In the third episode of ABC’s addictive new musical drama Queens, the ladies of the fictional rap group at the center of the series are contemplating a rebrand. They’ve just flopped spectacularly onstage and the experience—along with a scathing critic's review—forces them to rethink their image. The ladies are in their 40s now and not a single one of them is living the lives they rapped about 20 years ago when they dominated hip-hop as the Nasty Bitches. Regardless of how brilliantly subversive the name was, it didn’t fit their current vibe and it needed to go. Considering the show’s title it’s pretty obvious what the ladies landed on, no?
That scene is perhaps the sharpest articulation of what Queens is really aiming to do with its story. If you haven’t caught an episode, the drama traces the rise and fall of a girl group that became rap icons in the late '90s before imploding at their height for all the typical reasons that often besiege groups (infighting, money, long harbored grudges, etc.) and the comeback they stage 20 years later when a younger artist samples their biggest hit and goes viral.
It’s a premise that’s quite familiar, especially if you caught Peacock’s Girls5Eva earlier this year, but the hook of Queens is undoubtedly its authenticity. Two of the show’s leads—Brandy and Eve—are multi-platinum, Grammy-award winning R&B and hip-hop icons while another lead, Naturi Naughton, did a brief stint in the hit ‘90s girl group 3LW before moving to acting (Notorious, Power); the soundtrack is produced by heavyweight hitmaker and Verzuz mastermind Swizz Beatz; legendary choreographer Fatima Robinson is behind the performances; and the show is executive produced and partly directed by Tim Story, who helmed a smattering of classic R&B music videos during the Y2K era.
And yet the best thing about Queens lies beneath the show's appeal.
Created by Scandal writer and co-executive producer Zahir McGee, Queens breaks new ground by shifting the lens to women in their forties navigating the world of hip-hop and treating them with a level of respect we never see on television. Beneath all the juicy plot lines and the catchy records that allow Brandy and Eve to showcase why they’ve been icons for so long is a rather savvy critique of the homophobia, misogyny, sexism, racism and ageism that women of color often experience in the music industry.
When we meet the ladies of Nasty Bitches in the show’s pilot, they’re all nursing wounds that still linger from their time at the top. Xplicit Lyrics (Brandy) is failing to launch herself as a singer-songwriter and is battling regret over her relationship with the group’s manager—a relationship she kept secret out of fear that she wouldn’t be taken seriously as an MC. Professor Sex (Eve) is now a mother of five who resents her husband for not appreciating the career sacrifices she made for the family. Jill Da Thrill (Naughton) has been closeted since the group’s heyday and is weary of the double life she’s been living and finally ready to stand in her truth regardless of how terrified she is. And rounding out the quartet is Butter Pecan (Nadine Velazquez), who is the only member of the group that’s maintained any semblance of relevancy but is struggling to figure out who she is outside of the fame.
Queens is far from the first show to zero in on the interior lives of women in hip-hop. Lee Daniel’s Empire became a cultural phenomenon largely off the strength of Taraji P. Henson’s ferocious portrayal of Cookie and Mona Scott-Young built a reality TV empire that rivals Bravo's Real Housewives franchise by shining a spotlight on the wives, girlfriends and mistresses of Y2K era rap stars on Love & Hip-Hop and its many spin-offs. But those shows are driven by women fighting to be seen or heard or respected by the men in their lives. Their stories are centered around how they see themselves in relation to their men. Rarely do we see a show—scripted or “reality”—where women in hip-hop are not only in the spotlight, but have full agency over themselves. And aside from watching Salt-N-Pepa work through their old shit to relaunch their groundbreaking group on a VH1 reality series back in 2007 we haven't had a show that explored middle aged women trying to reignite a rap career.
But for all the action that’s packed into Queens, the show is also a sober reminder of how there's little to no representation of women over 40 in mainstream rap.
The fictional Queens hit their peak during the gilded age of the ’90s and early ’00s hip-hop. That was a time when more than just a handful of women dominated rap and helped push the genre towards becoming the superpower it is and yet the real life queens that ruled during that era like Foxy, Kim, Missy, Lauryn Hill, Eve and Trina haven’t had the same kind of continued reverence as their male peers. Sure we’ve never stopped giving them their props, the same we've never stopped giving Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Salt-N-Pepa their props for helping build hip-hop but there's never been much space for women outside of a particular age range aside from the nostalgia for the eras they arrived from. Just look at the ranking Level did last year of the 40 rappers having the best rap careers over 40. Missy was the only woman that made the cut—not Trina or Remy Ma, who have spent years on our television screens anchoring different Love & Hip-Hop casts; not Kim, who has put out several projects in recent years; and not Hill, who continues to tour extensively (which is where the money really resides for artists these days). It's one thing for a million eyeballs to tune in to Eve and Trina have the first female rap Verzuz matchup, but how much of that audience then engaged with the records they might have missed from their catalog?
Granted most of our veteran queens have stopped recording as much as the guys that came up alongside them, so it’s easy to place the blame on their own lack of output. But how much of that is due to the ageism of a genre that favors youth and is slow to support older women? And how much of that is due to the sexism of the music industry and the hellish expectations and judgement we place on women that make it unappealing for them to want to grow older in rap?
Because rap is a genre that is primarily dictated by young listeners, even the genre’s most revered elder statesmen have had to reckon with the quickly shifting trends of the digital streaming age. But what they don’t face is the criticism women get. We might tell men that we believe they are "too old" to rap about a certain thing, but we don’t tell them they’re "too old" to dress or behave a particular way. We use age as another way to police women, and while that thinking is entrenched in the music industry it is especially pervasive in rap culture which often prioritizes women’s bodies over their talent.
We’re in the greatest time for young women in hip-hop since Nicki Minaj single-handedly broke out a dozen years ago with a venomous flow and outlandish looks and opened the door for a new generation of ladies. This is the age of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion and Doja Cat and Lizzo and City Girls and Flo Milli and Latto and Kaash Paige. We have an abundance of young women torching archaic notions of what rap queens should look and sound like, but what we don’t have are the perspectives of women that have reached middle age. Minaj and Rapsody are the closest we have at the moment, as both women are approaching 40, but that's only two voices. We should have than that. We deserve more than that.
Before the Nasty Bitches changed their name to Queens we see the ladies exasperated by a scathing review. The critic took an easy shot at their age and the idea that they were “too old” to be rapping about money, sex and drugs—a point that’s comes around later in the episode when Professor Sex is summoned to her daughter’s school and shamed for her group’s name. Since Queens is its most fun when its showing the ladies channeling their personal dramas into music, the episode climaxes with the group creating a record that summed up how they wanted to reintroduce themselves as women over 40. The result is a potent empowerment anthem that celebrates working moms and getting a new lease on life—very much a different take on "Hot Girl Summer."
Though Queens succeeds in its mission to create a frothy musical drama worthy of being appointment viewing (it doesn't help that it's got Brandy and Eve 100% in their bag as musicians and actresses) the real magic of the show is it's commitment to envisioning a universe where it’s not such a far flung idea to see elder rap stateswomen making a splashy comeback, and being embraced beyond the nostalgia circuit that we tend to limit our veteran women to.