There's a popular take in Hip-Hop that says that women in the genre were more or less asexual until the raunchy ruminations of Foxy Brown and Lil Kim circa 1996.
To be sure, Foxy and Kim broke all kinds of ground, but for those who care to explore, it's easy to debunk the idea that female rappers had no libido until the shiny suit era. MC Lyte spent a fair amount of time rhyming about coitus, and Salt-N-Pepa certainly had no problem talking about sex. And lest we forget, there was the bold sensuality of Smooth.
"I had so many musical influences, I listen to so much music," she said in 2003. "I love Janet. I have a lot of respect for Janet Jackson."
And it shows.
In the 1990s, the seductive Cali emcee cut through Hip-Hop’s hyper-masculine status quo and asserted herself as a woman and artist to be reckoned with. The historical narrative may give Lil Kim and Foxy Brown the lion’s share of the credit for injecting female sexuality into Hip-Hop’s iconography and image, but this West Coast diva helped blaze that trail years before the Queen Bee and Ill Na Na became household names.
Smooth would become a study in rap reinvention. The multi-talented performer continuously evolved throughout the 1990s, consistently pushing herself as an artist and reimagining her sound.
Juanita Stokes was only 17 when she landed her first record deal with East/West Records in 1990. Her debut single, "Smooth and Legit" peaked at #11 on the U.S. rap charts but wasn't a runaway hit. After the commercial breakthrough of Salt-N-Pepa, there was a small flurry of female emcees being signed and putting out music. MC Smooth was largely overshadowed by Lyte, Latifah and others, but "Smooth & Legit" put the industry on notice. Her brother Chris Stokes was making moves as a producer and executive, and after he'd found success with other artists, he and Smooth set about pushing her career with renewed gusto.
It wasn't hard to see MC Smooth's star power even in its earliest days.
Smooth & Legit showcases a charismatic rapper full of West Coast bravado and a beautiful woman in command of the camera. She had the total package to break through big, but Smooth & Legit went relatively underexposed; and MC Smooth would soon part ways with East/West. There would still be some years before she got another chance at stardom.
But major changes were happening in Hip-Hop by 1993. The success of Dr. Dre's The Chronic and Death Row Records (along with high profile hits by artists like Ice Cube and 2Pac) put the national spotlight squarely on the West Coast. Three years earlier, Cali emcees were still largely in the shadow of their New York-based counterparts, but now, G-Funk had taken over the airwaves. It was the perfect time for MC Smooth to kickstart her career's 2nd act.
In 1993, Stokes moved to Jive Records and re-emerged as simply “Smooth,” armed with a seductive new image that immediately set her apart; while also prominently featuring her vocalizing alongside her rhymes. Smooth contributed the single “You Been Played” to the Menace II Society soundtrack. With her new persona and a hot single, Smooth was one of the more talked about up-and-comers of 1993, having carved a niche for herself as a sexy, take-no-shit “female mac.”
"You Been Played" became a sizable hit on rap radio and on video shows. Her bathing suit-and-dazzey-dukes (aka "Daisy Dukes") shorts combo became a regular fixture in Rap City's rotation. The single helped propel the Menace II Society soundtrack to platinum certification and it raised Smooth's profile significantly.
The West Coast was dominating the mainstream, and Smooth stood in stark contrast to the misogyny that was rampant on albums by gangsta rap superstars that were enjoying the most success.
There had been women before who'd pushed the sexual envelope, but acts like Hoez With Attitudes were dismissed as novelty. Smooth was an actual artist and her approach to sexuality wasn't a cheesy gimmick; it was a creative aesthetic. Her second album You Been Played dropped in the fall of 1993, and while it wasn't a major commercial seller, it established Smooth as a talent and set the stage for a noteworthy mid-90s run.
The "Female Mac" was the persona that made Smooth a star. That persona would come into full bloom on her self-titled sophomore album. Featuring a sultry mix of Hip-Hop beats and live instrumentation, Smooth also boasted an underrated 2Pac appearance and the hit title track, a sexy song that features Smooth letting her potential lover know what she's got in mind.
The album's sound was both sultrier and more raw than its predecessor, and it fared better commercially.
She pulled in a broad bevy of record makers for the project's distinctly West Coast sound.
"I worked with Shock G—we did 2 cuts—and I worked with a producer named Mr. Lee, he did work on 'Mind Blowin'' and 'Summertime,' and a man named Larry Campbell," she would explain to Ed Lover and Yo! MTV Raps. Singles like "Mind Blowin'" and "Summertime" were regular fixtures on BET, and Smooth became one of the more notable women in Hip-Hop, again showcasing her skills both as rhymer and singer and scooping up guest spots with artists like Immature and Gyrl.
Smooth wasn't the first to combine rapping and singing; artists like Queen Latifah had been vocalizing on Hip-Hop albums for years, but Smooth's approach was still the exception more than the rule in the mid-1990s.
But her smoothed-out production, R&B hooks and sultry image made her a pivotal figure in the melding of Hip-Hop and R&B, as well as in the elevation of feminine sexuality in Hip-Hop.
She would take things a step further on her third album, throwing herself completely into R&B stylings and centering her abilities as a singer. The album's lead single was the quiet storm classic "Strawberries," a deliciously seductive bit of R&B balladry that features the artists setting the scene for a romantic evening with her man.
She would re-brand once again in the early 00s as singer-songwriter "Needa S," forging ahead as an indie artist. She may have never become a household name, but for those who know, Smooth's music has always been something special. She managed a certain kind of West Coast relatability while also pushing the envelope for sex appeal in Hip-Hop and challenging the male-dominated norms of the 1990s. She's a mother (and still a stunner, check out her IG) now, but Juanita Stokes carved an important space in popular music. "The Female Mac" helped make it OK for Black women to own their sexuality, and refused to be boxed in. She turned us on and turned the game on its ear.