Within a medium as pervasive as the pop music industry, the designation of a work as a “cultural reset” influences all those who take note of its meaning. A “cultural reset,” as first coined by actress Rose McGowan, is defined as a power shift, a vehicle through which normative culture is examined and questioned (Rennex et al.). The modernity of the term pairs accordingly with the recent arrival of such a shift—brought on by the controversy of “WAP” by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion (2020). When women—and Black women in particular– magnify themselves, structural racism and misogyny as a unit becomes thinly veiled. In both lyrical content and video, the artists exploit the discomfort of white heteropatriarchal society, reclaiming not only female sexuality but also its accompanying self-sovereignty.
Released in August of this year, “WAP” is a hip-hop track on which the rappers trade verses over a trap beat, accompanied by a notable, recurring sample from Frank Ski’s 1993 Baltimore club classic, “Whores in This House” (Blanchet). The track’s defining characteristic is its lyrical content, which primarily features sexually explicit messages conveyed through references, innuendos, and willful directives. The song’s focal point, namely female genitalia,
successfully transforms the subject of female arousal into a device for self-established power. Pete and Almánzar collectively boast of a high sex drive, an intrinsic quality that enables them to ensnare male attention and simultaneously maintain control over men’s thoughts and actions. Lyrically, the track more than suffices in its shameless declaration of sexuality. In combination with its music video, directed by Colin Tilley, the erotic images depicted in verse are translated into visual representations, from breast-themed fountains to provocative choreography performed in revealing outfits (Cardi B, 0:00 – 4:11). The theme of female sexuality is notably present, almost inescapable. The inaccuracy, however, lies in the mislabeling of “WAP” as a purely X-rated track with nothing more to contribute. Tilley’s music video is rife with imagery that showcases another central concept: women in positions of power, their sexuality a defining source of independence and thus, a visual sense of status. The choice setting of the rappers’ escapades is a towering mansion, complete with big cats, gold decor, and a seemingly endless number of purposed rooms (Cardi B, 0:00 – 4:11). These images flaunt wealth and simultaneously a prideful awareness of that wealth, prescribing the notion that female sexuality and power are synonymous, at the very least mutually inclusive. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion seek to communicate this correlation through all means available to them as artists, and the delivery of that communication more than succeeds among audiences, whether favorably or unfavorably.
To examine the track as a whole necessitates a closer examination of the artists who brought it to life, particularly their roles in relation to the hip-hop music industry. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion are two of the industry’s most dominating figures, each contributing heavily to the steadily growing genre of female rap. Individually, the artists have enjoyed monumental success within the past two years; Almánzar won a total of five trophies at the 2017 BET Awards during her debut year alone, while Pete won best female hip-hop artist at the 2020 ceremony (Freeman and Grein). Given that both women are featured on a multitude of chart-topping hip-hop tracks, the cultural significance of their first-ever collaboration was not lost on their fans, nor on wider national audiences. More crucially, their collective success designates them as ambassadors to a genre that is unapologetically Black in sound, appearance, and culture. Worth noting, however, are the social schisms that dichotomize the genre, creating public tension between male and female rappers within the hip-hop game. Outspoken critics of “WAP” condemn its sexual explicitness above all else, labeling it as an example of indecency and negative influence. The hypocrisy of this reasoning lies in the fact that vulgarity is ubiquitous in hip-hop, pervasive especially in tracks composed by male rappers. Men in hip-hop have consistently generated verses characterized almost exclusively by violence and misogyny, the latter of which takes countless forms: degrading names, aggressive commands, and vivid references to sexual acts. Megan Thee Stallion herself cites Three 6 Mafia’s “Slob on My Knob” (1999) as a prime choice for male audiences who take inspiration in these lyrics yet take issue with female artists who engage in similar discourse (Felton). This disparity in standard recalls to attention the matter of bodily possession and the question of ownership when it comes to female sexuality. The regularity with which the artistic output of men is accepted, valued, and celebrated over that of women owes to a frightening reality: that even in art or cultural form, the American patriarchy incentivizes male ownership. When women attempt to reclaim their own sexuality, the correlating consequences take shape immediately—men disapprove, vocalize, and desecrate female success in the rare instances in which society takes note of it.
The necessity of analyzing “WAP” derives from its reception and response, the latter of which assumes a breadth of societal divisions. Within the cusp between performance and critique exists the bind that joins art with social examination. Since its release, the track has created plenty of noise amongst its varied listeners, the spectrum of opinion bookended by two strikingly oppositional viewpoints. One end embraces and even celebrates its message as one of sexual empowerment, while the other, ruled exclusively by conservative commentators, condemns the production for several reasons. In an NPR podcast recorded shortly after the
song’s release, a conversation between Ari Shapiro and cultural critic Taylor Crumpton
spotlights misogynoir as an underlying motivation (Crumpton). As Black women, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion are not immune to the scrutiny of white conservatives, much less Caucasian
males who utilize their privilege in the name of reducing them first as artists and secondly as individuals. Ben Shapiro, a Republican commentator with such a platform, prevails as one of the track’s most prominent critics, whom Crumpton identifies as a “cis-gender heterosexual white man…getting clicks, which will accumulate to revenue to his site” for what she perceives as a “mockery of Black women’s sexuality” (Crumpton). The systemic rejection of Blackness finds itself adjacent to the censure of female-owned sexuality, an intersection that diminishes the value of both. Profiting off deep-rooted contempt has become routine for the white male, one of innumerable efforts made to reclaim the female body from the woman herself.
Slow-paced yet ongoing, the process of dismantling the white patriarchy begins with an understanding of perspectival disparity. The white male perspective, or “gaze” as defined in sexual politics, is fueled by feelings of imperialist nostalgia, a phenomenon identified by feminist author bell hooks. Female sexuality in a male-oriented society takes on a form entirely separate from the woman; it is at best a commodity, an instrument wielded primarily by and for the everyday male. As a concept, imperialist nostalgia accounts for the forcing of one narrative in the dismissal of another. It spotlights a primitive fantasy, one of greed and power, which transcends the historical era and forces a place within the structures of modern-day culture (hooks). It explains the covetous tendencies of the male audience, which claims the female body for its own usage, as something inherently consumable. Unsurprisingly, the Black female perspective is removed from this imperialist narrative, lost to the dominating forces that continue to conquer and colonize the voiceless. The root of its controversy lies in the fact that “WAP” certainly gives voice to the Black woman while paying no heed to the white male. The music video itself features no men, and more notably, the track’s lyrics willfully ignore male pleasure in favor of female pleasure. As history has long depicted, the practice of imperialism is contingent upon two factors: first—the relentless motivation of white supremacy, and second—the unwilling participation of the colonized. The trouble begins here for eager white conservatives; the women of color in “WAP” take no interest in participating, none whatsoever within the notion of humoring modern imperial nostalgia. Their artistic intentions are clear: Black female bodies are fully theirs, autonomous, and thus safe from the threat of colonization. It is this sudden inability to objectify, to commodify, even to simply enjoy female sexuality through the male lens, that renders members of the white heteropatriarchy so unsettled. These Black women relish in long-awaited sexual freedom, celebrating and enjoying their bodies on their own terms and free from other existing gazes. In essence, “WAP” has catalyzed an overturning of the power structure—one that places Black women on top, white men unconventionally underneath.
Within a frenzied consumer society, the structural roles that distinguish buyers from sellers are clear-cut. Men are its unabating consumers and women its anxious vendors, voraciously trained in the practice of persuasion. America relies on this system as a form of patriarchal control, obligating women to market the only “item” that grants them any value. That men regulate the female body is a message whose prevalence is visible within every aspect of popular consumption. In television shows and films, women who aspire for onscreen roles of power must first and foremost appeal to the male survey—in other words, to those who simply choose or do not choose to award it to them. In commercials and advertisements, women quite literally “sell” themselves as products, regardless of the actual product being advertised. The primary argument in question is whether these women are conscious of their own dehumanization. Jean Kilbourne’s documentary Killing Us Softly 4 – Advertising’s Image of Women identifies the girls as “encouraged to see this as their own choice, as a declaration of empowerment,” but that on the deepest level, still sustain male control (Kilbourne). Kilbourne’s argument that women cannot be truly “liberated” through self-sexualization is well-aimed but is missing a key conditional. This “liberation” is illusory only because men still exist as a defining element here, more specifically the resulting gratification they enjoy as a result of this decision. Ingrained even more deeply within this process is the institution of racism; Black women are rare occupants of representation within popular media, much less as primary objects of desire. When confronting the racial issue, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” is noteworthy because as Black female artists, they have successfully redeclared themselves as objects of desire. The track removes the element of men altogether, and thus serves as a differentiation between commodification and objectification. Commodification requires male power, but when a Black woman chooses to objectify herself—it is a statement of her own self-made power.
In several ways, “WAP” has well encapsulated the definition of McGowan’s “cultural reset,” and continues to live up to its title as such. The relevance of the track within the modern discussion of female autonomy displays itself in the vast sea of conversations, debates, and varied opinions that have flourished as a result of its controversy. Beyond the simplicity of “WAP”’s eroticism endures a steadfast narrative that has escaped needed attention for decades, one that chronicles a legacy of power missing from the historical archives. “WAP” is a threat to the long-established heteropatriarchy, a call-to-order for Black women—whose bodily perceptions have been appropriated and colonized—but women who will no longer endure the burden of their own sexuality.
B, Cardi. “Cardi B – WAP feat. Megan Thee Stallion [Official Music Video].” YouTube,
uploaded by Cardi B, 7 Aug. 2020,
Blanchet, Brenton. “Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion Link Up for ‘WAP’.” Spin, 7 Aug. 2020,
Felton, Lena. “Some Are Criticizing Cardi B’s ‘WAP’ for Being ‘Vulgar.’ Her Fans Say to Get
over It.” Https://Www.thelily.com, The Lily, 12 Aug. 2020,
Freeman, Luria. “Everything You Need to Know about Cardi B’s Massive Success.” EW.com,
Grein, Paul. “Lizzo, Megan Thee Stallion & Other Record Setters at the 2020 BET Awards.”
Billboard, 29 June 2020,
hooks, bell. “Bell Hooks – Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” Genius, 1992,
Kilbourne, Jean. “Killing Us Softly – Advertising’s Image of Women.” Kanopy, 2010,
Rennex, Michelle, et al. “The ‘Cultural Reset’ Meme Takes the Piss Out of The Most Iconic
Pop Culture Moments.” Junkee, 20 Feb. 2020, junkee.com/cultural-reset-meme/242991.
Shapiro, Ari. “Hip-Hop That Made the Grown-Ups Uncomfortable: The ‘Controversy’ Around
‘WAP’.” NPR, NPR, 14 Aug. 2020, www.npr.org/transcripts/902659822.