If there’s a genre of song more insidious than the Song For Women, it’s something like the Song For Men About Women. The Song For Men About Women is a song that tells men what is wrong with female behavior, in language that the majority of men, one would hope, would never dream of using in front of the woman whose behavior is being criticized.
In this week’s New York Times, music critic Jon Caramanica takes on The Song For Men About Women, in a piece that admittedly tries to go beyond the Man Explains trope, but ultimately falls victim to it. (Criticism of The Song For Men About Women is important no matter the perspective, of course.) Caramanica dissects both “Loyal,” the inescapable Chris Brown single, and “Cut Her Off,” a track by Atlanta rapper K Camp. The “Loyal” hook, which Grace Gordon mentioned on this site not too long ago, goes like so: “When a rich nigga want ya/ And your nigga can't do nothing for ya/ These hoes ain't loyal/ These hoes ain’t loyal.” On “Cut Her Off,” K Camp sings, “It ain't nothing to cut that bitch off/ So what you saying, ho?/ You know I'm the man, ho.”
“Plenty of pop is corrosive in one way or another,” writes Caramanica, “and hip-hop and R&B radio is a cornucopia of tough sex talk, aggressive seductions and more. But outright five-alarm misogyny has become increasingly rare. In the Drake era, especially, emotional accountability is at a premium and not a sign of outsiderness.
“So there’s something dishearteningly retrograde about these songs, and how they diminish women with lack of imagination and ease.
“The savvy and grotesque twist is that while you see the women screaming,” he explains, earlier in the piece, “you can’t hear them — they’re on mute.”
To a certain extent, sure: the screaming women in K Camp’s music video are on mute. And when you hear this song, or “Loyal,” on the radio, it's not likely you'll hear a follow-up response from a female voice. In fact, you’re more likely to hear “Cut Her Off” follow “Loyal” than you are anything remotely like a rebuttal. And I appreciate Caramanica’s prominent response to a topic that not only usually gets glossed over in rap criticism, but that at this point even gets blandly name-checked. That is, acknowledging an awareness of misogyny in hip hop is often treated as just another mark in The Responsible Critic’s notebook, like referencing the “correct” musical influences, or acknowledging the right producer’s vinyl collection, as guided by the specific mentor so-and-so, who was raised in the school of—trails off into jerkoff motion. But rap, and most popular music across genres, has long adopted, and continues to take on, a misogynistic narrative. There is nothing “retrograde” or “rare” about this inclination, in hip hop or elsewhere.
This isn’t a critical failing, it simply underscores the importance of perspective: women who listen to hip hop are generally not surprised by the “disheartening” nature of songs like “Loyal” and “Cut Her Off,” by their willingness to “diminish women” with a “lack of imagination and ease.” Women who listen to hip hop are “disheartened” by the nature of hip hop’s narrative as a consistent, ongoing arc that diminishes us not only with ease, but also with a seemingly willful tendency toward callousness and a total lack of ingenuity.
But even with that fatigue, most women who listen to rap would concede that the music has long sustained and even nurtured a dialogic approach to its perceived moral failings. Think Yo-Yo combatting Ice Cube on “It’s A Man’s World,” Lil’ Kim flipping the R&B seduction standard on its head in “Dreams,” Trina taking Trick Daddy down a notch in “I Don’t Need U,” La Chat getting in her words on Project Pat’s “Chickenhead,” Nicki Minaj going on Hot 97 to engage with Peter Rosenberg’s criticism, and so on: this is a music constantly in conversation with itself, and always open to the other side’s dis. The critical feminist response to “Loyal,” for that matter, was sudden and emphatic—a fact that Caramanica doesn’t acknowledge.
So let’s review what women had to say about "Loyal" before a man went so far as to call it wrong. One of the first times I heard the “Loyal” beat, I remember, was from an idling car on a street corner in Brooklyn last winter. I recognized the voice as Keyshia Cole, and I noticed that the hook had a hell of a melody: “Just got rich,” she sang in the opening bars, “being broke was a bitch/ These niggas ain't loyal/ Fuck it, all the shit that he did!”
That was in early January—about two weeks after the release of Brown’s single. I hadn’t yet heard the original.
Not long after, in mid-February, I downloaded a new mixtape from K. Michelle, who’d released the catchy as hell “V.S.O.P.” about a year before. The tape, Still No Fucks Given, had a “Loyal" remix. “He ain't worried ‘bout you,” K. Michelle sang, counseling a friend: “Worry ‘bout yourself/ Stack that paper, girl, get your checks.”
In April, there was a new remix, from the rapper-singer Mila J, who left the original male contributions in the track, occasionally harmonizing over their lines, and added her own verse: “When a rich chick want you,” she sang on the hook, countering Brown, “And you leave after what I do for you/ These dudes ain’t loyal.”
Just a few days after that release, those three—Keyshia, K. Michelle, and Mila—teamed up with Lil Mo and Da Brat for a girl gang response. “Last, is what I came in on your totem,” Da Brat raps on her verse, “Laugh, as I Instagram your shriveled scrotum.” K. Michelle comes in, all support: “I’ma show y’all how to do it/ Get a team of niggas, put all they ass through it/ Girl, you loved him, but he ain’t love you/ ‘Cause if he loved you, he wouldn’t act like he do.”
Finally, in May, as Grace noted, Chicago rapper Tink got in a biting aside in her single with the singer Jeremih (“Niggas ain't loyal, and I knew from the jump/ when you showed me the ropes that I wouldn't never have trust for ya”).
Soon after, the Chicago singer Raven got in her own remix (“Come on boy, we grown/ Stop playin’ games, boy, we too old”).
Those are seven female responses to one decidedly anti-female song in the span of six months. You could package them into an EP, but it probably wouldn’t sell. The work these women put in to challenge Chris Brown’s radio hit might have gone largely unheard (I came to many of those tracks, after hearing Keyshia’s response from the idling car that night, through excited email chains and Twitter exchanges with other women), but that makes it no less important. It’s as important, I’d argue, as the quiet, subconscious critical distance most women put between themselves and the words when they’re dancing to a song like “Loyal” on any given late night out. Misogyny, as a factor, feels eternal; still, it’s almost more retrograde to conclude this analysis with the idea that women respond to being muted by actually being mute. The damage of Songs For Men About Women, and, as Caramanica writes, the “silencing of women’s voices and needs” in songs like “Loyal” and “Cut Her Off,” is only as legitimate as we make it. We can identify misogyny without reifying it; we can call out an old, tired narrative without making it the new, inevitable end. Women are already doing this. No fewer than seven are already on record against “Loyal"; search Soundcloud or YouTube and you’ll find hundreds more. We’re only really silencing women when we don’t actively seek out their voices.
In his piece, Caramanica concedes that “coarseness will never be expunged from pop, nor should it. When it’s delivered with wit and charm and tackled from unexpected angles,” he continues, saluting the more creatively forgiving verses from Lil’ Wayne and 2 Chainz on “Loyal” and “Cut Her Off,” respectively, and giving a final nod to Nicki Minaj, “it can make for essential listening.” Certainly. But there’s no better version of lyrical wit and charm than the one that turns that coarseness on its head and serves it back to you, reconfigured: Mila J and Keyshia Cole and the others took the Song For Men About Women and made it into a Song For Women About Men. I might dance to “Loyal” in a dark bar on a Friday night, but when it’s over I’m going to head to the booth to request K. Michelle’s version, too.