Selling Herself Short: The Miscontexualization of Nicki Minaj

by Emma Carmichael

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.