Tyleen on Artistry, Sex, and the Rap Game

A true force of nature and erotic whirlwind of hip-hop swagger, 22-year-old Tyleen hails from LaSalle, Québec. Her 2017 breakout verse on Joe Rocca’s “Plan$” (also featuring Flawless) led to her signing by Make it Rain and her debut EP—entitled Fanta$y—which dropped on May 1. The release is filled with trap beats and sub-bass booms produced by VNCE Carter, Charlie Shulz, and Tommy Kruise— but everything takes a backseat to Tyleen’s smoky, raspy, devil-may-care flow. Her lyrics are unapologetic, vivid, commanding, and deeply sexual; taken together, the EP is a vision of hip-hop fantasy. The line kicking off her lead single, “$HUT IT DOWN,” seems like an answer to the oft-quoted Lizzo lyric, “Yes I’m Tyleen and I been that bitch.” And she is, 100%: Tyleen did not come to play.

I spoke with Tyleen about Montréal hip-hop, being a woman rapping, and the Catch-22 of relying on her looks and sexual allure.

Let’s talk a bit about hip-hop in Québec. It seems very divided between the Anglo and Franco scenes, especially in Montréal. Is this a division that you really feel or is it a little bit more fluid?

It’s sad that we are even in a battle between Montréal French and Montréal English rap, because if we just all combined our efforts, we could go so much further. I would never not work with a French artist. I want to work with other French artists, like Tizzo, who’s really doing really well in the French community, he works with a lot of English rappers. We just need to be more united. I’ve been featured in many French language papers as the ‘Anglophone rapper,’ but I don’t understand why there’s even that division, ‘this Anglophone rapper from Montréal’ or ‘this Francophone rapper.’ Why can’t we just all just be rappers from Montréal?

You have spoken about how there are too few female rappers before. It seems like there can be an infinite number of male rappers, but a limited number of spaces for women.

Honestly, it frustrates me so much. I don’t understand why even we females don’t believe that there can be more than one great female artist in the headlines. Why is it a competition every time, I have to be at the top, and nobody else can do this? I’m doing this so you can’t. It’s a constant battle. Guys unite all the time and they go so much further, and I think the guys also play a role in all of this. They put females up against each other so much, they create competition, and then we’re just allowing it, acting like, “no there cannot be another female artist. If I’m a female artist, I have to be the only one.”

When I started performing, I would be performing on sets with just male artists, and then one female artist, which was me. Then, I did an event with Sarahmée (with Naya Ali, and Marie-Gold). I like seeing how other females perform, it it’s interesting to me. Every time I go on stage it’s almost like the audience is intimidated, because they’re like ‘whoa, there’s a female artist onstage rapping and she’s going hard at it!’ They’re just so used to seeing guys, so when they see a girl they’re shook! I’ve had so many shows when I came out and the people’s faces were just shook like, “oh my goodness! A female artist is going crazy right now!”

Is it intimidating for you in those cases where you’re the only female performer? Are you feeling like you have to represent women in rap more broadly, or are you just speaking for yourself?

I hope that I’m encouraging others female artists to break that barrier and come out, and take it in full pride. For a long time, I had to sit there and tell them “I’m not a model, I’m an artist,” you know? There’d be guys like who want me to be in and their videos, but they wouldn’t want to work with me. They just wanted me to be a video vixen. Look. I appreciate it, but I’m not – that’s not what I’m looking to build. I’m an artist. Respect me as an artist. It’s tough, and you really have to say it a million times for them to understand – she’s not playing, she’s really about her craft. So, I really do hope that I’m inspiring other girls to get out there and do it. As far as being intimidated? Not really, because I feel like I go harder than some of these guys out here, and I’m really not intimidated by the male species at all.

“I’m an artist. Respect me as an artist.”

It’s crazy, every time I say, “I’m an artist too,” automatically they think, “oh, you sing!”  It’s almost like if I was a singer, I’d get shown more love. They look at like singers like, “oh she’s so soft spoken, she’s so nice, she sings so gently.” There’s nothing intimidating about that. When they hear, ‘She’s a rapper,’ it brings a whole different vibe. When I say I’m a rapper, they’re like, “Oh…Can you actually rap, though?”

Photo by Pegah Farahmand-Mobarekeh

It’s funny you say that because in old school hip-hop, those famous early crews had women! Women have always been in hip-hop, so this resistance is such a weird thing. It’s part of where hip-hop comes from, but people don’t seem to remember that.

They really don’t. They don’t remember that there was Queen Latifah and so many great empowering females who were seen as intimidating, because they weren’t afraid to be themselves come out and spit that raw shit. I don’t understand why there’s this barrier, we’re going to accept a guy who comes out here spits raw shit, but when a girl comes out, we have to criticize her so much harder.

Let’s talk a little bit more about Fanta$y specifically. “Fantasy” in the rap game often comes from a male perspective. In terms Fanta$y what is the fantasy and whose fantasy is it?

When I was actually thinking of a name for my EP, there were so many other names, I was trying to see what was right. It was so self-explanatory, right in front of me: Fanta$y. For me, fantasy is literally what I am. What I sell is a fantasy. When I was looking up brands (because I wanted to start doing merch), I looked up Ralph Lauren and I read his story. And he specifically said that, “I sold a fantasy. I gave people what they didn’t have, and what they wanted to see. I made people feel a certain way when they wore my clothes.” He gave them this fantasy. And I was like, “That’s exactly what I’m trying to do!”

That perspective on “fantasy” really ties into the sexuality in your videos and lyrics. You really put female desire and sexuality on display. Do your thoughts about sexual images and lyrics coincide with the way that you express power and confidence?

Growing up, I always heard “If you got it, flaunt it!” And I got it, so Imma flaunt it!  I’m not going to have it forever, so let me enjoy it while it lasts! At the same time, the rap industry holds females to be sexual and to sell a sexual fantasy. And so if I’m going to sell a sexual fantasy, I’m gonna make sure it’s one where girls come first. I’m not bowing down to any man. No, it’s the opposite. They will bow down to me! 

Sexual images have their pros and cons. That’s all good and stuff, sex sells, but then it’s tricky when people won’t take you as seriously. I’ve had a lot of negative feedback about being too sexual or comments like, “If you weren’t nude, you wouldn’t have had all these streams,” and blah blah blah… If you look at the audio, the audio has more hits than the video. My Spotify streams are going up and up every day, and there’s no nudity to look at there, the music speaks for itself. People who are so quick to put females down for showing off their bodies are just ridiculous.

Even though people might criticize a song like “I.W.T.D” (I Want That Dick), you’re still framing female sexuality as something to be valued, rather than something to be dismissed or thrown away. We’re sexual beings, why should we hide that?

That’s what I was going to say! We all want to orgasm! Why would I hide the fact that I’m proud about being comfortable in my sexual state of mind?  I don’t have a problem with demanding an orgasm! I don’t think that any female should have a problem demanding that! Females need to step up their mentality and understand you do come first as well. You don’t always have to put yourself underneath a man. Demand what you want. How come these guys to rap like “I want that pussy when I want it,” or “I want that head on speed dial!”  But when we say “I want that dick” everyone’s like, “Woah.” Women should not be scared to say I deserve to come, too.

So, what’s next? It must be a tough time for performers: do you have anything in the works?

The next thing that we will be releasing is the video for ‘PULL UP.’  We’re in the mix of putting it all together and getting the direction for the video, how everything should fall into place. Honestly, I’m just going to keep pushing forward whether I have to do shows online, I’m not gonna let nothing stop me from continuing to do what I wanna do. I’m not gonna let this COVID get in the way. Obviously I’m going to take precautions because I know that this virus is really serious, and I’m a healthcare worker myself. So I hope people are taking the quarantine seriously. As far as it goes, you can do so much just networking online that you don’t have to go out and risk other people. I’m just going to keep working on my music, I have a bunch of beats that I’ve been receiving from a lot of talented producers that I want to work on and get ready, to make the next EP even bigger and better.

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