Now that the backlash to Nicki Minaj’s anti-Travis Scott tirade has subsided, it’s time to pick up some of the threads of her issues with the modern music industry and try to make sense of how they tie together. It’s too easy to get caught up in the hype of addressing the bold accusations and climactic reckonings and miss the quieter, more salient points that can get overshadowed by drama and beef. For instance, Nicki was right about a lot of things: Artists arguably deserve a bigger slice of the revenue they generate for labels and distributors, there are plenty of double standards for how women are treated in hip-hop and music as whole, Billboard does need to hash out its metrics for tallying success, and the overwhelming emphasis on first week numbers is absolutely detrimental to the overall business model of the recording industry.
However, one of the few points where Nicki is wrong — at least in part — is in her claims that she’s been a force for women in the hip-hop and music industries. Nicki’s primary argument for her value for women in the business stems from the Jay-Z line reasoning of “My presence is a present,” but she has yet to do the one thing that would truly help women in hip-hop: Share her platform with up-and-coming women through collaboration.
While it’s true that the value of representation is incalculable for many young women who see her as role model and rap as a legit career path because of her, merely representing a single female presence isn’t as inherently helpful as Nicki claims. Nicki herself often cites seeing Lil Kim and Foxy Brown as major inspirations for her as a rapper, but this overlooks the fact that there were many, many other prominent women in rap during Nicki’s formative years to provide a more holistic concept of femininity in the male-dominated arena of hip-hop. Missy Elliott, Eve, MC Lyte, and Lauryn Hill all helped to flesh out a wider range of potential personas that a young woman could aspire to and each was well known for lending a helping hand in sisterhood to other female rappers.
The “Ladies Night” remix to Lil Kim’s “Not Tonight” featured four other women, including Elliott, Da Brat, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and radio personality Angie Martinez, with a video featuring cameos from a number of other female celebrities from hip-hop and R&B. To this day, the video stands for many as the peak of feminine solidarity in hip-hop (a lower profile version of the concept, “Six Pack,” provided a “girls only” posse cut for hip-hop’s underground, with Nikki D, Paula Perry, Bahamadia, Rah Digga, Precious P, and Heather B). Fans often ruminate on a potential remake, wondering which of today’s rappers could hold down a modern version, but one name is rarely ever mentioned among the potential participants: Nicki Minaj.
That’s because Nicki hasn’t collaborated with another female rapper on any of her albums, preferring to instead work with established pop hitmakers like Ariana Grande, Rihanna, and Beyonce. While Rihanna and Beyonce could easily be considered strong rappers in their own rights from their recent output, their utility for Nicki is as hook singers and added star power. Nicki, for whatever reason, has eschewed any opportunity to feature a female rapper on one of her songs, or to contribute a feature to another female rapper’s songs.
This feeds into the “there can only be one” narrative that lights up social media debates about her relationship to Cardi B, who’s always said she wants to work with every female rapper. It’s why the rumors that Cardi was added to Migos’ “Motorsport” without her approval or knowledge caught fire and spread so quickly. As an audience, we have yet to see Nicki offer any evidence of her advocacy for women in hip-hop. While Nicki counts herself a scion of female solidarity, in truth, she’s used her superior status to wage war against marginalized women like when she targeted fan Wanna Thompson, whose only transgression was to implore Nicki to upgrade her content for her next album.
To be fair, Nicki has previously placed female rappers on her tours. She took Dej Loaf with her in support of her Pinkprint album in 2015 and announced Asian Doll as her opener for her NickHNDRXX tour with Future — a tour that was unfortunately canceled and rebooted as a Queen tour. Nicki also shouted out Asian Doll on Beats 1 Radio with Zane Lowe, along with a smattering of other up-and-coming female artists like Ms. Banks, Maliibu Miitch, and Kash Doll.
While that certainly can provide a signal boost for those artists, its reach is limited to Nicki fans who would already buy tickets to Nicki’s tours and who would tune into her Beats 1 Radio appearances. It still denies those young up-and-comers the largest platform, which is placement on a song alongside the Queen herself, which would reach anyone who gave the music a listen — a low-cost, high-reward proposition for any new musical artist. One of the main reasons labels often match newer artists with established stars on singles early in their careers is to prompt cross-pollination of the fan bases and increase the likelihood of potential consumers hearing the newer artist and deciding they like them.
In fact, a prime example for Nicki to follow, aside from her early precursors like Rah Digga, Queen Latifah, and their ilk, might actually be one of her main contemporaries and someone who was as instrumental in her rise to prominence as she was to his: Drake. It may sound a bit farfetched, but the rapper who is often derided for being an overly emotional sap has had a long history of supporting female artists and using his platform to help advance the careers of singers like Jhene Aiko and Jorja Smith and rappers like JT and Yung Miami of City Girls. Where Jhene had already been kicking around the industry for a while, her profile was nearly unknown despite having toured with B2K, one of the biggest boy bands of the early ’00s. When Drake appeared on her single “July” from her debut mixtape, however, his presence as an established artist undoubtedly drew eyes and ears that wouldn’t have ordinarily checked for the then-lesser-known Jhene.
Likewise, his inclusion of Jorja Smith on More Life standout “Get It Together” likely accelerated Jorja’s career ascent as her own breakthrough single, “Blue Lights” suddenly received a label push after floating around the internet for nearly a year unassisted. The story of Drake’s inclusion of City Girls on his insanely viral hit “In My Feelings” is well-known by now, but the effect his co-sign had on the amount of attention their debut tape Period garnered after “In My Feelings” took off can’t be understated. They’ve even got their own remix of the jam. Of course, by collaborating with Nicki early and often in their respective rises, the duo ensured that fans of one would at least be aware of the other, a feedback loop of notoriety that doubtless fed into both their current positions at the top of the rap charts.
Even outside of his work with women, the Drake co-sign is coveted throughout hip-hop for its enervating effect on a newcomer’s career prospects. The same could likely be said of Nicki, but by only sticking to established artists in the pop lane, she withholds the spotlight from artists who could have benefitted from it at the outset. The reason her collaboration with Foxy Brown on Queen for “Coco Chanel” was worth headlines is the rarity with which she works with other female rappers. She may have opened the door for female rappers in the industry after the ’00s saw a dearth of new signees and waning support for existing ones, but she then stood in that door, gatekeeping the access that she’d snatched for herself while extolling her own virtues as a pioneer.
Yet, a whole generation of women came and went while she made hit after hit in her creative prime, none of them receiving the benefits of the door she’d opened, except to be compared to her and juxtaposed to her success by music publications which had become accustomed to positioning any two women who happened to rise up in the rap game at the same time as rivals. Nicki could easily have destroyed that entire corrosive narrative by simply doing a song with Angel Haze, Iggy Azalea, Lola Monroe, or yes, Cardi B, rather than insisting they pay homage to her throne and needling them through radio interviews and possible subliminal lyrical shots.
The good news is, it’s not too late. Nicki herself has exhorted some of the rising stars following in her sizable footsteps — now she just needs to follow through. Unlike the pre-streaming era when she entered the game, there are plenty of ladies for her to collaborate with, in a show of good faith, which can have positive effects for her own career as well. Drake has never lost any of his own limelight by sharing it with the artists he chooses to work with — if anything, his shadow only gets longer as more and more artists count him as a positive influence on their careers.
Nicki could easily have the same impact by reaching out to artists like Rico Nasty, Princess Nokia, Dreezy, Saweetie, City Girls, Maliibu Miitch, Kash Doll, and others. By collaborating with them, she can truly open that door the rest of the way for other women to prosper without fear of tarnishing her own legacy, which would be solidified as a true game changer and positive influence on hip-hop business and culture. She could be the catalyst for not just a “Ladies Night” in rap, but an era of true female empowerment in a genre that sorely needs it.