By Ezra Wheeler
Within days of the release of Beyoncé’s newest album Renaissance, critics were already hailing it as “a landmark expression,” “revolutionary,” and “a masterpiece.” In other words, Queen Bey had done it again, this time taking inspiration from the rich history of Black and queer dance music.
Given the album’s focus, it should come as no surprise that samples from pioneering dance music performers such as Donna Summers, Big Freedia, Grace Jones, and (infamously) Kelis abound on the album. But despite being oversaturated with well-known talent, the first voice we hear on the opening track “I’M THAT GIRL” unexpectedly begins with a vocal snippet from a relatively unknown Memphis rapper by the name of Princess Loko, whose lo-fi, rapid-fire delivery is featured prominently throughout the track.
So who, exactly, is Princess Loko?
Unfortunately, that question is harder to answer than it should be. Despite being lightyears ahead of the mainstream in terms of her sound, this pioneer of Memphis hip-hop would never receive her proper dues during her lifetime, having passed away at the age of 40 in 2020. That said, through the help from her friend and frequent collaborator Tommy Wright III and some deep internet sleuthing, a portrait of the late, great rapper begins to emerge.
Born Andrea Summers in 1979, Princess Loko was drawn to Memphis’ emergent rap scene from a very young age, making a name for herself on the Whitehaven scene as just a middle schooler. “Me and Princess Loko have a long history,” Tommy Wright III told me. “She was family members with one of my neighbors, and she started coming around when she was real young. A little later, I started hearing her rapping on a few little projects, like talent shows and stuff. I started trying to get her in the studio, but her mama wasn’t having it, which was understandable because she was only about fourteen.”
Despite his best efforts, Wright, who was only three years Loko’s senior, says that he could not convince her mother to allow her to record. “Eventually, she was like ‘F this,’ so I started bringing the studio over to her house when her mama was at work–which was basically just a four-track at the time. I remember the first time, we sat at the kitchen table with just a mic, headphones, and the beat…and BOOM! Loko ripped it. That was for the song ‘Comin’ Out for the ‘94.’ She sounded at least 20 years older than she was. Loko was a one-take type of artist, and she did that sh*t flawlessly.”
From there, the two would become life-long collaborators, perhaps most notably on Tommy Wright III’s classic 1995 track “Still Pimpin’,” arguably his most well-known song (and the track from which Loko’s “I’M THAT GIRL” sample was taken). From there, Princess Loko became a member of the group 10 Wanted Men, which also included Tommy Wright III and future Three 6 Mafia member La Chat. Regardless of hip-hop’s overwhelming masculinity at the time, both Loko and La Chat emerged as two of the group’s most vicious and lyrically dexterous members. When asked why he was so open to supporting women rappers during this era, Wright has a simple answer: “I liked artists that could rap fast, and they were two of the best. I didn’t care nothing about male or female. The question was really ‘are you dope?’ Loko and Chat was dope.”
Although their partnership had been fruitful throughout the ‘90s, Princess Loko officially left Tommy Wright III’s Street Smart Records to join Hy Lyfe in the early 2000s. She continues to make waves with her polyrhythmic flow and take-no-prisoners attitude, which culminated in her official solo debut Long Ovadue, an appropriately titled LP that featured guest appearances from fellow Bluff City legends 8Ball & MJG and Gangsta Boo.
In 2014, popular fashion designer Isabel SK, who had previously worked with artists Katy Perry and Lil B, released a clothing line based on Memphis hip-hop. In an interview with Vice, she spoke about how Princess Loko’s lyrics helped to inspire the collection. “I was listening to the Princess Loko song where she goes ‘Blow away your brains with this 45 in my pantyline,’ and I thought that’s the hardest line for any female to say. It’s so badass, so I put it on a skirt.”
During her lifetime, Princess Loko never found mainstream success, but her legacy lives on in the music of followers such as Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, and the countless other women who are now ruling the charts. And while she is sadly not here to see it, it goes without saying that her prominent inclusion on Renaissance will undoubtedly bring a new generation of fans to her music. While the “Godmother of Memphis Trap” is gone, her legacy of fearless innovation is stronger than ever.