Since the release of her 2010 debut album Pink Friday, Nicki Minaj has been regarded as THE great hope for a powerful female presence amongst the male dominated genre of hip-hop.
Following three successful mixtapes and signing to Lil Wayne’s record label Young Money Entertainment in 2009, there seemed to be few obstacles in the way of the ambitious young MC as she begun her bid to become the best female rapper of all time. However, four years on from the release of her debut album and an array of commercially successful singles, the next move Minaj makes is arguably the most important in determining where her career is headed.
Prior to the release of her Pink Friday, Minaj had earned a strong reputation for lyrical potency of her material, her animated vocal delivery and unique sense of flow. Guest verses on songs for artists such as Mariah Carey, Ludacris, Usher and Trey Songz helped her to establish herself, quickly gaining the rapper influence in the music industry as a formidable force that often outshone those generous enough to offer her a feature.
On 19th November 2010 Minaj released Pink Friday, yet just a week after her debut release she was making the headlines for another reason, her performance on the biggest feature of her career so far; Kanye West’s ‘Monster’. Rapping alongside Kanye West, Jay Z and Rick Ross is (arguably) tough for the most experienced of MCs, yet not only did Nicki compete, she outshone her well known peers with a fearless verse that ensured she was once again the centre of attention. Whilst such an impressive feature garnered Minaj a great deal of respect within the industry and amongst many hip hop fans, some argued that she’d peaked too early and would struggle to ever produce anything better. Though such comments are obviously hyperbolic, Minaj’s work since the ‘Monster’ verse has left some of her fans hungry for more of the same and dissatisfied with her flirtation with the world of electro-pop.
Such criticism is unwarranted and a common problem with fans of all of music genres. As I argued in last week’s column on Kanye West, artists will evolve, it’s healthy for them; and experimentation with other genres whilst building upon the success of their original work, allows musicians to target a broader audience and establish a secure position within the industry. As fans it’s easy to forget that in an era where the music industry has changed dramatically and continues to evolve as technology advances, making money from music has become more important than ever. In fact, one struggles to think of a genre other than hip-hop where making money is not only the objective, but also the focus of so many artists’ lyrical output *Rick Ross cough*. By expanding the boundaries of what was acceptable sonically, Minaj not only further established herself but also heightened her influence in a fiercely competitive genre.
However, when one looks at the criticism that Minaj received following the release of her sophomore album Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, it becomes clear that much of the disapproval originated those worried she was wasting a huge opportunity to improve the genre and utilise her unique position as a female MC.
The creative output and unique persona of Nicki Minaj has meant that the rapper has inspired an often obsessively loyal fan base she refers to as the barbz. Having such a devoted group of fans is obviously great for any artist, however, in today’s world of 24hr coverage and social media, fans cling to every word of her material, following her actions in the public eye with an unrelenting glare. In the view of some fans Minaj’s prolonged flirtation with the world of pop and reality TV is a betrayal of what they perceive to be her responsibility as a female rapper in a male dominated genre. Yet whilst such concerns are understandable given the historical demographic of hip-hop, they fail to acknowledge that songs like ‘Starships’ that they vociferously condemn have enabled Minaj to elevate herself to a considerable position of power. With six platinum singles and nine as a guest, Nicki Minaj has laid the foundations on which she can continue to build her career upon.
Minaj is certainly perceptive to her fans concerns and in recent interviews has revealed details of her upcoming third album confidently entitled The Pink Print (a play on Jay Z’s 2001 classic) which she states is a return to her hip-hop roots. The release of what Minaj insists is not a single, but a conversation in ‘Lookin’ Ass Niggaz’ has only served to complicate matters further for the female MC however, with Minaj being criticised for her misguided appropriation of Malcolm X for the song’s unofficial cover art. The song sees Minaj taking aim figuratively and literally (given the AK-47’s she wields in the video) at men she believes create a fake gangster/mogul like persona around themselves in order to impress and attract women. As aggressive and purposeful as the song is, essentially it’s an expletive packed rap version of JLO’s ‘Love Don’t Cost a Thing’; no, really.
When attempting to explain the short-lived use of Malcolm X as the track’s unofficial cover art, Minaj stated that she was simply drawing a comparison with how the infamous civil rights campaigner took aim at those threatening his way of life. The connection is weak at best and the use of AK-47’s in Minaj’s video no matter how tongue in cheek, echoes an era of hip-hop none of us want to return to. Malcolm X carried a weapon as he was genuinely in fear of his life and concerned for the safety of his family following a firebomb attempt on their house; regardless of the empowering intentions of ‘Lookin’ Ass Niggaz’ the appropriation was lazy and needlessly hurtful.
Such controversies act as unwanted distractions for Minaj as she continues to work on the most important album of her career. Despite being more successful than a majority of her contemporaries over the past 5 years, as a female MC she is wrongly under constant pressure to prove herself in a genre founded upon machismo. If The Pink Print does indeed mark a return to a more focussed hip-hop direction, one hopes that she doesn’t make the error of attempting to replicate the past.
As one of the most rapidly evolving stars in the industry today, Minaj must make The Pink Print a meticulous showcase of both her rapping talent and musical evolution over the past five years, only then will she mount a serious challenge for the throne.