On the November 20 episode of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, rap’s resident “Icy Girl” Saweetie performed a handful of songs for a live audience. For unfamiliar viewers, Saweetie represented her brand exceptionally well. The performances served glamour, attitude, and…some light choreography. To be fair, the latter has previously been a critique from Saweetie fans; in performances, she is more comparable to Dua Lipa than Janet Jackson when it comes to her moves. She is the queen of lethargic 8-counts and Ambien two-steps. To see her attempt more complex (for her) choreography deserves applause.
Why, then, are people criticizing her so harshly for her “Icy Chain” performance?
I’m of two minds about this. On one hand, the performance was sloppy outside of a select few moments. I feel that Saweetie’s overall issue as an artist-slash-businesswoman is that she tries to do so much in side projects that her music artistry suffers. She’s been criticized for lackluster lyricism and corny hooks throughout her career, as well as the aforementioned choreography issues. In this performance, we saw substantially more in the effort put forth — the results just came up a bit short.
This was mostly due to Saweetie’s frankly terrible breath control. In the comments of the above video, I took note of numerous people that said they felt out of breath after simply watching the performance. My perspective is that if you’re going to sing or rap live and incorporate dancing, you owe it to your audience to at least do it well. There are various ways artists past and present have pulled this off. Saweetie did have a backing track to help her live vocals, so that’s one. Many female artists work around the hurdle of giving live vocals and choreo by separating the two within the performance, sandwiching their dance breaks with singing and rhythmic walking. When neither of those options work for the artist, lip syncing is also an option (although heavily stigmatized). Saweetie, ever ambitious, opted to rap and dance simultaneously despite obviously needing more practice.
Why would she have done this? Put simply, because the bar for women in music is higher than it is for men, especially in rap. Once upon a time, female rappers like Queen Latifiah, MC Lyte, and Missy Elliott could get away with simply working the stage with energy as male rappers have since the beginning of the genre. There were exceptions of course, like Salt-N-Pepa and JJ Fad, but in keeping with the vibe of the ’80s and ’90s, the dancing was more lighthearted. More like a groove than a routine.
But with the mainstreaming of rap as a genre, and the crossover pop success of Nicki Minaj in the 2010s, the stakes for female rappers have been raised to integrate pop sensibilities. As a fan of female rap and pop, I’ve loved this evolution of the last decade. Women are at the forefront of the rap genre, pushing the art to include femininity, dance, fashion, and a new kind of ferocity.
However, along with this, we have the downside: fans being conditioned to expect this higher level of concept and aesthetic from women for every video and performance. An increasing number of female rap acts are being expected to serve live bars within elaborate performances just like women in pop do. If they decide to do choreography in the performance, they are tasked with ensuring they do ALL of the following:
- Remember their choreography
- Serve attractive face
- Don’t ruin their makeup
- Perform choreography in a likely uncomfortable costume and (most likely) high heels
- Don’t fall in those heels
- Don’t have a wardrobe malfunction while dancing
- …..And sing or rap live
All Saweetie was trying to do was live up to the insane expectations of her record label and potential consumers. Yes, she was out of breath during her performance. But when you consider the mental checklist above, you must have an ounce of compassion for her exhaustion. It’s the exhaustion of female artists throughout the industry attempting to be everything all at once, while men can do the bare minimum in preparation and execution of live performances. Even in doing the minimum, some of them still don’t sound good, but they have a better chance of not making themselves sound worse when all they have to do is shuffle the stage.
it is worthy to note that Saweetie’s earlier performances of “Tap In” and “Best Friend” were much better than “Icy Chain.” This was because, you guessed it, she did minimal choreography that allowed her to enunciate her lyrics more. The first performance wasn’t out of this world, but it was firmly within the artist’s current comfort zone.
Too often, fans attempt to create wars between the women in the rap game, arguing about how one could be better if they were more like another. We forget that each of us is unique in our own way, and that we can only succeed in being ourselves. Consumers of Saweetie’s brand should accept that she’ll likely never reach the lyrical level of Megan thee Stallion, Doja Cat, Missy Elliott, or Lil’ Kim. She might never be able to dance and sing with breath control like Chloe Bailey. Put simply, Saweetie could be destined for aggressive mediocrity, and that should be okay. Yet there were people in the comments section saying that because of this one bad performance that Saweetie was undeserving of such an opportunity. SNL is a live weekly program with a musician slot to fill every show. It is impossible to feature only the creme de la creme of artists every episode — they’d simply not have enough artists to choose from. If the post-Spotify era of music has taught us anything, it’s that your fan base doesn’t need to be massive to be successful. For women in rap, I’m glad we’re getting to a place where Black women don’t have to be exceptional to be given attention. Saweetie, in my eyes, is proof of that.
I am confident she’ll continue to grow as an artist while accentuating the positives and hiding the negatives. We should be fine with Black women just being okay. What could feedback look like for this promising artist if we created space for who she is rather than who she isn’t? Perhaps the problem isn’t Saweetie, but an industry that pressures women to meet standards men are never asked to measure up to.