New York’s been in a slump by New York standards for a while. There’s the occasional breakout crew or the singular phenom, but either they sound like they’re from somewhere else or they’re going to jail on racketeering charges. I’ve got a few theories why. New England culture is blue blood at its core. That is, it tends toward WASPy, traditionalist stances. Deadass. So New York hip-hop hasn’t kept up, so to speak, with the hyper-melodic warble rappers or the post-hyper-masculine emcees of the South or the West. Tag in Young M.A., who people are excited about because she’s managed to be both lyrical and populist, a feat that’s eluded the typical New York emcee over the past 15 years.


There’s her viral hit “Ooouuu,” which has been heating up the Billboard charts and grabbing her attention from the likes of Queen Bey and Rolling Stone among others. It has also cemented her as New York’s it emcee of the moment. Music journalism is in a frenzy, so desperate are we for a New Yorker to join the ranks of the continually coverable. But way before Beyoncé put M.A.’s infectious hit on her Instagram, the young Brooklyn native had been grinding to make a name for herself. It’s a coming-of-age story that should be inspiring to folks. She had to try on other identities and hide her sexuality from others to fit in before she let herself shine. She couldn’t really do college, working retail for enough dough to grab studio time. She says she was inspired by one of the most notorious names in hip-hop, 50 Cent, one of the few New York rappers of the new millennium to achieve stardom. In fact, only six New York artists have gone platinum since Y2K. Only two have gone platinum since 2010 and one of those rappers is Jay Z.

You can really do whatever you want

But forget the plaques. Young M.A isn’t just important to New York hip-hop, she’s important to hip-hop as a whole. The industry has a long, checkered history of forcing people whose sexuality lay somewhere on the spectrum to act perfectly hetero-normative. An example might be Da Brat, whose change from baggy gear and kicks to push up bras and bikinis threw some people for a loop. This isn’t to say that clothing is a direct indicator of sexuality. It is, though, a mode of expression governed by the edicts of a society that says how it feels. Da Brat has publicly stated that she’d never answer the question of her sexuality, that she’d prefer it remained a mystery for mystery’s sake. Rightfully so. It’s her choice, and at the time, hip-hop was still an “is you is or is you ain’t” mono-culture. But that’s been changing over the past couple of years, little by little.

Narrow definitions are crumbling

Famously, Macklemore recorded his hit 2012 record “Same Love,” the song that would become the de-facto anthem of Obama’s push for same-sex marriage, with a child in mind. He told the ACLU, “I read this story of this kid, he was bullied and he eventually killed himself. He was 13 or 14 years old.”  He took the song to his producer, Ryan Lewis, but Ryan sent him back to the drawing board, telling him that he needed to find the words from his own perspective. The song was a breakout hit, and together with “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us,” he took home the Best Rap Album Grammy award.

That same year, Angel Haze — a Detroit emcee — released Reservation EP. Pitchfork gave the album an 8.0, saying, “Haze is the latest in [a] line of artists redefining the image of rap, but that’s not to say that [Haze has] abandoned (or is above) rapping for rapping’s sake.” That EP held the growing promise of a rap, R&B marriage that was already taking hold after Drake’s Take Care released in 2011. These shifting definitions of music, where genre became less important than emotive soothsaying, are the crumbling rock of narrow, puritan-like identities.

A new hip-hop

That isn’t to say that hip-hop hasn’t had its fair share of other genre-benders. Andre 3000 is a famous example whose grass skirts, turbans and make-up showed his free-thinking. It’s women, though, who have typically had to deal with rigidity along those lines, keeping their identities secret for fear that no one would listen to what they had to say.

Back to Young M.A. — She is clear about her identity, and she doesn’t want it to define her. It shouldn’t. Her rise and fall as an emcee have nothing to do with what some Vice President thinks. It rests assuredly in her own hands, or so I’d like to think. The relative quietness with which she’s been able to exist in the game today is pretty great. Maybe it means hip-hop is growing up a bit, becoming more inclusive all the while. Maybe now people can be whoever they want to be, and we can enjoy the music.

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