As I listened to Nicki Minaj spill her guts to Zane Lowe during today’s interview on Beats 1 Radio, I was struck by the vulnerability she portrayed in her candid, revelatory answers to his questions about the Meek Mill and Drake beef and “Motorsport” controversies. That is to say, I noticed how that vulnerability stood out in stark contrast to the “rules” of pre-millennial rap. Rappers aren’t supposed to be vulnerable. They aren’t supposed to describe themselves as “hurt” by the behavior and commentary of fickle, fairweather fans.
In the era Nicki (and I) grew up in, rappers were invincible, ghetto superheroes, their stories of struggle and street-centered trauma as much a mask as the zany or stoic tough-guy personas they adopted — usually under the advice of a major label marketing department. Yet, here was Nicki, revealing her inner turmoil and all-too-human emotional reactions to perceived betrayals and personal strife, even while she used the same time to drop not just one, but two rappity-rap flex singles in “Chun-Li” and “Barbie Tingz.”
While it’s not totally unusual to hear rappers talk about turmoil on their focus-grouped singles or on album cuts specially set aside to be the “deep, introspective” tracks and promote the idea of relative complexity, it is extremely different to see that personhood on full display outside of the music. In general, a rap alter ego is the facade the person hides behind, exaggerating and contorting the details of the person’s autobiography to create a filtered, acceptably entertaining version of that personal history and their own reactions to it.
Nicki’s well-known for extending this conceit with her multiple personalities, the “Harajuku Barbie” and “Roman Zolanski,” among others. She distends the contours of her natural, buoyant, silly, boisterous personality to cartoonish proportions, growling her rhymes through animal snarls and helium-voiced innocence to disorienting effect. It makes her more snappy, more marketable, bigger, bolder, entertaining, but it also has the side effect of flattening her real self, Onika Maraj, behind the front. Fans tend to see her as her characters, not as herself, not as the human being that she is and was before she ever picked up a mic or donned a skintight, latex catsuit.
This makes it easier for those fans to pick her apart, to judge, to speculate, to berate, to demean, and to demand as they do with most any star. It’s easy to forget that there’s a person behind the persona, someone for whom words can be as sharp as physical darts — or even more so, considering words are a rapper’s tradecraft, so they have an acute understanding of words and their effects and intent. A snarky, one-off joke on Twitter can read to the real person reading the screen like a dagger to the ribs, especially with the cumulative effect that millions of people making the same “joke” can have. A bee sting may only hurt so much, but a thousand stings from an entire hive are enough to kill. So it is with a Beyhive as well.