Nicki Minaj rewrites the rules for female rappers
BARELY a year and a half has passed since the release of Pink Friday, the platinum debut album by Nicki Minaj, but her style is well honed. She’s a sparkling rapper with a gift for comic accents and unexpected turns of phrase. She’s a walking exaggeration, outsize in sound, personality and look. And she’s a rapid evolver, discarding old modes as easily as adopting new ones. This hard and complex work has paid off: when she releases her second album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, it will be as the most influential female rapper of all time.
What’s even more striking is how far her reach extends beyond hip-hop. When Madonna needed to tether her current comeback to the young female transgressors of the day, she chose Nicki Minaj and MIA. At the Grammys in February she gave the most shocking performance, part exorcism and part Broadway spectacle. And in the lead-up to her new album, from Young Money/Cash Money/Universal Republic, her new songs have shown that she has no intention of being hemmed in by the expectations of genre, dabbling in slithery R&B on Right by My Side and outright giddy dance-pop on Starships. When rapping on the songs of others, she’s often the most capable emcee around – take Birdman’s Y U Mad? – but on her own material she’s often straddling a line between hip-hop and pop that no other rapper is capable of, or would even dare.
A few years ago, before her rise began, there were hardly any female rappers of note; now, a new generation, including Azealia Banks, Brianna Perry and Angel Haze, are rising quickly, working territory that she carved out. This is a story about influence, to be sure, but also about the weakening of old walls, and the reshaping of the gates that the gatekeepers keep.
Thanks to Nicki Minaj and the possibilities she has laid bare, and to hip-hop’s stasis of masculinity it is, outrageously and unprecedentedly, a more exciting time to be a female rapper than a male one.
As much as anything, this reflects what a barren playing field Nicki Minaj, 29, arrived onto. She signed with Lil Wayne’s Young Money Records in 2009 on the strength of a couple of years’ worth of mixtapes and street DVD appearances. The Nicki of that era was brassy and coarse, and intermittently clever. She had no real competition, and when she signed with Lil Wayne, there was little indication that she would drastically rewrite the rules for female rappers.
She did the obvious, and then more.
She became a nimble, evocative rapper. She became an intricate lyricist. She became a thoughtful singer.
She became a risky performer.
She invented new personae.
More than any other rapper in the mainstream, she pushed hard against expectations, and won. Only rarely did she allow herself to appear secondary to her male counterparts – even on songs like Monster, alongside Kanye West and Jay-Z, she more than held her ground. That was part of the blessing of being singular: With no one around to compare herself to, or for others to compare her to, she became her own watermark.
She morphed into the most eclectic blackmusic style idol since Grace Jones, and certainly the one with the quickest ascent to the style elite, with a look that’s loud, cartoonish and edging toward avant-garde.
She’s been on the covers of Vibe, XXL and the Fader, sure, but also of Cosmopolitan, Black Book, Elle and V. The current issue of Paper magazine features a modest Minaj on the cover: salmon blazer, lemon yellow top, Oscar-the-Grouch-green tangle of curls. Inside is a 16-page fashion spread full of models wearing Nicki-inspired fashion: multicoloured Afros, top-volume animal prints, neon makeup and shimmering fabrics, on both men and women.
In short, emulating Nicki Minaj isn’t difficult, because there’s so much to play with.
It’s possible to take just a part of what she’s done and come off as refreshing. And that’s just what a new wave of female rappers has done. Take the bawdy Harlem rapscallion Azealia Banks, recipient of a heap of Internet affection in recent months. Like Nicki Minaj she raps and sings, and plays with various accents. Many of her best songs have been one-off collaborations with electronic music producers like Lunice and Machinedrum. But despite the blog success of the lusty 212, she’s still something of a curio, a situation that her new label, Universal, will most likely be looking to remedy.
It shouldn’t be tough. Banks is effervescent and charming, and seemingly extremely malleable.
Flexible in a different way is the Miami rapper Brianna Perry, who recently signed to Atlantic. Perry most resembles the main earlier model of female rap success, the sex kitten and gangster’s moll poses honed by Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown in the mid-1990s.
But in the last year, as evinced on YouTube, Perry has evolved her style significantly, both aesthetically and musically. She unfurls her syllables in a deliberate, distinctive fashion and adapts her delivery well to the beat, evident especially on a string of freestyles over other people’s songs What Perry is missing, though, is some of Nicki Minaj’s effortlessness: She often appears to be scowling, even when the song calls for something softer. In a similar way Iggy Azalea, a white Australian woman, is stuck on one mood. She sounds as if she learned to rap for a part in a Movie of the Week: She’s studied and awkward, an able imitator but not yet capable of more than that.
Some of her rap moves come from Nicki Minaj, particularly the ways in which she tries to bend her voice into different shapes. And Iggy Azalea, who signed with Interscope, has fully inhaled Nicki Minaj’s skewed-Barbie aesthetic. Her videos are like small fashion shows, and Iggy Azalea, with her bottleblonde hair and Jessica Rabbit manner, is inhabiting her character fully.
Iggy Azalea’s look is a reminder that for all of Nicki Minaj’s achievements, she’s still done little to upend the traditional weight of masculinity in hip-hop. And traditional masculine rules still hold sway. Women are still mostly sex objects, and men mostly think of them in commodity terms. Nicki Minaj’s music is full of reposts to this idea, but her image still often works within that old framework. Take as a counter example Drake, Nicki Minaj’s label mate, who offers a more emotionally complicated palette. But there has not been a flood of rappers looking to ride his coattails.
His subtle challenges to the masculine ideal are more vexing to rap than Nicki Minaj’s almost-complete rebranding of the female’s potential. The rapper who’s best taken advantage of the sound that Drake pioneered – at least by rapping over his beats – is Angel Haze, a meditative young woman with a gift for starkly emotional verse.
She’s released a handful of mixtapes, the most recent of which, King, features several revelatory performances over the beats from Drake songs including Marvins Room, Fall For Your Type and Dreams Money Can Buy. Because Nicki Minaj is such a malleable polyvalent talent, she’s enabled a whole host of new styles, even an anti- Nicki. That would be Nitty Scott, MC, from Brooklyn, who sounds like a mid-’90s naturalist. In essence she strips away all of the things that Nicki Minaj went out of her way to accommodate.
Nicki Minaj’s ascent gives Nitty Scott something to push back against, which she seems to thrive on.
She’s a wry, melodious and enunciative rapper, the most classically minded of the bunch, but who still might be languishing unnoticed were she not a firm counterpoint to Nicki Minaj.
There are several more female rappers happy just for the extra attention that coming on the heels of Nicki Minaj has given them. After some time it’s once again de rigueur for male rappers to have at least one female rapper in their extended crew: Lola Monroe of Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang, or, from Waka Flocka Flame’s 1017 Brick Squad, Cartier Kitten, whose Project Gunplay mixtape cover hilariously repurposes the Project Runway logo.
And Nicki Minaj’s success has run parallel to a couple of other female rap mini-movements, including mainstream singers who have made rapping part of their act, like Kesha, Fergie or the intriguing rising British reality-show graduate Cher Lloyd, as well as independent hip-hop figures like the Shabazz Palaces affiliates and 1990s-bohemian revivalists THEESatisfaction. But where Nicki Minaj’s influence may be most vital is on artists who ordinarily have no business rapping, but who see in Nicki a relatable role model.