“Am I really that much to handle?” Summer Walker coos in the opening seconds of her début album, “Over It.” It’s the question women ask ourselves when we’re trying to make sense of love and of how much space we’re allowed to take up. It’s a question asked when you arrive at the mirror after you’ve been through another failed relationship, searching yourself for the answer to what you’re doing wrong. Although this moment traditionally scans as self-doubt, in the Atlanta singer’s hands, it’s a challenge.
Walker, a former stripper turned R. & B. singer, creates music for girls and women who have been made to feel that they’re too much—too loud, too bold, too sexy—and that such excess makes them unlovable. We’re taught that a woman’s value is tied to her ability to be submissive and act “classy,” that the manner in which she talks, dresses, or conducts herself, sexually or otherwise, has a bearing on her worth and, by extension, her “wifeable” qualities. At every turn, Walker dispenses with those myths, claiming ownership of her body, desires, and imperfections. Just look at the cover for “Over It”: Walker’s appearance, from the wrapped hair to the scrunched-up mouth and extended index finger, is unashamed, and familiar to anyone who has been on a phone call, ready to abandon civility and release every truth that she’s been swallowing.
The album’s witty art and music align with the statement that Walker made with her slow-burning breakout single, “Girls Need Love,” a proud declaration of sexual autonomy and a cultural critique rolled into one. Oscillating between social commentary (“Girls can’t never say they want it / Girls can’t never say how”) and first-person declarations (“I just need some dick / I just need some love”), Walker offered a perspective that is rarely expressed so explicitly on wax, let alone in a Hot 100 hit. The frankness of the sentiment, which has become a sort of through line in her music, and the imagery around it bear the hallmarks of being ratchet—a term once used to denigrate black women, often poor, whose refusal to perform respectability is simply a way of life. And while many artists try on the features of “ratchet culture” in order to portray themselves as edgy, Walker—who was criticized for the way her social anxiety manifested itself during a performance on NPR Tiny Desk, which some misread as disinterest, laziness, or an altogether bad attitude (because grace and multiple dimensions aren’t often readily offered to black women)—knows that there are repercussions for those who live it day to day.
On “Fun Girl,” in lyrics set atop a barely-there guitar, she broaches the topic head on. “I remember what you told me / Said I wasn’t made right. . . . / Can’t turn a ho into a housewife / That I was just a homie, a fun girl,” she laments, highlighting the double standards of attraction and pleasure, how her agency and take-no-shit attitude are used against her. Her voice shines against the stripped backdrop to form one of the album’s most bare and vulnerable moments, though she doesn’t wallow in it for long. A few tracks later, on “Just Might,” she throws in the towel, examining more lucrative options that lie outside of monogamy. “What am I missin’? / Seems like you gain more from a sugar daddy or a drug dealer,” she quips, before she resolves that “love is a losing game, so I just might be a ho.” In Walker’s telling, sexual liberation is personal liberation—a condition free from the disappointment of expectation.
Of late, ratchetry has been given its cultural due—thanks to artists like the rapper Cardi B, herself a former stripper, and the pop star Rihanna. But it’s more difficult to express in R. & B., a genre that implicitly asks restraint and softness from its women (and, to a certain extent, its men). Walker embraces it, not as a gesture or trend but as a lived mentality that informs everything from her profane eloquence to her pleasure politics; hers is an R. & B. that takes its cues from hip-hop’s refusal to couch humanity in political correctness. And there’s an audience for this sort of no-holds-barred style. Walker is, perhaps, the strongest proponent and the best proof of the demand—“Over It” had the biggest streaming week ever for an album by a female R. & B. artist—but she’s in good company. This record is a logical progression from Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” from 2016, and SZA’s “Ctrl,” from 2017, albums in which women showed up raw and radically honest, portraying a personhood that was difficult and rich. They are joined by the work of such singers as Ari Lennox, whose soulful album “Shea Butter Baby,” released in May, is an around-the-way girl’s take on the world, from trips to Target to swiping on Tinder; Ann Marie, whose album “Pretty Psycho,” from July, navigates the messiness suggested in its title; and Layton Greene, who was the first R. & B. artist signed by the hip-hop label Quality Control. All of these singers make the kind of brazen songs that reflect the ethos of ratchet culture. Their music goes down easily, but, as people and partners, they shirk easy definition and palatability, wearing all their feelings on their sleeves. The relationships depicted in their lyrics often devolve into poisonous volatility and violence, emotional or otherwise, that, despite their absurdity, is familiar.
Walker’s hazy “Me” nudges listeners to the brink, where the lines between love and hate begin to blur, and sanity becomes a fuzzy concept. “Bring out the worst / You make a bitch have to go in her purse / Or go in the trunk,” she threatens, in breathy whispers, before retreating. “I would never shoot you, baby / Maybe just wave it around, all in your face.” On a cut from Greene’s recent début EP, “Tell Ya Story,” she echoes a similar sentiment. Fed up with having her time wasted by an unfaithful partner, she admits to being “so mad I could swing on you” and, later, says that “staying with you is gon’ get me in handcuffs.” For women, respectability demands pretending that such thoughts have never invaded one’s head. But, for the ones who are “too much,” toxicity, violence, and love often go hand in hand. These are not proud nor easy confessions, but they are sincere, and there’s power in R. & B. that sees the worst in us and makes us feel a little less alone in our most unsavory forms. Such was the essence of SZA’s side-chick anthem “The Weekend”—music that resists hiding behind indignity to tell us something about reality. And, in its simplest form, isn't “ratchet” just a lack of shame by people who society has decided should be filled with it?
The R. & B. of these women isn’t about glorifying dysfunction so much as honoring the fact of it. The music exists not within a binary—ratchet or classy, whole or broken, complicated or simple—but as all of those things at once. Across Walker’s album, the moments of turmoil and aggression are offset by more times when she’s fragile and sensual. She captures not just love’s ebb and flow but the different types of people that we can be during those transitions when we’re trying to make it work, get what we need, or simply trying to fit. Women have always had to hedge their desires—sexual, romantic, and otherwise—in their quest to be desirable first, as if the right to crave affection, attention, or respect must be earned rather than being unremarkably human. To listen to Walker’s music, and to that of her peers, is to validate that hunger and the things that we go through to feed it, while also acknowledging how desperately we sometimes want to protect ourselves. Finding pleasure and trying to love and be loved in earnest is hard, but “Over It” serves notice that we all need to feel seen and cared for—that we deserve love, even and especially when we’re ill-equipped to give or receive it.