In almost every corner of American life, the battle of the sexes is heating up. With Missy Elliot becoming the first female rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Lizzo at the top of the charts and Megan Thee Stallion declaring 2019's warmest months Hot Girl Summer, women are finally ascendant in hip-hop. This is equally true in St. Louis, where a trio of female musicians are preparing to represent the city at one of the biggest events in the industry.
Earlier this year, St. Louis artist Kayla Thompson — better known as KVtheWriter — moved to Atlanta to expand her creative horizons. When she applied for the A3C Conference and Festival, the hip-hop equivalent of SXSW, she was hoping to land her first major show in her new hometown. Initially, she was passed over for the showcase of her choice. But a friend told her, "Don't trip. I got a feeling you'll be performing at that festival anyway."
Less than two months later, Thompson was contacted by another St. Louis native living in Atlanta, Fatimah Hunter. The founder of Austin Hunter Management Group and sister of local hip-hop artist Mvstermind, she was producing her own showcase at A3C and wanted St. Louis' top talent to participate. In addition to a number of male rappers, she invited Thompson and two other high-profile women — pinkcaravan! and Roisee. The event, The New Lou: St. Louis Back on the Map, took place Tuesday, October 8, at Smith's Olde Bar.
The three women caught the attention of Hunter's team through a slate of new releases. And while each project is distinct, they collectively represent the full spectrum of hip-hop in the city.
At the brightest end of the scale, pinkcaravan! makes rainbow-colored, bubblegum rap. The artist drew on her encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture, endless references to iconic toys and an impressive selection of schoolyard chants to create the deeply eccentric, instantly nostalgic tracks on last year's 2002. As she notes, "Being a kid, I miss it. So I always like to talk about it."
On the other hand, Roisee — the nom de guerre for St. Louis artist Uriel Bush — creates some of the most hardcore, metal-influenced tracks in hip-hop. "I'm so into the end of the world," she laughs. "Just everyone surviving and getting in touch with themselves." Earlier this year, she released her first full-length album, Summon the Roisee, a collection of intricately layered, guitar-driven songs that sound a little like System of a Down if the band was fronted by Rico Nasty.
Thompson, who experiments with a number of styles, occupies the middle ground between these extremes. As KVtheWriter, she dropped two EPs this year — Love Sucks! in April and The Ratchet Tapes in July. The first is a typically St. Louis production with airy beats and laidback flows, while the second embraces trap music and sexual empowerment in the vein of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. Both albums are part of a larger trilogy, which Thompson describes as "a romcom, a movie that starts off with a person getting their heart broken, then this phase where they kind of wile out, and then they find true love in the end."
While the three artists are distinctive, their music shares some common objectives. Like many young women, they are challenging the traditional notions of gender — especially the narratives around sex, money and power. In one of the clearest examples, "B.A.N." from The Ratchet Tapes, Thompson flips the usual script and tells her male counterpart, "I see the bitch in you." Bush, who expresses a similar sentiment on her record, says that she "created Roisee, because she's a badass. She can say anything. She can do anything." And it takes that kind of confidence to succeed in a male-dominated industry.
Though pinkcaravan! takes a more subtle, introspective approach to the issue, she achieves an equally powerful effect. Other than a few oblique references, she ignores men altogether — focusing instead on a unique juxtaposition of childhood indulgences like candy and toys with serious issues like depression and suicide. "When I talk about dark subjects," she says, "I kind of like to make it not so in your face, to make it hidden. For me, it's just fun to do that."
The A3C Conference and Festival allows emerging artists to connect with hip-hop legends like Mos Def, Big Daddy Kane and Tip "T.I." Harris. A model of resilience, Thompson got her elevator pitch together early. "Because I really want to network," she says. "I really want to meet some people in the industry." Bush, however, mostly looked forward to spending more time with her fellow St. Louis musicians. "We were talking about having a tour bus," she says, "where everyone is together and bonding." But all three women agreed that they were excited to showcase their work on the national stage.
It's an important step for these highly ambitious artists. "I'm trying to get more music out there, more visuals," pinkcaravan! states. "I gotta keep going." She plans to drop her next project in 2020. But in the meantime, the former Webster University film student is directing videos — like the wistful, neon-soaked piece she created for Meela Li's "Dinero."
Bush wants to use her work to show other women "that you can be honest with yourself through music," she says. "I have songs that talk about depression, anxiety, self-image. Girls shouldn't feel like they have to change to be loved." To that end, she is already back in the studio, recording another full-length album for release this year.
And aside from planning an elaborate rollout, Thompson is done with the final installment in her trilogy of EPs. Eventually, she wants to collaborate with the biggest names in music, like Beyoncé, Rihanna and Kendrick Lamar. But Thompson, who published a book of poetry in 2017, considers herself a writer above all else. She recently finished her first novel, a work of science fiction, and hopes to turn it into a movie — then produce the score for the film.
Thompson says of herself, though it applies to all of these artists, that her projects show that women live complex lives.
"We're not just sexual beings," she says. "We're not just having our hearts broken or breaking hearts. We live and we exist in these stories."
She concludes, "This is the new Lou. There's some great music coming out of this city."