversation within the same song with the greatest frequency. Part of what’s fun about “Mama Told Me” is listening to Rowland’s voice spill out from the limitations of the Solange-level-sunny chorus to take over the song in its second half. Part of what’s fun about listening to Estelle’s “American Boy” is to hear Kanye West, or at least the character he’s playing, flirt with Estelle based on the characteristics she’s laid out for what she’s looking for in a man. As a feminist, one of the reasons I love hip-hop so much is that it’s fun to hear men and women talking to each other instead of past each other, the way they so often seem to be doing in traditional pop and rock.