Junglepussy has a picture of the original nasty gal, Betty Davis, on her fridge in her Brooklyn apartment. “A lot of people felt the same way about her that they do about me,” the rapper, AKA 28-year-old Shayna McHayle, explains, citing the raw funk pioneer as a major influence on her latest album. Davis’s liberated display of black sexuality shocked the United States in the 1970s; when McHayle released her first song as Junglepussy, “random” people at parties would tell her to change her name. Since then, she has rapped about browsing for contraception in the aisles of Trader Joe’s and boasted she has been “feelin’ the dick all up in my armpit”. But female pleasure, she says, is still seen as radical. “I just can’t believe that 40 years later, people are still acting like women don’t feel this way,” she sighs.
Rap has always had its raunchy moments but it does seem that, more recently, unapologetic female pleasure has been having a lyrical awakening – and you only need to look to this summer’s sexplicit smash WAP to see the furore it causes. McHayle, however, has been grinding conservative gears since as far back as 2012, long before Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion celebrated the lubricated joy of their lady gardens.
McHayle’s breakthrough song, Cream Team, saw her fire off the line “hustle that pussy muscle”, which caught the attention of Erykah Badu. In a recent conversation between the two for Hero magazine, Badu said that McHayle’s “bold, explicit and taboo” lyrics signalled “the very beginning of that feminine energy, power and movement”. “I didn’t know that my contributions could be so influential,” McHayle says modestly, over Zoom. “When Erykah brought it to my attention, I was like: ‘Oh, shit.’”
We speak the week after the release of McHayle’s fourth album. A moody blend of nu-metal, alt-rock and funk, it serves as an address to any doubters, including lovers, who didn’t think she’d make it. On the cover, she appears in a spike-studded bikini that looks as if it could impale somebody, in keeping with the virtual catwalk of Y2K cosplay that is her Instagram. Today, though, the camera is off, after an exhausting morning of making video auditions for various acting roles.
Until now, she had struggled to find her definitive sound, often lumped in with the “queer rap” and “indie rap” movements, although her style owes as much to fellow New Yorkers Kelis and Lil Kim as it does the city’s musical underground. Her career has evaded the mainstream as much as it has categorisation. After Cream Team’s success, people “just wanted me, as a black woman, to continue rapping about [my] pussy,” she says, and she thought, adamantly, “I can’t have people feel like this is all that I am.”
She also became known for her acid putdowns – “He will never cuff you cause your pussy is budget,” she quipped on 2014 club anthem Bling Bling, which ended up on the soundtrack to HBO’s Insecure – and for skewering toxic masculinity, but the bravado held her back from releasing more introspective songs. “It’s easy to write about sexual experiences. It’s harder to face yourself.” She was afraid to show her vulnerability, “and gosh, that was a mistake!” she laughs.
After her first two albums, 2014’s mixtape Satisfaction Guaranteed and 2015’s Pregnant With Success, McHayle shifted her focus on 2018’s JP3, dressing demurely and exploring more downtempo sounds. On JP4, however, fragility and confrontation coexist. In the stunning track Arugula, McHayle opens up about being used and misread: “You don’t miss me you just know I want my back broke … I may be goofy may be sexy but I’m not a joke.” At the same time, there’s Stamina, a classic Junglepussy track with Three 6 Mafia’s Gangsta Boo where they trade lines about cunnilingus. She says she’s found a balance.
“If I want to be hypersexual, I can do that on my own terms. If I want to wear a hoodie, I can do that. It’s about allowing space for women to express what-ev-er,” she enunciates. “Guys can take a dick pic and then go on TV the next day and nobody’s mad.” But for everyone else “it’s about us continuing to normalise our complexities”.
McHayle believes in the power of female sexuality, but says we have to be careful about perpetuating that image. “I don’t like the narrative that women have to be superheroes,” she says. “I’ve always hated that people think of me like that because of my name. I think it’s dangerous, especially for black women, to be like: ‘Oh, she can deal with anything.’” Junglepussy, she says, isn’t bulletproof. “It’s like: do you think it’s easy to wake up every day, for the past eight years, committed to this experimental career? I am not only choosing an unconventional name, I’m also speaking about things explicitly, to liberate us.
“That is so dynamic and so complex,” she says, “and that is strong.”
JP4 is out now on Jagjaguwar