Can Nicki Minaj cure hip-hop's misogyny?
Often praised as one of the most talented MC’s — female or otherwise — in today’s ever-evolving rap game, Nicki Minaj has an indisputably tight flow, swag for days, and the kind of business savvy that would make even Jay-Z proud.
And her unique blend of feminine hip-hop sensibility is poised to pan out: the hype surrounding this week’s release of her debut album, Pink Friday is palpable.
However, the mainstream commercial acceptance she’s already achieved with her over-the-top, multiple-personality, plasticized, black Barbie persona ought to make us all think twice.
At what point does the narrative of an aggressive female hip-hop artist with crazy sex appeal, and solid street sensibilities become just the opposite — a tale of faux-bravado, empty rhetoric, and deceptive stage gimmicks that only thinly masks a desperation to transcend the confines of one’s true identity? And what does it mean for our music and our people if mainstream black culture can’t tell the difference?
Minaj’s rap persona is characterized by a brash, sometimes bizarre, and usually playful attitude complemented by multiple accents (her British accent is my personal favorite), characters, and methods of delivery for her verses. She raps as both herself and a caricature of herself simultaneously, straddling the line between hip-hop and theater all while providing few dull moments for her fans over the course of her career.
She was famously introduced by DJ Khaled at this year’s BET awards as “Nicki Minaj, Nicki Minaj, Nicki Minaj, Nicki Minaj, and Nicki Minaj”, an introduction she honored by accepting the mic using five different voices. Though she sometimes employs the same levels of sexual raunchiness set forth by her female predecessors like Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown (see her Lollipop remix), most would agree that her lyrical content more definably focuses on her skill as a rapper.
While she doesn’t shy away from being an object of desire, sex is not the entire gimmick. And when she is talking about sex, she presents herself as fully in charge of her sexuality, if not entirely dismissive of male sexual expectations. At once perfectly happy to mobilize typically male fantasies of schoolgirls and menage-a-trois while bragging about bagging hot women on Usher’s behalf, she’s as frank about being bisexual as she is that sex happens on her terms or not at all.
Despite the somewhat distracting existence of her wacky and complex personas, Minaj is billed above all else as the prototypical female hip-hop presence. Tellingly, she refers to herself as “Barbie” on numerous occasions in her rhymes, playing up her plastic, doll-like characteristics. As Alyssa Rosenberg points out on her blog, her album cover shows a slightly nuanced take on the plastic doll we imagine when we think of Barbie: “her legs are sexy but too long for her body, her breasts grotesquely pushed up near her face, her lips in an exaggerated, filler-style duck’s pout, her eyes vacant.” She’s simultaneously embodying the physicality that’s come to be expected of high-powered female celebrities, while acknowledging the impossibility of ever fully attaining the perfection required.
It’s almost as if she’s using the cover as a means to broadcast to the world, “I’m fulfilling the standard of beauty as well as I possibly can, see? I’ve reached it and then some. I get it and I am it” But in addition to embodying the physical female prototype, she’s also presented as a prototypical female hip hop celebrity, someone whose street credibility was such that she was able to navigate her career path from Queens to MySpace to becoming part of the Young Money crew, one of the most popular and respected rap crews in the game.
It’s clear that something about this version of Nicki Minaj as a mainstream female hip-hop figure is working for us. This complex and somewhat convoluted image has found acceptance among both male and female hip-hop fans. Black men I talked to begrudgingly giving props to her flow and swagger before referencing her sex appeal (Minaj seems to bring out the lewd in them, I must say). Many black women, too, admitted to being fans, if not somewhat sheepishly so. One powerful sister who identifies as feminist and works in education admitted to me that the absence of mainstream female rappers for so many years has left her “desperate” for Minaj’s female voice — “any female voice besides a lusty vixen asking some man to be her ‘daddy’ in a hook.”But what is it? What’s the entertainment value in seeing our female rappers reinvented as such extreme and cartoonish figures, and then billed as prototypical? This trope plays into a kind of hip-hop fairy tale narrative in which a female protagonist is faced with a set of oppressive circumstances and is so smart, self-aware, talented and sexually desirable that she is able to transcend the rampant misogyny of hip-hop and thus be allowed to engage it as more than an outsider.
In this sense, Nicki Minaj might be more aptly called Nicki Mirage — peddling a false dream of female equality that will come not by reinventing oneself incessantly to meet the standards of the male-dominated hip-hop world, but from engaging a new space where standards of good hip-hop still apply, but casual and abundant misogyny is not the norm.
Many have questioned the direction of hip-hop today, if not with an explicitly female lens. Jay-Z himself, arguably one of the most influential and certainly one of the most commercially successful male rappers of all time, recently made remarks expressing his opinion that emotion is the future of hip-hop. “We have to find our way back to true emotion. This is going to sound so sappy, but love is the only thing that stands the test of time…We’re chasing a lot of sounds now, but I’m not hearing anyone’s real voice. The emotion of where you are in your life. The mortgage scandal. People losing their jobs. I want to hear about that.”
Here, Jay-Z also referenced Lauryn Hill’s classic album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, an album that has been unmatched in its soulfulness, emotional intensity, and impeccable delivery. No one expects Minaj or any modern female rapper to fill Lauryn’s shoes. But as a representation of the newest incarnation of a female MC, the image she presents of a high-powered rap mogul who can “hang with the big boys” of rap by eschewing real emotion for hard lines and plastic delivery is disturbingly lacking in its vision of a future hip hop that reflects the black lived experience with some degree of emotional truth.
Audre Lorde, critically acclaimed black feminist lesbian novelist, poet and essayist, explored a return to the erotic as a source of female empowerment in a 1984 essay. “The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women,” she noted. “It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation.”
On this occasion of the release of her debut album, I encourage Minaj, and the multitude of female rappers who will come up in her wake, to embrace their inner erotic energy over plasticized sex appeal. Minaj’s distinct brand of plastic personified may reflect the what’s hot on the streets right now, but I’m with Jay (and Audre) on this one- the future of hip-hop will privilege a narrative of true emotional power over carefully constructed swagger, and female MC’s have the opportunity to lead this movement if they drop the “trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation” and just come from the heart.