Pride. It’s a helluva lot better than low self-esteem, and maybe even more useful than anger. Pride may isolate you, but at least you can live with yourself. Except in hip-hop, where Biggie’s and Tupac’s deaths rewrote the stakes of stardom, boasting and competition and controversy can prove fatal. Sometimes, you have to let your guard down.
On the stark, existentialist biopic “My Life,” the third track on her new Chyna Doll, over a George Benson guitar sample from an unrecognizable cover of “California Dreaming,” Foxy Brown says she never wanted to be born. She wishes her dad had used a condom, that he hadn’t abandoned her, that she hadn’t looked for his love in thugs. She wants us to see her as an individual with her own particular story, not a celestial being, but she’s not asking for pity. “My life, do you feel what I feel/My life, a black girl’s ordeal.” She flatly sing-speaks the chorus—a grim, merciless black-and-white 8mm compared to the melismatic octave-cartwheeling Technicolor we’ve come to expect from black girls.
Chuck D is wrong. Rap isn’t black people’s CNN, at least not anymore. It’s the new Hollywood. Chinchilla stoles, diamonds galore, stretch limos, Prada pumps: these are now more than just the benefits of rap stardom, they’re the subject itself. Puff’s restaurant is the new Brown Derby, rap labels create and control celebrities the way the studio system used to. Gritty gangsta realism is out; fabulous playa fantasy is in. Or, better yet, the two combine in the body of the ghetto superstar, the turn-of-the-millennium version of Horatio Alger. The actress discovered at the soda fountain is now the 19-year-old daughter of a single mother schoolteacher in Park Slope. Ladies and gentlemen, Foxy Brown.
“Uh, uh, ooh, uh…” Chyna Doll, Brown’s second album, released last week to Hot 97 hype, opens with groaning. It’s not what you think. The woman who boasted on her debut “my sex drive all night like a trucker” isn’t making babies; she’s being born—a star is born. Foxy gives us this hokey sound-effects intro because she’s aware she’s making and living a myth. She knows how to tell a story—that’s just one of the skills tucked into her cover-girl cleavage. She’s also explicit about connections between her myth and Hollywood’s. On the new album, she name-checks Thelma and Louise, Bonnie and Clyde. And of course, when she began rapping, the woman born Inga Marchand gave herself the stage name of Pam Grier’s classic blaxploitation superheroine. “This is Foxy Brown O.G.,” Grier told Marchand the first time she called her, then gave the rapper her blessings.
Brown and her ex–best friend Lil’ Kim began raising eyebrows two years ago with their tough, trashy talk and thongs-and-ice look. Kim named her debut album Hard Core—a reference to both rap and porn—and Foxy called hers Ill Na Na—pussy by any other name. Brown’s image was part ‘ho, part gun moll. Wrapped in furs, constantly deferring to male patrons, and luxury-obsessed, she wasn’t doing much for any of your favorite socialist feminist animal rights–activist causes. Then, launching the publicity blitz for Chyna Doll, she alienated even apologists by reportedly physically confronting Vibe editor Danyel Smith over a cover story.
Scandal can be a starlet’s best friend. Flashing flesh helped the so-so Na Na grab press and go platinum. She’d only written a half-dozen of its raps, but Foxy’s first album made her more notorious than Lyte and Latifah. Brown was pushing buttons, but at 17, she may not have realized how much flak she’d catch for playing the hoochie girl—how much she’d offend those women who’ve been working to earn r-e-s-p-e-c-t through t-a-l-e-n-t, not t&a. In her eyes, Brown wasn’t doing anything Mae West and Madonna hadn’t done before. Grier jiggled and kicked butt; Foxy wanted to do the same. And although she likes to claim she’s leading a femme revolution against hip-hop tomboys, that’s just her short memory: her idols Roxanne Shante and Salt-n-Pepa already bushwhacked that path.
In “My Life,” Foxy says it ain’t easy at the top, but she gets our sympathy because many of us have been where she’s been. Our best friend Lil’ Kim may not have become our superstar rival, but we know the destructive power of rumors and egos. “You was my sister, we used to dream together, how we could make it real big, do our thing together, Thelma and Louise together. Remember the days, the niggaz we played? Now we don’t even speak, went our separate ways, separate lives. Lost friendship for pride.”
After she’s got this confession off her chest, Foxy’s up and running on Chyna Doll; sometimes she missteps but, well, you’ve seen the girl’s legs. Brown’s got a lot to be proud of this time. She wrote lyrics for all the tracks and produced three. She brags about being “a shopping ‘ho with a heavy shoe habit” and having a “bomb-ass pussy”—who wouldn’t? But she no longer comes across as someone who’s slept her way to stardom. “Double standards: call him a mack, call me a ‘ho/Say I’m in it for the money, tell me what the fuck he in it for,” she raps, like she’s been boning up on bell hooks. Brown may have realized that pinups get stuck full of pins. She plays to men’s fantasies; part Filipino, she calls herself a Chyna Doll—a play to light-skinned prejudice, to Orientalism, to desire for docility. But also calling herself Bonnie, a bitch with attitude, a baller bitch, she doesn’t come across as breakable. Actually, she sounds like a tomboy.
Brown reminds me of Tupac. She has the same Hamlet-like combo of Thanatos and Eros, recklessness and introspection. She’s as much troubled as trouble doll, but the two are usually related, cause and effect. “My Life” makes an open appeal to Lil’ Kim, but then Brown ends the album with an attack on mistresses that seems pointed, especially since Foxy’s been bigging up Faith Evans in interviews. Brown’s a bundle of contradiction—she has none of her namesake’s sure moral direction.
In Foxy Brown the movie, Brown’s brother Link explains why he leads a life of crime. “I’m a black man, and I don’t know how to sing, and I don’t know how to dance, and I don’t know how to preach to no congregation. I’m too small to be no football hero, and I’m too ugly to be elected mayor. Honey, I watch TV, and I see all the people in all them fine homes they live in, and all them nice cars they drive. And I get all full of ambition. Now you tell me what I’m supposed to do with all this ambition I got.”
Ambition. It drives Link to betray his sister, but of course it’s not really ambition: it’s envy and greed. Nowadays, Link could have had the car and house by doing exactly what he did—laying a rap. Inga Marchand must have everything she always wanted, and a few things she never did. And yet on Chyna Doll, she remakes Gwen Guthrie’s “Ain’t Nothing Going on but the Rent” as if the bottom line were still her bottom line. Hip-hop has created a world where the chronically disenfranchised can actually lead fantasy lives. That are still fantasies—”Sometimes I want to slit my wrists in my life y’all,” Brown confesses. What are her alternatives? There’s nothing as annoying as material girls all of a sudden getting spiritual, but it beats being a Hollywood tragedy. Beneath the Hills, there’s the valley of the (chyna) dolls. Money rules the world, yes; that’s why you can’t.