What is it about Nicki Minaj?

Note: I wrote this in 2011, but I just rediscovered it and I love it. While some elements are a little outdated, sadly, the points about rap music’s (male) homogeneity are still pretty relevant.

I’m a huge fan of female artists in rap and hip-hop. In this male-dominated environment, however, it is the rare woman who can break out amongst all the testosterone into true commercial or critical success. A short list of exceptions would include Missy Elliot, who is both a rapper and a producer. Until very recently, Missy was the last female emcee to top the Billboard charts as a solo performer, with her ubiquitous hit “Work It.” That was more than seven years ago. This is today, and today has a new female rap superstar. Her name is Nicki Minaj, and she’s doing things that no female rapper — and in some cases no male rapper — has ever done before.

Source: Rolling Stone

Late last fall, Nicki Minaj broke the record for having the most singles listed in the Billboard top 100 at the same time (seven). Her debut album, released in November, has gone platinum, a striking achievement in the present music industry. She has appeared on new records by some of the most famous and talented musicians in rap, and often shown up the boys with her rhymes. What is it about Nicki that has allowed her to achieve this incredible rise where so many other talented female emcees (see: Jean Grae and RapSody, among others) continue to struggle in the shadow of often less gifted, less creative male peers?

Generally, though not exclusively, female rappers have found space in the hip-hop world by emphasizing their sexuality (yes, Lil’ Kim, I’m talking about you). Nicki, while she certainly raps about sex, has embraced a broader range of rap braggadocio, crowing on various tracks about expensive cars and clothing, pop culture, and stacks of hundred-dollar bills — in other words, the standard fare of mainstream rap. Where it gets even more interesting, however, is in Nicki’s tendency to comment on hip-hop’s gender imbalance in creative ways. Sometimes rather explicitly, she makes a point to acknowledge her identity as a female emcee while refusing to let it corner her into rapping primarily about fellatio.

She is talented, attractive, and has undoubtedly benefited from working closely with Lil’ Wayne and other superstars. But Nicki Minaj is also extremely smart, and uniquely creative. She has cultivated a passionate body of fans, who call themselves “barbies.” The moniker comes from one of Nicki’s distinct internal characters or personalities, another factor that I believe has contributed to her success.

“Barbie,” her main alter-ego, is super-feminine and raps in a high-pitched squeal, while “Roman,” a second character, is actually male and is the side of Nicki that appears in one of her most aggressive and engaging tracks, titled “Roman’s Revenge.” Employing alter egos is a fascinating way in which Nicki permits herself many different styles, and the emcee’s candor in discussing the alter-egos is extremely entertaining, giving fans a glimpse inside her learned cultural mind.

To me, it’s unfortunate that it is “Barbie” who dominates Nicki’s debut album, titled “Pink Friday.” The album has a rather pop-tinged sound, and it is the exceptions to that trend—“Roman’s Revenge” as well as “Blazin’,” which features Kanye West—that stand out to me as its strongest. Fortunately, her talent, visibility, and huge fan following suggest that Nicki will be around, with room to improve and develop the various facets of her music, for a long while. It’s a safe bet that “Roman” be too.

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