Late Thursday night, Yaasameen Garrett, 23, was sitting at home in Dallas, watching a YouTube Live of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion hyping up the release of their new music video for “WAP.” Garrett knew to expect something big — the song was Cardi’s first release of 2020, and the lead single off her second studio album.
When the video finally dropped at midnight, it made a splash as big as Garrett’s expectations. It features a mansion replete with breast-shaped fountains; rooms filled with snakes and jaguars; and cameos from Kylie Jenner and female rappers including Normani, Rosalía and Rubi Rose. Notably, no men are featured in it.
The song itself is bold, sampling from Frank Ski’s 1993 “Whores In This House” and flipping it on its head. In it, Cardi and Megan rap explicitly about their own sexual encounters. Critics hailed it a “sex-positive triumph,” applauding the women for being “unruffled by respectability politics and slut-shaming.”
Garrett wasn’t shocked by the raunchiness of the video or the song; as a fan of both Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, she says she knew to expect that from the artists. For Garrett, the surprise came later, when she started reading other people’s reactions online: “I saw all this controversy, and I was like, what is going on?”
Shortly after its release, several high-profile men began weighing in on the song. Ben Shapiro, a conservative political commentator, called it “really, really, really vulgar.” James P. Bradley, a Republican congressional candidate in California, said it made him “want to pour holy water in my ears.” Speaking to Far Out magazine, artist CeeLo Green said, “I get it, the independent woman and being in control, the divine femininity and sexual expression. I get it all.” But “at what cost?” Green asked.
Garrett didn’t understand why this song, of all others, garnered such a heated response. “Here are women celebrating themselves, bragging about themselves, loving themselves,” she says. “And here are men — and some women, even politicians — weighing in. Don’t you have better things to talk about than a rap song?”
For many women, the controversy speaks to an issue that extends beyond the rap world: the policing of women’s sexuality, and particularly Black women’s sexuality. Carsen Hendrix, a 25-year-old fan living in Portland, Ore., puts it like this: “This song is two women being proud of their sexuality and just being very powerful. And men don’t like powerful women.”
The controversy hasn’t stopped “WAP” from being wildly successful. As Complex reports, the music video boasted more than 26 million views in its first 24 hours on YouTube, making it the biggest debut for an all-female collaboration on the platform. The song debuted on Aug. 7 at No. 1 on both Spotify and Apple, and on Tuesday became the first female rap collaboration to top Spotify Global.
Hendrix first heard “WAP” over the weekend. “I loved it,” she says. “I think it’s a really catchy song.”
Almost immediately, she started hearing about the backlash, too. First, she learned that Black women were angry that Kylie Jenner was featured in the video. But then she saw that others were dismissing Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion as bad role models for their lyrics. “And I started thinking about all the other songs that are just as, if not more, sexually explicit that are written by men,” she says.
Carsen wasn’t alone. Many fans wanted to know why male rappers’ explicit, even violent, lyrics — from Too Short’s “Freaky Tales” to Eminem’s “Kim” — hadn’t been torn apart like “WAP.” Megan Thee Stallion herself weighed in on Monday, pointing to Three 6 Mafia’s 1999 “Slob On My Knob.”
This type of criticism isn’t new for female rappers, according to Zalika U. Ibaorimi, an African diasporic studies scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. She points to artists like Lil’ Kim and Salt-N-Peppa, who rapped sexually explicit lyrics in the 1990s and early 2000s and who were also met with pushback.
“All the criticisms are honestly primarily rooted in misogynoir,” says Ibaorimi, highlighting the intersection of sexism and racism that Black women face.
In hip-hop specifically, there’s an “imaginative retelling of Black life” that defines the genre, Ibaorimi says. When rappers like Snoop Dogg deem themselves as “pimps,” it casts Black women as prostitutes or “hoes,” Ibaorimi says.
“It’s interesting to see hip-hop go through this transition where we’re rejecting these patriarchal figures,” she says. “We’re letting the ‘ho’ speak.”
Another interesting aspect of “WAP,” Ibaorimi points out, is that Cardi B raps from a specific perspective; she has always been vocal about her past work as a stripper. Amid the backlash to the song, Cardi announced Wednesday that she now has a page on OnlyFans, a subscription webcamming site, where she promised to release behind-the-scenes content from the shoot.
Rosie Nguyen, a 22-year-old living in Houston and working in finance, admires Cardi B’s openness about sexuality and sex work. Nguyen says that she — along with many women she knows — were raised thinking sex was something not to be talked about or enjoyed.
It wasn’t until Nguyen went to college that she began learning how to have healthy sexual relationships, and how to talk about it, she says. These days, she runs a popular OnlyFans account. When she weighed in on the “WAP” controversy on Twitter — pointing out the double standard of sexualizing women but criticizing their sexual liberation — male users shot down her arguments. “If you have onlyfans in your bio/name your opinion doesn’t matter,” one user wrote.
“Women deserve respect,” Nguyen says. “Whether or not they have they sex, whether or not they have an OnlyFans [page], whatever they choose to do with their own bodies. None of this invalidates who she is and her accomplishments.”
For many female fans, that sentiment is central to the power of “WAP.” Garrett says she was also raised in a household where she was “preached about modesty and being a lady.” More than anything, she wishes “people would just let women make their own decisions.”
“If you listen to the song and you don’t like it, then move on,” Garrett says. “Don’t bash women who do like the song, and who do feel liberated by it.”