First thing’s first, Abe Beame will eat your brains.
Nicki Minaj was in the right place at the right time. She emerged under Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment imprint right as Weezy was at the peak of his powers and Drake was a frequent collaborator and rising peer. But I really believe that if you put Nicki in any situation she would’ve ended up right where she is. If Lil Fame met her at a cookout in Brownsville in ’06, you’d get the best possible version of A Star is Born.
You never had to make qualifications with Nicki, and very few ever did. You could make a solid argument that for a time between 2010-2011 (And again in 2014) she was one the best rappers on earth. Period. And crucially, no one would argue with you.
Here are some stats: All four of Minaj’s albums have cracked Billboard’s top 3. She has 17 top 10 hits and 99 total songs that have charted (which is a record amongst all female artists for most ever). She has sold 20 million singles, been featured on singles that have sold 60 million units and sold over five million albums. She has headlined three world tours, the last of which grossed $22 million dollars. She has won 6 American Music Awards, 11 BET Awards, 4 Billboard Music Awards and has been nominated for 10 Grammys. She’s collaborated with Beyoncé, Madonna, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears. She was a judge on American Idol. She voiced a Wooly Mammoth in an Ice Age movie. She was listed as one of Time Magazine’s Most Influential People in the World in 2016. Even if you don’t believe she is the greatest female rapper of all time (I do), there is no question she’s the most successful.
Onika Tanya Maraj is 36 years old. She’s Trinidadian, born in St. James, and raised in South Jamaica Queens. Her parents were both Gospel singers. She started out in a rap group with her longtime boyfriend Safaree before going solo and garnering buzz off a Myspace page. From her earliest work you can hear a born talent. And I mean that by all the classic metrics. She has impeccable breathe control, verbal dexterity, a voice that was created to be recorded, she wields an intelligent pen in verse. And with those tools she could’ve had a solid career as an MC.
What really stands out even with rough, early Nicki is presence. She has that thing that movie stars and great athletes exude. Her intangibles are off the charts. There’s that bizarre accent that lands somewhere between D from Clueless and Judi Dench. She’s a rib-breaking shot of adrenaline to the heart; there’s no garbage time for Nicki, she has a Montrezl Harrell work ethic and spits with a fire breathing intensity virtually unmatched by anyone this side of Busta Rhymes. She’s witty but ferocious, every decision is inspired and insane, she has Young Thug’s same knack for complete and total confidence in a style that is anything but safe. It all adds up to a completely bewildering, magnetic swag.
Nicki pushed the entire game forward. In her willingness to go anywhere, her in-verse schizophrenia, her unhinged energy, her humor and all her unpredictability. Let’s say she had a ghostwriter at some point in her career, it wouldn’t matter because so much of her art is in its delivery and there’s only one person on Earth who can do what she does. Nicki took Wayne at his coked out, perverted, deviant, manic best and said “Hold my beer”. She brought a kind of performance art to the once safe guest 16 (Nicki is the best R&B feature rapper of her generation, quite possibly of all time with all due respect to Ludacris). Lil Kim was the obvious parallel because they were both beautiful, confident women who became sex symbols for their respective generations. But really the closest ancestor to Nicki is Missy Elliot.
Much like Nicki, Missy wasn’t confined by gender, and with Timbaland forged a partnership that defined a far left wing of progressive, experimental, wildly successful pop for a decade. Missy and Nicki are two truly original fucking weirdos who defy definition. But Nicki has never been tied to any one sound or style. She’s a chameleon who can reinvent on the fly like any of the other truly great iconic female pop stars of the late 20th Century. This malleability has been her gift to the masses, and her curse to a certain subset of rap diehards.
As far as I can tell there are three distinct movements in the entire history of “Female Rap,” if you’ll allow me to use the gender binary as shorthand for a genre that doesn’t really exist. The first comes at the inception of hip-hop, when women strove for parity with the genre’s patriarchy. This was the era of MC Lyte, early Salt-N-Pepa, Roxanne Shante, Da Brat, Queen Latifah and other pioneers. This was early stage Hip-Hop Feminism when the ultimate compliment would be “She’s as nice as a dude.” While these women didn’t hide their gender, they ably aped male flows, often nicer than a majority of their male counterparts, but they wore extremely baggy clothing, grabbed nuts they didn’t have, often rapped with emphasized bass in their voice, exuded a general masculinity they felt they had to in order to earn cred, to show that this wasn’t just a man’s game by paradoxically kind of playing that game.
The second movement was an embrace of femininity, most closely associated with Lil Kim and Foxy Brown but contained multitudes (Shout to Trina and Gangsta Boo) in the mid to late 90s, including some of the women introduced during the first wave who pivoted to a style I’d describe as sex Goddess coquettishness. But it was complicated. For starters, much of it was conceived, produced and directed by men, particularly Biggie who ushered in this era of female rap with Lil Kim’s classic Hardcore. The album is exquisitely rapped. It is an out and out embrace of sexual agency, a call to arms for women tired of being taken advantage of. It’s great, but in retrospect problematic.
Much like Biggie Smalls was a character Christopher Wallace created and explores on his debut, Hardcore is also a character piece. That character is very much a man’s projection of a perfect woman. A “down ass bitch” who loves to fuck almost as much as she loves guns and money, who loves hard and is loyal but also is down to smut out depending on if her context is wifey or side chick. It’s kind of a mess.
The third movement is Nicki Minaj.
There are some gaps and complications in this general characterization. Salt-N-Pepa displayed their sexuality and womanhood before Lil Kim emerged. There were women making intelligent rap from a feminine perspective in the mid-to-late 90s. And there was obviously Missy Elliot. You could write, and I’m sure many have written, brilliant theses on these distinct periods and all their weirdness and aberrations that won’t fit into the body of this blog post.
But from a big picture perspective these were the dominant themes behind rap music made by women in the culture during those eras, and I think it’s important to lay out because the goal is to show an evolutionary arc of rap music made by women. It’s an arc that lands with its true maturation, modernization and I’d like to think equality in the emergence, and ubiquitous dominance of Nicki Minaj.
A lazy, somewhat intriguing narrative is that Nicki was an all time great rapper who sacrificed her ability for pop success, moving towards saccharine production and music attuned to its time rather than her personal taste and sensibilities and the argument isn’t without merit. She has a penchant for big, Gagaist Euro-house leaning production on her singles garnered for the Z-100 set, and the songs are generally terrible — well below her ability as a rapper and really as an artist because she’s also a credible singer capable of decent-to-good R&B. These hits drag down her front-to-back albums if you’re coming for cohesion and make for a tough sell if you’re making a completist argument for her body of work.
But Nicki had ambition far greater than impressing you, dude reading an indie hip-hop blog on your phone. She wanted to be more than the great rapper she always was, but to be an icon, a global brand, and she achieved that goal. The real hip-hop crowd hates Nicki for “Starships”, but to date, “Starships” has sold 7.2 million copies and is one of the greatest selling digital singles of all time. It takes vision, and yes, courage to take a swing like that and connect with the Taylor Swift, Katy Perry set. I for one respect the hustle. This tape leans popist and that’s intentional. Whereas with some tapes like these you look for the off cuts, the freestyles, the B-sides, the little heard or known features and remixes, Minaj is a creature of pop. She saves her best work for the biggest stages and makes her most innovative and compelling decisions on platinum singles with Trey Songz or French Montana or Fergie. This is her power and her genius.
At the moment Nicki is embroiled with the also great Cardi B in a bullshit beef that seemingly all female rappers have to face amongst each other in an unfortunate ritual of passage since the beginning of time, but hopefully Nicki and Cardi will soon recognize their common bonds and set it aside so they can go back to making great music. Nicki came of age this decade and altered the popular imagination of what a female MC is capable of achieving. She broke the ceiling for every female rapper who comes after her. But she didn’t transcend her gender. She transcended rap.
ROD: Nicki Minaj- The Feminine Mystique
- Nicki Minaj- I Get Crazy (ft. Lil Wayne) (Beam Me Up Scotty 2009)
- Nicki Minaj- Stupid Hoe (Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded 2012)
- French Montana- Freaks (ft. Nicki Minaj) (Excuse my French 2013)
- Kanye West- Monster (ft. Nicki Minaj, Jay-Z & Rick Ross) (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy 2010)
- Nicki Minaj- Only (ft. Drake, Lil Wayne & Chris Brown) (The Pinkprint 2014)
- Nicki Minaj- Good Form (Remix) (ft. Lil Wayne) (2018)
- Rae Sremmurd- Throw Some Mo (ft. Nicki Minaj) (Sremmlife 2015)
- Beyonce- Flawless (Remix) (ft. Nicki Minaj) (BEYONCE 2014)
- Big Sean- Dance A$$ (ft. Nicki Minaj) (Finally Famous 2011)
- Nicki Minaj- Beez in the Trap (ft. 2 Chainz)
- Nicki Minaj- Chun-Li (Queen 2018)
- Usher- Little Freak (ft. Nicki Minaj) (Raymond v Raymond 2010)
- Yo Gotti- Rake It Up (ft. Nicki Minaj) (Pink Friday 2010)
- Nicki Minaj -Love More (ft. Chris Brown) (X 2014)
- Playboi Carti- Poke It Out (ft. Nicki Minaj) (Die Lit 2018)
- Mario- Somebody Else (ft. Nicki Minaj) (2013)
- Nicki Minaj- Barbie Tingz (2018)
- Nicki Minaj- Truffle Butter (ft. Drake & Lil Wayne) (The Pinkprint 2014)
- Trey Songz- Touchin, Lovin (ft. Nicki Minaj) (Trigga 2014)
- Nicki Minaj- Coco Chanel (ft. Foxy Brown) (Queen 2018)
- Fergie- You Already Know (ft. Nicki Minaj (Double Dutchess 2017)