Rapper Nicki Minaj burst onto the male-dominated hip hop scene and signed to Lil’ Wayne’s Young Money records after winning the 2008 Female Artist of the Year Underground Music Award. Her lyrical skill placed her on par with her male peers. Her constant reinventions in Wonder Woman and Harajuku Barbie costumes and through various accented lyrical personas caused The New York Times to dub her the “Cindy Sherman of rap.” Her raunchy, playful, and sex-positive lyrics and image gained her a throng of girl fans (who she calls her Barbies) and won her accolades from some feminists and a lot of gay boys. A September 2010 issue of Out magazine with Minaj on the cover predicted that Minaj’s first album would not only qualify her as “the “baddest bitch,” she would be “a bona fide phenomenon.”
Nicki Minaj’s much anticipated Pink Friday just dropped on November 22, but even prior to her debut album, the twenty-five year old Lil’ Kim-Lady Gaga mash-up released a number of critically acclaimed mixtapes, collaborated with Kanye West, Mariah Carey, and Usher, among other coveted artists, and boasted seven simultaneous hits on the Billboard Top 100 chart. The first female hip hop artist to get a number 1 hit on Billboard since 2003, Minaj easily won this year’s BET Best Female Hip Hop Artist Award. As the title of her recent MTV documentary confirms, “It’s [Her] Turn Now.”
Predicted to be a game-changer for women in hip hop, Pink Friday is more of an indication of the changes that have already happened in the mainstream rap industry: high profile collabos, electronic beats, auto-tuned vocals, and at least one “no-homo” disclaimer (made by Eminem). Minaj displays her lyrical prowess best on “Blazin” with Kanye West and “Roman’s Revenge,” a high-powered track with Eminem where Minaj disses a “has-been” rapper rumored to be Lil’ Kim. Echoing her predecessor-turned-nemesis Lil’ Kim, Minaj boasts:
I’m a bad bitch
I’m a cunt
And I’ll kick that ho, punt
Force trauma, blunt
You play the back, bitch I’m in the front.
“Roman’s Revenge” demonstrates that unfettered rawness reminiscent of Minaj’s climactic verse on Kanye West’s “Monster” and of the mixtape “Beam Me Up Scotty,” which made Minaj a major player in the masculinist rap game. Few tracks on Pink Friday feature the quick spitting lyrics and the ability to weave in and out of various personas that make Minaj interesting. Instead, Pink is composed of mostly rap ballads like her second single “Your Love,” which samples Annie Lenox’s “No More ‘I Love Yous,’” and her latest “Right Thru Me.” “You see right through me/How do you do that shit?” she croons in a syrupy chorus between rapped verses set to an ambient electronic beat.
Minaj says the shift from hard to soft was deliberate, telling Billboard, “mixtapes were saying I can rap and the album is saying I can make a song – that’s a big difference.” Judy Berman wonders if Minaj’s hip-pop angle has more to do with the difficulty of marketing female MCs in the hip hop industry than it does with an aesthetic choice. To be sure, Rihanna sells more records than M.I.A. And highly skilled women MCs like Jean Grae and Psalm One rule the underground but refuse to heed the command to “sex up or shut up” that greets women who dare run with the boys in mainstream hip hop. Minaj tempers her vocal dexterity by flaunting her sexual assets and appealing to the male gaze, especially those who hope her hinted-at bisexuality might land them a ménage with Minaj, but Nicki seems to be more thespian than lesbian.
Minaj claims in interviews to rep for the ladies, something she reaffirms in her confessional opening track “I’m the Best,” “I’m fighting for the girls/that never thought they could win.” Her (Harajuku) Black Barbie antics, however, have some feminists charging her with Orientalism and others claiming Minaj’s defiant mantra, “It’s Barbie, Bitch!” as an act of subversive yet playful feminism. Barbie’s plasticity may be the perfect metaphor for a performer who molds herself into as many identities as Minaj does. Mutability can be an empowering form of self-fashioning if the molder is the artist herself. As Erica Rand notes in Barbie’s Queer Accessories, “Barbie suggests that roles are only as fixed as costumes.” Minaj has a lot of costumes, but do her theatrics subvert hip hop’s gender roles or reinforce them?