Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Selling Herself Short: The Miscontexualization of Nicki Minaj

Nicki Minaj was six years old in 1990, when Island Records released Lin Que's first album, "Rebel Soul." Lin herself was then only 18. She was a member of the Black Nationalist group X Clan and was known as Isis. Just a year removed from high school, she traveled the world, meeting celebrities like Prince and Diana Ross. “I got bit by that bug, you know?” Lin told me on the phone last spring. “I’m a teenager and I want to be a star—but I don’t know shit.”

What she didn’t know would eventually hurt her. By 1997, Lin had signed three additional record deals, but "Rebel Soul" remained her only full-length album. She had sat through countless meetings with A&R executives, publicists and producers, attempting to convince them all that she could sell records, that the music she wanted to produce was both meaningful and marketable to the public. She had written and recorded enough songs to fill multiple albums, but label after label told her that they “couldn’t hear the single.” Lin got more frustrated with each meeting. She couldn’t understand the industry and her place in it. “I’m like, wait a minute: you signed me, so why don’t you just trust me?” Lin said. “Just trust me. I am hip hop! I live this.”

By 1997, Lin said, she felt she’d had enough. Her longtime friend and mentor MC Lyte had encouraged her to continue over the years, even coordinating a record deal with Columbia’s Ruffhouse Records that eventually went sour like the rest of them, and she tried to convince Lin to stay in the game. “[Lyte’s] like, ‘fuck that, we gon’ get you another record deal,’” Lin recalled. “And at that point I’m like, fuck, I’m a fuckin’ artist, Lyte. I know that I gotta live, I got a son to raise, but this shit is hurting my soul.”

For a few years, Lin withdrew herself from the record industry and stopped recording music; she focused on raising her son Myles and spent some time writing. Those years were, in her words, the “darkest” of her life. “It was painful,” Lin said. “It was so painful for me, man; it was like being a ballerina and losing your fucking feet. I was so angry.”

Nicki Minaj's "Pink Friday" arrived just before this Thanksgiving. It could be difficult for anyone who is not a black female rapper (including me, a white female home-recording wannabe rapper) to understand that this is remarkable, and something to be celebrated, but I think Lin Que’s story provides some context. Minaj didn’t just release her first major album, she released the album that Lin Que—and a lot of other female rappers—once refused to record.

About a year ago, I sent a message on MySpace to Minaj. At the time, it wasn’t such a preposterous idea that I might hear back from her. She hadn’t debuted on top-ten radio yet and she certainly didn’t have an hour-long documentary special on MTV. I was writing my undergraduate thesis on female rappers, I explained, and I wondered if she’d agree to an interview. She had dropped most of her mixtapes by then, and I’d listened to "Beam Me Up, Scotty" all summer. On the cover, Minaj was wearing a Wonder Woman outfit and on one of the album’s more reflective songs, “Can Anybody Hear Me,” she declared, “in the Nick of time, it just dawned on me/I am Nicki Minaj, and it’s all on me.” Later in the verse she explained the duty: “I came to save a thing called female rap.” Nicki was well on her ascent, thanks to “Scotty,” great talent and a Young Money contract, and I never heard back from the MySpace message.

On that same song, Minaj rapped about just how complicated the task she was setting out for herself might be: “But when it rains, it pours for real/Def Jam said I’m no Lauryn Hill/Can’t rap and sing on the same CD/The public won’t get it, they got A.D.D.”

In "Pink Friday," she sings and raps on the same track anyway, with varying success. About half of the album is consistently pop; the remaining songs are New York hip-hop featuring a distinctly New York flow. But those pop songs are unapologetically soft and sappy, even emotional. Judging by the album’s reception so far, it’s clear that fans respond to Minaj when she is Nicki Minaj, Nicki Lewinski, Nicki the Ninja, Nicki the Boss, Nicki the Harajuku Barbie or Roman Zolanski. We haven’t really been introduced to a character setting for the Minaj who raps, “I am not a girl that can ever be defined/I am not fly, I am levitation/I represent an entire generation,” as she does on "Pink Friday." The raw emotion stuff is new—and strangely unsettling. Minaj’s fans like her raw, unsentimental personas, perhaps purely for their aesthetic quality. Plus when she’s Roman, she just sounds really dope.

But what’s most interesting (and even inspiring) to me about the reaction to "Pink Friday" thus far is this sense that Minaj is selling herself short on this album. This means not only that we’ve developed expectations for Minaj’s lyrical skill, but that they’re seriously high expectations that Minaj herself set for us by being a skilled rapper with the most refreshing and unpredictable delivery since Eminem, her partner on “Roman’s Revenge.” We expect her not only to be good, but to be better than, more honest than, and more creative than other rappers out today—male or female. We want from her that “oh-shit” moment, as in that verse on Kanye’s “Monster,” when you hear a line or a full sixteen and you cover your mouth in disbelief and awe. But we want that from Minaj on every song.

This is remarkable. Just over a year ago, I interviewed the DC-based rapper RA the MC, who is one of the best freestylers in the DMV. She has a new mixtape, "Victory Lap," due out today. “Hip hop fans really don’t have expectations of female MCs,” she told me at the time of our interview. RA is used to the "oh-shit" moment. She sees it at every one of her shows. I emailed her the other day to see if she thinks that sense has changed, and she said yes. “Nicki raised the bar with 'Pink Friday,'” she wrote. “People expect female rappers to come correct now.”

A component of that shift, I think, is that over the past year, Minaj has not positioned herself as a rapper from Queens; she has written herself as a female rapper. For Minaj, it’s not so much where she’s from but who she is, and that moves from being “a bad bitch, a cunt,” to “a girl that can never be defined.” Her latest album makes no more than a handful of references to her childhood and to Queens. She tells stories, but none of them are really about growing up in Jamaica, attending LaGuardia High School or dealing with her father’s drug problems. Her stories are, in essence, about being a woman in hip hop. Maybe the best woman in hip hop.

This is also remarkable. In 2009, Adam Bradley released a book called Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop. I was disappointed—though not exactly surprised— to find that in discussing the future of “rap’s true lyrical innovators” and “the future of rap’s poetry,” Bradley never mentions female emcees. He wrote that the next great original emcee “not only will… likely be rapping about different things from everyone else, [but will also] be using different words to do it” and lauds white male rappers Eminem and Asher Roth for doing just that.

But what is fresher in hip hop than a female’s perspective in rhyme? What male rapper can deliver a line like “Instantaneous, combustion when I’m bustin’ these raps/And the estrogen I spit will make your muscles collapse,” as LA’s AthenA has done, or, “I’m strivin’ to be one of the best, period/Not just one of the best with breasts and a period,” as Detroit emcee Invincible did in her 2008 song “Looongawaited”? Or consider Jean Grae’s line, “But n—-s is quick to turn they back on spitters with clits/Hit ‘em with this, ridiculous phrase flow that exits my lips/Hey yo, I mean my face, though,” in 2002’s “Knock.” Men who rap can’t say these rhymes.

In "Pink Friday," Minaj even takes it to another level, simultaneously appropriating and mocking male braggadocio with the line, “And if I had a dick, I’d pull it out and piss on ‘em.” It’s unfair to say that Minaj is working with “a blank canvas,” as Jonah Weiner did a year ago—that ignores a very long history of women who have contributed to the hip hop narrative—but it is true that female emcees have a really exciting chance to craft a hip hop narrative that generally lacks their perspectives.

Instead, Minaj is putting in the time with this album so that she, and others, can eventually add more to that canvas. (In a sense, it’s already expanding: Lil’ Kim released a Minaj dis track, “Black Friday,” last week, and Baltimore’s Keys got her start with a YouTube dis last spring.) In a recent interview, someone asked her if the track “Your Love” would have made it onto "Pink Friday" had it not been leaked. “No,” she said immediately. “Definitely no.” This suggests, of course, that Minaj has limited control over what songs went on "Pink Friday." The track “Dear Old Nicki” takes this even further. It’s an open love letter to the Nicki who never had a record deal. In the track, she accepts equal responsibility alongside “the media” for her evolution since she signed with Young Money in August 2009.

There are a lot of female rappers out there who once walked away from record deals or chose not to pursue them because they felt it would compromise their artistic integrity. Lin Que is just one example. I think that if any of them had released mass-market albums, they would have contained songs similar to “Dear Old Nicki.” I find this, and “Dear Old Nicki” itself, to be very sad. Minaj suggests that to get where she is now, she had no choice but to leave the Old Nicki, the Jamaica Queens Nicki, behind. I believe her. “You never switched it up, you played the same part/But I needed to grow, and I needed to know/were there some things inside of me that I needed to show?” Right before the hook, she says, “I just deaded you, left you in all black/But dear old Nicki, please call back.” In the second verse, she attributes that blame to “the media.” “They just deaded you,” she says.

"Pink Friday" has some great tracks, but a lot of it sounds like a new Nicki that even the old Nicki’s not so comfortable with. I hope that with this album, Nicki plays by the rules so that she, and others, can eventually break them. On her opening track, “I’m the Best,” Minaj raps, “got two bones to pick, I’m a only choose one/it might get addressed on the second album.” Those who aren’t feeling, say, “Last Chance,” her bubblegum collaboration with Natasha Bedingfield, should retain the hope that the second issue is reviving the Old Nicki. Depending on your perspective, this is either an unforgivable sell-out or a necessary sacrifice.

For her part, Lin Que finally released her second full album, "GODspeed," in 2007—seventeen years after "Rebel Soul." It was self-released and self-produced. I asked her to describe what that creative process was, and without hesitating she said, “it was projectile vomit. I realized that now that I’ve taken everything I’ve learned from the industry, I can finally do what I wanna do.”

That’s the perspective that’s easier to ignore when listening to "Pink Friday." It’s really hard for women who rap to sign a major deal, and it’s even harder for them to then say exactly what they want to say and get away with it. On “Dear Old Nicki,” Minaj asks, “did I chase the glitz and glamor, money, fame, and power?/‘cause if so that will forever go down my lamest hour.” It may be advisable to hear “lamest” and think “bravest,” because there are a lot of women out there who rap, some arguably better than Minaj, and they usually never hit the public eardrum. Minaj may not truly be “the best bitch doing it,” as she puts in “I’m the Best,” but for now, she’s the best one willing to do it.

Emma Carmichael is a writer (okay, intern) in New York.

28 Comments / Post A Comment

joeks (#5,805)

Whatever she can do well Missy can do about a hundred times better. And that's all I have to say about that.

Slava (#216)

Except, you know, releasing new music since 2005

Sam Feldman (#8,821)

Really good post, but I'd like to see you nail down what specific choices/ verses on the album are particularly egregious conceits to the sort of amorphous antagonist 'corporate pop.' Like, the two songs you identify as not as great are "Your Love" and "Last Chance." But looking just at lyrics, I'm not sure what's the concession in unapologetically liking a dude, nor how it represents a significant shift from, say, her verse on the "Best I Ever Had" remix on Beam Me Up Scotty. Same with "Last Chance" – I actually think she's really inspired lyrically and uses her voice really well in the speed up/ change pitch parts in the second verse. And if you're identifying something too 'corporate' in the beats, I'm not sure how the beats she's rapping over on Pink Friday have any more terrible pop influence than the top 40 songs she's rapping over on the mixtapes?

SourCapote (#4,872)

Ive been putting this on replay all week

very strong femcee

Poignant Moon (#8,819)

MTV's doc Nicki Minaj: My Time Now was directed by Michael John Warren. The film was great. He was also the director for Drake: Better Than Good Enough and Jay-Z’s Fade To Black. Found his site – mjwfilms.com. In case anyone is curious who is behind the camera.


Great post for a bunch of reasons. What do you think of Nicki's backtracking on all the freewheeling bi-sexual imagery that was once in her lyrics? Do you think the record label made her do it?

On Hot 97 last week with Angie Martinez (at that live event that was broadcast), Nicki denied being bi-sexual and Angie sort of let it be known that she scarely believed her. "Oh? No? Oh…Ohhh K" was Angie's approximate response.

Seems like the label wanted a mega pop star and didn't want to have to deal with it. Maybe she's not, but if so, why did she make it so central to her early persona? Or was it just a metaphor for something? It doesn't matter one way or the other, just wondering if you see nefarious label politics here.

emmacar (#8,833)

hi mr. whipsnade. thanks! you know, i don't know what to make of that. nicki has talked a lot in interviews about how she explicitly chose to back down from overtly sexual lyrics, but she says it's because she realized she'd become a powerful/representative voice for young girls, and she didn't want that to be her only lyrical influence. but she doesn't really bring bisexuality into that conversation. i don't know if she "really is" bisexual or if it made for some great rhymes & attention on her come-up, but i do think that her bringing the topic into a rhyme scheme in the first place is really important and brave.

En Vague (#82)

"First things first, I'll eat your brains…"

olmucky (#542)

“I am not a girl that can ever be defined/I am not fly, I am levitation/I represent an entire generation,” is not raw emotion, just crappy writing. I also represent an entire generation. See, I can say stuff too. Anyone can!

FlyRicky (#8,279)

I always thought that Lil Wayne was ghostwriting for Nicki Minaj. She employs the exact same type of word play as Wayne.
"you da bestest
and i'd just be cumming off the top asbestos" just sound like Wayne wrote that. Just like Biggie wrote for Kim, I'd be willing to bet Wayne is writing for Nicki

emmacar (#8,833)

ricky, you're fly, but i don't buy it! well, a couple things. first is, a lot of male rappers have ghostwriters. usually, nobody assumes, but for women, it's immediate. yea, i'm throwing up the double standard flag.

for what it's worth, i think nicki is a very methodical and talented writer. also a ghostwriter herself! check the track "saxon," which she recorded as a demo for rihanna's Rated R. she also addresses the Wayne assumption quite a bit, because people bring it up all the time. she was in the BET Awards Cypher a year ago, and got booed because everyone thought it was a pre-written verse (duh, it was. so was every dude's!: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=85H9H32oUBI). so she had to defend herself in an interview with TT Torrez: "I don't need a dude to write my shit; Wayne never wrote my shit, no one writes my shit." it's more likely that she sometimes sounds like Wayne because like a lot of other rappers, she was influenced by his flow.

this is worth a look, too. she's writing! and it's so so original! who else could deliver this verse?: http://www.mtv.com/videos/movies/601324/nicki-explains-writes-and-spits-romans-revenge.jhtml#id=1653117

FlyRicky (#8,279)

While there is a double standard, I don't think thats clouding my assesment. I actually think Wayne is writing for Nicki because both of them have verses inundated with word play that you don't hear from a lot of rappers. On top of that, she is on Young Money and it would make financial sense if Wayne was ghostwriting her verses.
As for the video, I can't comment on the actual verse cause I don't have speakers on my work computer…but who wears a sun hat in a recording studio?

Andrew Piccone (#7,185)

Good read. Love long posts about female rappers.

leroybanjo (#8,448)

This is a spoof, right? Someone tell me this is a joke. Black female rapper who don't get her due wit intenshinul mispelins and all. Yo.

But I love this:

“it was projectile vomit. I realized that now that I’ve taken everything I’ve learned from the industry, I can finally do what I wanna do.”

You go, girl. Spit…it out.

I'm really fucking tired of the hippity hop culture. Yeah, ok, you're angry, you're bitter, you be geniuses of the internal rhyme. And, really, no one cares.

Get over yoselves. Self-referential lyrics may have been fourth-wall crumbling circa 1987 but we all done been there.

(on the back beat)

"yo, yo, yo/I'm a rebel with a contract/a cul-chu-ral terr-or-ist/i don't play yo rules/cept when i need to sign the bottom line and get my attorney to vet the details after ten phone calls which he _doesn't_ return, the white bastard…(oops…kinda messed up the rhythm there)/My name is /I said my name is /Did you hear me?/My name is /I gots it tattooed on my /Don't be axing what my name is/just read my /I'm gunna spit sumpin trenchant/And make you reach for your truncheon/That's a big ass word/I look it up an hour ago/When I was looking for something that rhymes with "trenchant", which I also just looked up because god know I can't…(oops, did it again)/My name is /(Did I say that already?)

janine (#248)

I've never heard this argument against hip hop before. You're very astute.

jackannapolis (#8,813)

There is no doubt a lot of shitty rap hip-hop out there, but claiming that rap is bad because it's grandstanding and self referential is completely missing the point. It's SUPPOSED to be self-referential. The boast is one of the most fundamental parts of the rap and has its roots in posturing on the street in social competition. A rapper who doesn't refer to his or herself during a rap is someone who manufactured rap somewhere where rap usually doesn't get made. Rapping is all about showing how well you can mix beats and rhyme into a musical aesthetic.

Now, I'm going to get on my old man soap box and say that all the rap today is basically shit – you might find a couple of good rappers out there, but P Diddy and Biggie and Tupac are the godfathers of this new group and I didn't like any of them when they were big, except for Tupac when he used to clown around with the Underground.

But you get MosDef's Ecstatic on the table, released in the 'aughties and you have almost the perfect album of true hip hop. Listen to the Auditorium, especially the the Ruler's (fucking Slick Rick!) verses as he talks about the war in Iraq and the irony of being called 'black bastard' by a young Iraqi kid. "I don't unnastan' it/ on another planet/ fifteen monna(months of) this stuff/how'm I gonna manage?" to the back drop of a haunting strings track.

leroybanjo (#8,448)

And, seriously, I read theawl.com because it tends towards satisfyingly good writing. But what do we make of this sentence?

"This means not only that we’ve developed expectations for Minaj’s lyrical skill, but that they’re seriously high expectations that Minaj herself set for us by being a skilled rapper with the most refreshing and unpredictable delivery since Eminem, her partner on “Roman’s Revenge.”"

Clumsy, ungrammatical, and senseless. Then there's this:

"Plus when she’s Roman, she just sounds really dope."

Thank you for that. It all makes sense, now. Dope. Yeah. Speaks a world.

emmacar (#8,833)

is this my Black Friday?

Charlie (#4,250)

first, this piece is great!!!! but to say men can't spit “instantaneous, combustion when I’m bustin’ these raps/And the estrogen I spit will make your muscles collapse” is like saying Kanye West is smart because he rhymes esophagus and sarcophagus. it's just not true! i am 100% supportive of the femcee thing but it seems a little, um, undertextualized here? maybe? also, i'm the black girl listening to brian eno and dreaming about feather boas all day. i think that makes you my musical foil somehow.

janine (#248)

I don't think she's saying that men are incapable of saying those words, but rather that the meaning of the words and maybe impetus to even say them are tied to Minaj being a woman.

emmacar (#8,833)

thanks! yea, janine explained my intent. i guess what i meant subtextually is that it's the freshest narrative out right now because at base, because those are the newest kinds of rhymes in hip hop, and i think it's really powerful that women have that ability. but i'm a big cornball about this stuff.

and i've never had a foil anything so i'm thrilled.

deacon (#7,432)

and the awl readership responds poignantly to more rap coverage.

joeybswift (#8,869)

Nicki is great and she has shown tons of potential, but Pink Friday is a letdown. Glad she got her album out, but I think it has about 3 listenable tracks.

Her lil wayne like guest verses are by far more impressive. whether she or wayne wrote them she's a performer. her verse on bottoms up, a terrible song, is an example of something you don't find on the her album. it's funny and nasty and reflective on the whole indulgent hip hop mantra. and lil wayne could never had delivered it.

leroybanjo (#8,448)

@janine. You got me. Point all takened and shit.

Yeah, rap/hip-hop be an easy target, but I'm jes trying to keep it real. Y'know what I'm sayin'?

R/HH is, near as i can tell, wanted and ingested for its rhythm (primarily) and its supposed fuck-da-man posture. But…let's let nicki speaks fo herseff:

"Yo Cassie
You a bad bitch I'm a call you Lassie
Just left the tour last date Tallahasse
Don't mind me
Even witcha GPS couldn't find me
Lookin at this boy I'm a call him McDreamy
I was wonderin if he got a good Dick Cheney
Got a Lamborghini so the doors go high
In a button down Chris Brown bow tie!"


R/HH is a commodity. It was a surprise…30 years ago; now it's just an ad during the superbowl. It's muzak.

iplaudius (#1,066)

I first became aware of Nicky Minaj when she announced herself and unleashed some naughty words in a remix of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love.” It was hilarious and brought a much needed subtext to the song. Who was this Nicky Minaj saying things like, "I was a thirty-two D in my Dugarees, / Can I have a couple more cucumbers, please"?

Of course, I assumed it was an unauthorized remix by a very talented drag queen.

Really late to the party here. Srry.

Two things:
D) There's not really any discussion of Minaj's style/fashion choices in this article. Her emergence is based upon these factors as much as her sound. One influences the other.

And #6) The direction things are going through her (and others) is borderline good-speak. I'm not saying that's bad, necessarily. But I'd love to see the wordy undergrounds' response to her. Is there a female UG rapper right now? Get to work, Emma.

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