Ratchet: The Rap Insult That Became a Compliment

Photo: Clockwise from top left: beyonce/Instagram; beyonce/Instagram; ladygaga/Instagram

Last December, when Beyoncé posted a picture on Instagram wearing doorknocker earrings inscribed with the word ratchet, the Internet exploded with speculation: It would be the title of a new single; she and Lady Gaga were collaborating again; she was shaking up her image; it was the name of her next album. Fueling the fires were comments Azealia Banks made to MTV Brazil that she and Lady Gaga were working on a song called “Ratchet.”  Because Lady Gaga had posted a picture with earrings similar to those in the Beyoncé photograph in September, it was thought that the two megastars, and perhaps Banks, too, could be working on a follow-up to their hit single “Telephone.” Eventually, Beyoncé’s representative told the Cut: “There is no confirmation on any song titles.”

One of Beyoncé’s skills is trend-spotting, and indeed ratchet has been all over popular culture in the past year.  LL Cool J released a single named “Ratchet” last November, using the word as an adjective to describe a woman who is only after a man’s money. In his September single “Bandz a Make Her Dance,” Juicy J boasts of his inability to refuse the advances of “ratchet” women. And in March of 2012, Nicki Minaj dropped “Right By My Side,” with Chris Brown, in which she lamented that “all them bitches is ratchet.” At the same time, the “Ratchet Girl Anthem,” a parody track recorded by Philip and Emmanuel Houston, collected tens of millions of Youtube hits. In it, the Atlanta brothers pretend to be ratchet women describing their ilk: They carry outdated flip phones, go clubbing while pregnant, and try to punch other women in the face. “Ratchet is basically a lack of home training — being out in public and acting like you don’t have any sense,” Philip Houston told the Cut. “Putting a weave in the microwave just to curl it, that’s ratchet.”

Ratchet can be traced back to the neighborhood of Cedar Grove in Shreveport, Louisiana. “You talk to working class black people [down there],” says Dr. Brittney Cooper, a co-founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective. “Ratchedness comes out of that. And some of that particularity gets lost when it travels.” The first appearance of ratchet in a published song was in 1999, when Anthony Mandigo released “Do the Ratchet” on his Ratchet Fight in the Ghetto album. “Mandigo introduced me to the word, He got it from his grandmother,” remembers Angela Nichols, who goes by Angie Locc and rapped on the track. In 2004, Earl Williams, a producer known as Phunk Dawg, recorded a new version of the song, featuring the better-known Lil Boosie (currently incarcerated), from Baton Rouge, as well as Mandigo and another Shreveport rapper named Untamed Mayne. This version, and the associated dance, caught on and Mandigo’s Lava House Records began making a name for itself.

In the liner notes of the CD, Phunk Dawg wrote a definition of ratchet:  “n., pron., v, adv., 1. To be ghetto, real, gutter, nasty. 2. It’s whatever, bout it, etc.”

But the popularity of the song, and the adoption of ratchet by other, bigger names in the business — especially as rappers from the “Dirty South,” like Lil Wayne, T.I., and Juicy J came into vogue in the later 2000s — meant the definition of the word could not stay in the hands of Lava House Records. “It’s not necessarily negative. You could say ‘I’m ratchet’ to say ‘I’m real. I’m ghetto. I am what I am.’ It can be light, too,” Williams, the producer, explains. When ratchet is used in hip hop, it can also mean cool, sloppy, sleek, or flashy. When Azealia Banks name-checks the word, as she often does on Twitter — “Ratchet bitches make the world go around” was one recent tweet — it’s hard to figure out exactly what she means, but it definitely has positive connotations.

That doesn’t mean all black women have reclaimed the term. “There’s an emotional violence and meanness attached to being ratchet, particularly pertaining to women of color,” says Michaela Angela Davis, an image activist and former fashion editor of Vibe. She sees the ratchet phenomenon as related to a larger problem of how black women are portrayed in media. “We’re only seen through this narrow sliver, and right now that sliver is Ratchet. We don’t get to be quirky and fun and live in Williamsburg. Wolves don’t fall in love with us.” Instead, Davis only sees groups of black women fighting on TV in shows like The Real Housewives of AtlantaBasketball Wives, and Bad Girls Club. “The only interest that pop culture has in black women is this ratchet world.” Later this April, at a symposium at Georgia State University, Davis will launch a campaign called “Bury the Ratchet.” It will look to reduce the negative depictions of African-American women in media, and especially target their affects on bullying.

But there is more than the harsh side to ratchet, argues Dr. Cooper. While she recognizes that the expression, when used to describe a person, is often pejorative, she has also sees women embracing “ratchet … as an attempt to de-pathologize it” and to celebrate both its edginess and its roots in the southern working class.

A man or woman can be ratchet in a way that emphasizes their authenticity, their realness, or their fierceness — another word that entered our lexicon in the past decade, in part due to Tyra Banks and her Top Model series. Like that last one, the term is sometimes used by young gay men in a complimentary context, something akin to “hot mess.”

“Any type of vernacular that reaches the content of a Beyoncé or Lady Gaga song — you can bet it’s hit gay critical mass,” says Patrik Sandberg, a senior editor at V and pop culture chronicler. “If you look at what the word refers to, it’s something gay men are really enamored with: a fucked up look. Someone who’s trying and doesn’t quite get it. If you’re insulting it by calling something ‘ratchet’, you’re flirting with it.” For Ian Bradley, a stylist and NYC nightlife maven, the word has quickly past its due date in gay culture. “The word is hella last year,” he says. “The ones who say it are the ones who are ratchet.”

But how do the women who’ve dealt with the term more directly feel? “If  Beyoncé and Gaga did something it would be great, it would be badass,” Davis says. “I’m all about girls feeling badass. I just don’t want them to feel bad.”