Let’s talk about sex: how Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s WAP sent the world into overdrive

The Guardian - Thu Nov 25 16:30

As winter forces many of us to ditch nights out with friends in favour of nights in on the sofa, Belcalis Alamanzar’s iconic words ring out across the digital ether: “A ho never gets cold!”. In a clip that went viral in 2014, the rapper better known as Cardi B parades up and down a hotel corridor, clad in a plunging, barely-there bralette and tight-fitting skirt. For women who wear little and care about it even less, Megan Thee Stallion has made a name for herself in the same vein. Together, Meg and Cardi would go on to birth a movement with their hit 2020 single, WAP, an ode to female sexuality and “wet ass pussy” which brought a slice of the club to the worlds’ living rooms at the peak of lockdown.

In three minutes and seven seconds of poetic dirty talk, the pair walk us through the spiciest of bedroom sessions, except – contrary to patriarchal norms – they are firmly in the driver’s seat. From fellatio to make-up sex, Cardi and Megan leave their targets weak. With the video quickly becoming a talking point around the world, their sexual desire (and that of women in general) became the subject of fierce debate. While many praised their cheeky candour, others were unimpressed, with Fox News’s Candace Owens going as far as to call Cardi a “cancer cell” who was destroying culture.

For the director and producer Poppy Begum, the idea to make a documentary about WAP fever was fuelled by those extreme and polarised reactions. “I wasn’t expecting the morality police to have their knickers in such a twist over the song,” says Begum. She began thinking about the double standard that exists between male and female rappers. “The moment a woman [makes a song like this], the scrutiny and speculation goes through the roof. It gets so boring after a while.”

Meg and Cardi’s loud, empowering exclamations made an impact, but they’re not the first. Women – and female rappers in particular – have always talked about sex. Together, they are following in the footsteps of artists including Lil Kim, Trina, Missy Elliott and Khia (who was responsible for the iconic 00s anthem My Neck, My Back). And yet, such frank discussion still brings out a combination of wonder and disgust in many people.

‘Upending patriarchal norms’ ... Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B.
‘Upending patriarchal norms’ ... Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B. Photograph: Arturo Holmes/Channel 4 / Arturo Holmes

In Queens of Rap, Begum unpicks people’s opinions, and attempts to put herself in Cardi’s shoes by visiting her old stomping ground in the Bronx, likening the singer’s roots in a tight-knit Dominican community to her own upbringing amid the Bengali community of London’s Brick Lane. Swinging from club to club as a stripper, Almanzar was first known in the streets for her raucous laugh, bold flirtation and slightly misaligned front teeth, which she has since had corrected (see: Got a Bag and Fixed My Teeth).

On the same streets, Begum felt that little had changed since Cardi was first coming up. Despite the online prominence of stars such as Doja Cat, she remarks, “In the offline world, the amount of people I came across that had old school, conservative views … [talking about Cardi and Megan] didn’t always go down well.” The circularity of the debate frustrated her, essentially boiling down to “the same classroom debates I had with my friends in school”.

Begum interviews one particular woman on the street, who recoils at the thought of the WAP lyrics (“She’s a mother”, she says, referring to Cardi). Of course, Beyoncé, who joined Megan on the remix of her hit Savage, is also a mother. While the singer whispers coyly about joining the adult website OnlyFans on the track, she received little to no criticism from the media about being inappropriate. Not only is there a double standard between men and women, but between women themselves; Cardi is framed as “ratchet” – unappealing, unclassy – due to her rags to riches story, while Beyoncé is seen as more respectable, from “better stock”, even.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, the former editor in chief of the women’s news and culture website Jezebel and one of the film’s contributors, says that the music industry hasn’t yet come to terms with women as active participants. Linking Cardi and Megan to early blues artists such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, who made what she refers to as “f*cking and s*cking songs from the 1930s”, Shepherd is keen to emphasise that music about sex is nothing new. However, the industry continues to have a blind spot, and change has not historically come from within. “It took the democratising force of the internet to get us to a place where we could have more than one mainstream woman rapper at one time,” she adds.

A double standard? ... Beyonce and Megan Thee Stallion at the 2021 Grammys.
A double standard? ... Beyonce and Megan Thee Stallion at the 2021 Grammys. Photograph: Kevin Winter/EPA

The no-nonsense attitude to sex – and potentially using one’s body for material gain – as described in WAP also overlaps with conversations on sex work. In the documentary, the presenter Zeze Millz explains that WAP is, to her mind, “soft porn”. To some, to be found attractive and to sell that image back to women as a captive audience, is to be complicit in your own fetishisation. But the journalist Jacqueline Springer makes the important point that for women who want to make it at any cost, it is better to benefit off your own fetishisation than to hand the power to someone else. Controlling their own image – to “reclaim and defame”, in the words of Shepherd – may well be an attempt to make the most of this catch-22 situation.

In some ways, though, the artists remain powerless. For Shepherd, the liberation of making this kind of music may be uncapped, culturally and artistically. The capitalistic aspect of selling music, however, means that “until the industry is dismantled from its very long history of exploiting Black artists”, absolute empowerment isn’t possible.

Queens of Rap paints a colourful history of female sexuality in music, though there is much more still to discuss (beauty standards, for example, and colourism in relation to sexuality could be a whole separate documentary – just look at the incessant trolling Lizzo received after collaborating with Cardi). It highlights that WAP was more than a trend, however, and that a new wave of female rappers will take up the mantle before long. And, as debates and discussions rumble on, there might be room for a follow-up yet.

Queens of Rap is on Channel 4 at 10pm tonight.