Craig Jenkins. Real name. No gimmicks.
Peter Rosenberg’s jab at Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” at Hot 97’s Summer Jam damn near sparked this generation’s own “Disco Sucks” campaign among underground hip-hop’s defenders of the faith. Fans of pop and electronic dance music see the march of those genre’s values into hip-hop as a chance to bust up the genre’s masculinity complex, but grouchy rap fans have charged EDM with the death of mainstream rap and R&B. The debate basically boiled down to whether or not “Starships” counts as hip-hop, and both sides lose points for breaking down the future of rap music to the genre classification of one measly Billboard smash. And yet, the importance of Nicki Minaj as a force of industry change cannot be understated.
Minaj’s music might struggle to live up to her NYT-bestowed mantle of “Influential Leader of Hip-Hop,” and many of her artistic cues are borrowed (she’s basically the rap game Lady Gaga, who’s already trying pretty hard to be the EDM game Madonna). However, her success seems to have erased long-standing major label trepidation about the sales potential of female rap artists. Majors have snapped up everyone from Aussie ice queen Iggy Azalea to Florida’s Dominique Young Unique to swag-ovaried White Girl Mob admiral Kreayshawn in the past year, and even veterans like Missy Elliott and Lil’ Kim are in various stages of comebacks. Back in Minaj’s native New York City, two young MCs hope to fill the void created by Nicki’s Ibizacore conversion.
Harlemite Azealia Banks strong-armed her way into the running with brash lyricism and a fearless disdain for rap’s chain of command. You’re just as likely to see Banks in the press for her music as for beef with other rappers, and she’s not afraid to box outside her class. In this month alone, Banks’s candid social media manner has gotten her into scraps with Nicki Minaj and Diplomat Jim Jones. Of course, none of this would be news if Banks wasn’t a threat on the mic. She’s blessed with serviceable singing voice as well as a limber flow vaguely reminiscent of prime Busta Rhymes — her body of work explores the intersection between hip-hop, dance music and gay culture. On Fantasea, her debut mixtape, she pairs raw spitting and nods to house with production from rising electronic music luminaries like Machinedrum, Hudson Mohawke and Drums of Death.
At its best, Fantasea feels like a less rocky rendering of Minaj’s electro/rap marriage that’s more committed to introducing virtuosic rhyming to the quirky outer limits of dance music than its predecessor. Songs like the title track and “Neptune” turn Banks’ uptown braggadocio loose on aqueous productions that mine the surprisingly fertile common ground between Caribbean music, European house, and good old fashioned New York trash talk. That said, Banks’ lyrical attack proves one-dimensional spread out over seventeen songs, and her choice of subject matter is an anemic barrage of narcissistic posturing. It’s as if she’s not ready to carry an entire project on her own. As opening salvos go, though, Fantasea is brimming with promise, and Banks need only keep herself out of trouble long enough to see her profile skyrocket. Although if her just-released Jim Jones diss track is any indication, conflict resolution is not a strong suit.
Angel Haze is no troublemaker, but she is every bit as talented. Haze is a New York transplant making volatile art out of her pain who quietly came up sharing her talents as a rapper, singer, poet, and video blogger on her Youtube page and a series of independently released EPs. Haze’s new mixtape, Reservation, traffics in stories of familial strife and relationships gone awry. She’s equally at ease airing family laundry on “This Is Me,” confessing love on the Aaliyah tribute “Hot Like Fire,” and lurching for the throne in the skittering, smart-alecky “Werkin’ Girls” and “New York.” Reservation is charged with a world-weary gravitas well beyond the artist’s years, but Haze’s humor and affable personality rescue it from downer territory, and her deft balance of harrowing confessionals and light-hearted braggadocio make her a kind of Jean Grae for the Drake generation.
The Drake influence is an Achilles heel, though, and Reservation trips hardest when it hews closest to his sad bastard musings. “Supreme” and “Realest” both nick too much of Aubrey’s style for comfort. and the latter finds her boasting, “I ain’t the next nobody/ I am the first Angel Haze” all the while employing the flat-voiced delivery and anthemic but boilerplate anti-hater rhetoric of Drake’s least intriguing work. Thankfully, Reservation goes relatively easy on the Canada Dry (unlike previous releases, which have contained Kirko Bangz levels of Drake karaoke), and Haze otherwise appears to be easing into her own style and persona quite nicely. She works best when she’s not reaching for a hit, relying instead on her own formidable songwriting instincts. It’s then that she seems most comfortable in her own skin, unlike her peers, who seem pressured to find the right character to play to reap the most dividends.
Nicki Minaj might have cracked the glass ceiling hindering female rappers’ upward mobility, but I’ll take my excitement with a grain. Labels sniffing around at every rapper with an xx chromosome is as much a product of the quest to replicate Minaj’s success as it is of any of these ladies’ talent. It’s kinda like the year Nirvana blew up, and anything in the state of Washington with long hair and guitars scored a deal off a Kurt Cobain cosign.
Unfortunately, this scene lacks a figurehead as eager to share the spotlight as Kurt was, and sporadic in-fighting (see: Kreayshawn v. Rick Ross & Lil B, Dominique Young Unique v. Azealia Banks, Azealia Banks v. Everyone) has prevented these artists from assaulting the industry as a unified front. Be that as it may, we’re talking about multiple female artists for the first time in a decade, and all signs point to a swift end to the Great Rap Game Sausage Party of the aughts. Those ghastly Pink Friday albums were good for something after all.