By Jaelani Turner-Williams, a Third Bridge Creative contributor.
The world is gearing up to see Greta Gerwig’s live-action Barbie hit the big screen, but in the past 15 years of hip-hop, Nicki Minaj was the OG Modern Barb. She’s everything that traditional dolls weren't historically: ambitious, unapologetic, and expressive. Minaj’s authenticity struck a chord with a generation of female rappers that grew up listening to the self-proclaimed Barbie, in addition to playing with one.
Since 2009, Minaj played up the Barbie archetype and her successors have minted themselves as Barbies in their own image. Women in rap have long navigated a male-dominated industry steeped in misogynistic lyrics by presenting an alternative form of heteronormative femininity, like the tomboyish magnetism of Da Brat or a Brooklyn bombshell like Lil' Kim. Now, as Gen-Z rappers have the freedom to explore all of the permutations that exist within that spectrum of female identity, many are adopting the all-pink, ultra-femme persona of the cutecore aesthetic.
The visual and sonic identity of cutecore is hyper-girly and very online, which female rappers have amplified through light-bass production and cheerful, albeit bold, lyrics. In March, producer Mura Musa told Complex how he wanted to incorporate these vibes into PinkPantheress's song “Boys a Liar, Pt. 2,” describing how “this ‘cutecore’ thing, [is] not ragey, it’s upbeat, but very emotionally centered.” Women in rap are more present than they’ve ever been, and cutecore works to their advantage. It allows them to follow their own paths rather than trying to fit the narrative set by generations of male rappers. Social media and stan culture play a role in hyping these women up and even extends to efforts to protect them from online scrutiny.
Over the past year, these six women have been a testament to the empowering and girly charm of cutecore: Ice Spice, Monaleo, BreezyLYN, Baby Tate, TiaCorine, and Coi Leray. All in the breakthrough phase of their careers, these women have ascended in popularity, expanding their respective fan bases and garnering accolades.
Since the release of her summertime viral single “Munch (Feelin’ U)” in 2022, Bronx native Ice Spice has climbed from local fanfare to the mainstream. After a highly positive response to her debut EP, Like..?, the rapper joined the melodious PinkPantheress single “Boy’s a Liar Pt. 2.” The hit single is an anthem of the cutecore scene, and its success speaks to that. The song peaked at No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and is Ice’s most popular song on TikTok with 4.2 million videos posted using different uploads of the sound.
With a unique sexy drill approach due to her relaxed cadence and plain-spoken bars, the 23-year-old artist often revels in TikTok glory, where she’s won over fans waiting on her next single, “Deli.”
In April, Ice released a “Princess Diana” remix featuring Nicki Minaj. The chemistry between the two in the soft-pink monochromatic video felt like a passing of the torch between two generations of rap fans. The video went on to receive 80.9 million views on YouTube, making it Ice’s most-viewed video on the platform, and proof that a follow-up could not only be imminent but profitable.
Then, in June, Ice released her “Barbie World” collaboration with Nicki Minaj, a drill pop single for the Mark Ronson executive-produced soundtrack, Barbie: The Album. Ronson tapped drill’s princess after the success of “Munch,” asking RIOTUSA (Bronx producer and frequent Ice Spice collaborator) to flip the iconic “Barbie Girl” sample. Leading up to the release of the Barbie movie, the song has become a TikTok favorite for nostalgic fans to the tune of over 116.8k posts. It’s a Spice World, after all.
Houston’s latest rap offering Monaleo delivered two surprises this year: her first child and debut project Where the Flowers Don’t Die. Both have ensconced the 24-year-old in newfound acclaim. In 2021, she dropped the introductory track “Beating Down Yo Block,” (re-released on WTFDD), where she raps fiercely about being a “sweetheart” and “switchin’ lanes” in her candy-paint ride. In music videos and live concerts, Monaleo rocks her signature fuchsia hue and has an affinity for cutecore staple Hello Kitty (as seen in the “Faneto Freestyle” music video) while giving audiences a taste of her Dirty South prowess.
Confrontational in her lyricism, Monaleo’s in-your-face attitude resurfaced in the “Ass Kickin'” single and trending music video, which has 595k YouTube views and shows the rapper busting into the emergency room with her baby bump intact. Equal rave has been given to the videos for “Faneto Freestyle” (3.7 million views), "Suck It Up” (6.6 million views), and “Beating Down Yo Block” (28.4 million views), all of which have increased post-WTFDD.
Monaleo has also gotten placement on female-rap Spotify playlists Pressure (497.7k likes) and Feelin’ Myself, (2.9 million likes) accompanying Dirty South mouthpieces Latto, Kari Faux, GloRilla, and more. Opening up to NYLON in May, Monaleo asserted that she’s a girl’s girl, taking a stance for women in rap to “be respected as human beings.”
Maintaining a path in hip-hop since her 2019 debut Girls, Baby Tate is arguably Gen-Z’s cutecore captain. Before newer rap girls hit the scene, Baby Tate used TikTok as a playground back when fans knew her by the moniker of “Yung Baby Tate.” Her fashion sense gives camp an early-2000s rework while her expressive voice compliments pop-lite beats.
The rapper, singer-songwriter, and producer re-established herself as a TikTok delight after her 2016 song “Hey Mickey!” exploded in popularity on the app, where it now sits at 1.6 million posts. In a 15-day period at the start of 2023, the song went from being used in 250k to 1 million posts. “It’s really crazy the things that that app can do,” the 27-year-old told Billboard in March.
The “Hey Mickey” resurgence got a companion official dance video (5.8 million YouTube views) and Saweetie feature (1.5 million YouTube views), both showing Tate in a dolled-up fashion. While “Hey Mickey!” has 120.5 million Spotify streams, Tate has moved on to newer projects, including last year’s Mani/Pedi and 2020’s After the Rain. Tate even graces The Sims upcoming R&B station with a Simlish cover of “What’s Love” from Mani/Pedi.
New Jersey-bred rapper and singer Coi Leray continues to move upward. When she isn’t clapping back at naysayers on Twitter, the East Coast artist racks up TikTok hits (where she has 11.3 million followers and 206.4 million likes across her posts). Last year’s “Blick Blick” featuring Nicki Minaj signaled a transformation in Leray’s style (a departure from her previously androgynous style), who wore matching pink bobs in the music video with the head Barb.
Accompanying her re-emergence, Leray has scored a wider following, many of whom caught on after the release of her Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five-sampling 2022 single “Players.” The song also got a throwback mash-up, remixed with Busta Rhymes’ 1997 classic “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See,” produced by Lower East Side artist DJ Saige. The song was even performed at the 2023 BET Awards, where Leray sported a custom moto outfit honoring female rappers. Peaking at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, “Players” is Leray’s biggest solo song on Spotify with 332.7 million streams. Her next most popular track on Spotify is Leray’s “Baby Don’t Hurt Me” collaboration with EDM and dance-pop DJ David Guetta and UK pop vocalist Anne-Marie, which currently sits at 172 million streams.
As one of three women in the 2023 XXL Freshman Class, TiaCorine stands out from her Gen-Z rap peers. Last year, the North Carolina rapper made a splash with her laid-back and bubbly single “FreakyT,” (25.6 million Spotify streams) which also nabbed a remix with fellow Southern native Latto (6.2 million Spotify streams). Both Y2K and anime-inspired, the cutecore aesthetic has roots in Japanese culture, which TiaCorine reinforces in her multiethnic heritage, kaleidoscopic style, and cartoonish vocalizations.
In addition to “FreakyT,” TiaCorine has long dabbled in cutecore with the music videos for “Lotto” (962k YouTube views) and “In My Room” (40.9k views). As the latter single is two years old, TiaCorine clearly isn’t new to cutecore, although her past sound relied heavily on autotune.
Named Billboard’s Rookie of the Month in April, TiaCorine's fame has heightened since the release of her 2020 project The Saga of 34Corine. Continuing to promote her energetic 2022 LP I Can’t Wait, TiaCorine will reintroduce herself to audiences this summer during Rolling Loud Miami, Lollapalooza, and more.
Nascent in rap stardom, Brooklyn’s BreezyLYN is representing for the “Bad Bitches.” A new signee to 300 Entertainment and independent imprint Remain Solid, BreezyLyn’s rise has been steady, as she’s recently dropped a collaboration with Philadelphia rapper 2Rare entitled “KEEP WISHING.” Seldom seen in anything other than pink and diamond-encrusted jewelry, the 24-year-old brings girl power energy to hip-hop, tapping Lola Brooke and Kaliii for the “Bad Bitches (Remix)” that currently has 1.8 million Spotify streams. BreezyLYN’s sensual vocals and street-but-sweet look have also made her a Spotify mainstay, with “Bad B*tches (Remix)” on editorial playlists “Get Turnt” (6.7 million followers) and “Most Necessary” (2.8 million followers).
The Cutecore Era Is Just Beginning
These six women rappers make up the perfect Barbie dreamworld—one where women can dominate music awards ceremonies (like the recent BET Awards) and stand confidently in a post-Nicki Minaj industry. Cutecore rap is taking over, one TikTok-fueled earworm at a time.
Graphics by Nicki Camberg and cover image by Crasianne Tirado; data as of July 21, 2023.