One of the most impressive verses dropped by a female rapper this year can be heard on Nicki Minaj’s latest record Queen, but the bars in question didn’t come from the monarch herself. With her husky flow and dancehall swagger, Foxy Brown leans hard into the beat on the album standout “Coco Chanel,” reminding listeners exactly why she’s still “the most influential female rapper” to Minaj and an entire generation of hip-hop fans.
Although Brown’s legacy has since been marred by various run-ins with the law and a hearing problem that stalled her time in the spotlight, this still doesn’t explain why the ‘Chyna Doll’ is sometimes overlooked in comparison to fellow artists from the late ‘90s and early noughties. Long before Minaj earned “Fifty K for a verse, no album out,” Foxy also first built a career with features that outshone her male counterparts, and once her first record did drop, the entire industry sat up and took notice.
Plenty of women had found success rapping before, but the release of Ill Na Na arrived during a watershed moment for hip-hop, helping to legitimize female rap as a commercially viable art form. Two years later, Brown’s sophomore album cemented her status as a trailblazer and to this day, Chyna Doll is still one of only five female rap records to top the Billboard charts. Fans haven’t heard much from the Trinidadian rapper since the release of her third record in 2001, but with the success of “Coco Chanel,” there’s no better time to remind a whole new generation why Foxy Brown is still the illest there is.
Remember when Nicki Minaj devoured the competition with her verse on “Monster?” Now imagine if she’d dropped those bars as a teenager in the ‘90s when the industry was even more hyper-masculine than it is today. If you can do that, then you’re close to understanding the game-changing impact that Foxy Brown had when she made her debut on the remix to LL Cool J’s “I Shot Ya.” Hip-hop fans couldn’t believe it when the young star blew rap stalwarts like Prodigy and Fat Joe out of the water with her very first recording, and it wasn’t long before Brown would be signed up by Def Jam at the tender age of 17.
On November 19, 1996, Foxy dropped her debut album, Ill Na Na, which was certified Platinum just three months after its release. Although Blackstreet collaboration “Gotta Get You Home” was chosen to be the first single, it was Brown’s follow-up duet with JAY-Z that would become her signature song, and to this day, “I’ll Be Good” is Foxy’s highest charting track. However, those who are quick to credit Hov with this success would do well to remember that this now classic song actually helped propel a young JAY-Z to stardom in the first place, and not the other way round.
When misogynistic critics weren’t trying to rob Brown of her agency by claiming that she was a puppet controlled by the men around her, they instead refocused the conversation around her ongoing rivalry with Lil’ Kim. Once friends, the pair both released their debut albums within seven days of each other, which led to various comparisons in the media thanks to their uncompromising sexuality and shared focus on gangsta culture. Instead of celebrating the combined impact that these debut albums had on women in hip-hop, empowering them in ways never seen before, the two were instead pitted against one another in what would become one of rap’s most enduring beefs.
To directly compare Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim does a disservice to both artists, much like the current discourse that regularly pits Nicki Minaj against Cardi B. Just because they were both the ‘First Ladies’ of their respective crews doesn’t mean that Foxy or Kim were identical by any means, and it was hugely misogynistic to suggest otherwise.
Naming herself after Pam Grier’s badass heroine from ‘70s cinema, Foxy Brown embodied the toughest aspects of blaxploitation with her style. Through songs like “Hot Spot” and “Gotta Get You Home,” the young artist would boast about everything from her sexual prowess and designer wardrobe to her alleged ties with organized crimes. Real or not, such tales positioned the ‘Big Bad Mamma’ as a force to be reckoned with, both in and out of the studio.
In videos like “B.K. Anthem,” Foxy proved that she could play with the big boys without stripping down, drawing attention to her rugged street delivery instead of any physical attributes. However, you only need to glance at any of her album covers to see that sexuality still played a vital role in Brown’s image. Although some might find her exploits degrading to women, it genuinely seems like Foxy enjoyed playing up that persona for the most part, even if the label might have deliberately emphasized this to sell more records. After all, it’s no coincidence that her mouth is noticeably open on the cover for Ill Na Na, naturally fitting the theme of lyrics such as “Na Na, y’all can’t touch her/ My sex drive all night like a trucker.”
Neither Brown nor Kim were the first female rappers to scale the charts, but unlike Salt-N-Pepa or MC Lyte, Foxy didn’t limit her wardrobe to just baggy clothes, choosing instead to compete with her male counterparts on their own terms. By wearing explicitly feminine clothes in a male-dominated industry, the Trinidadian rapper established a tough but girly persona which commanded the kind of power and attention that could back up the brash confidence of her delivery. In doing so, Foxy also helped make black women visible within the world of high-end fashion, drawing particular attention to her darker skin color and thereby inspiring scores of women who joined her in celebration of their “cocoa-colored” tones.
On the surface, raunchy tracks like “I’ll Be Good” and “Ill Na Na” might seem like nothing more than the female version of a dick measuring contest, but by boldly asserting her sexuality, Foxy Brown took back the power that male rappers so readily snatch from women in their own music. Each filthy remark or provocative boast heard on one of her songs pushed sexual politics forward for women everywhere, helping everyone from Missy Elliott and Nicki Minaj to singers like Rihanna and Beyoncé embrace the raw power of their femininity in whichever way they saw fit.
None of that would matter though if the Big Bad Mamma didn’t have the skills to match her bravado, but the young star easily held her own, and even outshone industry legends like Method Man and JAY-Z on a regular basis, continuing to refine her sound with each consecutive release.
The evolution of Foxy’s sound culminated in the stunning fusion of Patois, gospel and hip-hop that characterized her third album, Broken Silence. Unfairly slept on at the time of its release in 2001, the 18-track record remains her most personal, flitting between coy sexual antics on the Kelis collab “Candy” and hard-hitting confessionals like “The Letter,” which was written in the wake of an earlier suicide attempt.
Aside from the 2008 mixtape, Brooklyn’s Don Diva, the last time fans heard from Foxy on an official release was in the final bars of Broken Silence. The title track ends with a verse where Brown ruminates on her legacy and the pain that she’s suffered, calling out to God for the strength to carry on. In an industry that still actively mocks vulnerability and weakness, hip-hop needs more rappers who are willing to open up in this way, and the fact that Foxy did so such a long time ago speaks volumes about her artistry.
Much has changed in the industry since Foxy Brown recorded her last album 17 years ago, but to the delight of fans everywhere, the Trinidadian star is finally ready to break the silence with the release of her fourth record, King Soon Come, which is scheduled to drop later this year.
Some critics might doubt that Foxy Brown still has what it takes to compete with the new upstarts who have risen in her absence, but as her killer verse on “Coco Chanel” proved yet again, this is one queen that won’t break so easily. In fact, Nicki Minaj might hold the throne of hip-hop right now, but if the title of Foxy’s next album is anything to go by, then she might very well claim a crown of her own once again, reminding everyone why she’s still the illest around.
If you haven’t already, read our review of Nicki Minaj’s ‘Queen’ right here.