Underrated/Overrated is a new hip-hop column where we examine the legacy of a rapper and try to determine once and for all: Are they overrated or underrated? Today’s concerns Nicki Minaj.
Nicki Minaj Is Overrated
We hold certain truths to be self-evident; for almost a full decade, rap fans have held up Nicki Minaj’s guest verse on Kanye West’s “Monster” as her pièce de résistance. Her performance on that record opened the gates to the halls of “Yeah, she can even body the men.” It’s an animated, James Harden-esque herky-jerk down the lane in which Minaj critics are left flustered and flummoxed. By sheer personality, vocal theatrics, and unbridled energy, she delivered the song’s most memorable verse — but we’ve gotten memorable verses on big posse records from other artists we don’t necessarily consider amazing as well. The concession one must make in believing in Nicki Minaj is that she’s accomplished plenty of this, all the while ignoring every other capable female rap artists nearby, like Trina, Angel Haze, and — yes — Remy Ma.
This is not to say that Minaj’s talents aren’t there, she rightfully earned her accolades in an era where the powers that be created new rules for artists like her. For every Billboard moment of honor and merit, there is a bit of goal post moving. We’ve long decoded that Minaj and the Barbz tend to cook the books and manipulate the chart system for higher recognition. No great artist needs to do this unless their product was mediocre and they still wanted “prestige” attached to their names. Minaj is like Coke, like Pepsi; a known brand who attempts to make grand statements such as, “it’s not often an artist who came from rapping on a stoop wins an award,” as she did in her recent 2017 Billboard Awards Promotional commercial. To be considered great just for existing in a space with few artistic merits to prove such a thing doesn’t really make you great. It’s the world giving you a trophy with a large, “yeah but” ribbon attached to it.
For every track that “hits,” there’s a dud waiting around the corner, a verse or two marred by bad lyric placement or worse, a terrible sports metaphor that lacks proper execution or clarity, for instance: “But let’s face it, I’m Curry, with rings like LeBron / Added my rings up, that’s Mike Jordan,” from DJ Mustard’s “Don’t Hurt Me.” The only reason fans got pushed “Your Love” or “Super Bass” or anything pop-related during the rollout for the first Pink Friday is because “Massive Attack” failed as a single. It’s cheerleader/pom-pom rap, minus the energy and fun of pep rally destroyers such as Missy Elliot, or even Minaj’s erstwhile rival Lil’ Kim. As an artist who knows how to navigate both the streets and the couch of Ellen DeGeneres, Nicki is excellent, but we’ve anointed her to both of these positions with mediocre results attached to them.
Even worse, there’s the high possibility that even when pressed and pushed into a mode where she has to be on the attack and chest-thump like she did on Beam Me Up Scotty or the Come Up DVD, she falters. We know the results of her beef with Remy Ma earlier this year that led to a trio of singles that came and went. As a singles-driven artist, Minaj wanted to serve all of her fan demos, mainly the pop and hip-hop crowds. The effort was there but it didn’t match the finished product. Similar to an R&B act that has dipped their toes in the pools of EDM, pop, raunchy hip-hop and flat-out balladry, the work becomes less about fulfilling what an artist wants to challenge themselves on, and more about what they decide to feed a base.
We’re too far advanced in the Nicki Minaj Pop Machine to even consider a full-on fan service project. The best we’ll get is The Pinkprint — and even there the balladry is more high school musical and theatrics than full-on heartbreak.
Nicki a global force because she is able to appeal to all parties, and even her detractors surely acknowledge that. Her ability to transition between her rap personas while also straddling the idea of being a good MC is commendable. Yet the majority of it is by force; a gravitational push of living in a microwaved culture. There isn’t a double standard in regards to female rappers baring their souls and being commended for it less than their male counterparts. We lauded Lauryn Hill for creating an entire album rooted in marginalization, not only of her peers but mostly herself.
And much like Minaj and the “Monster” verse, loving Miseducation feels like a passé chore — just you’re supposed to You’re supposed to acknowledge its greatness because other people have heaped praise upon it for so long. But no rapper who is “great” has one all-time verse amongst a vast collection of, “this is cool, I guess” verses, definitely not one that would dare refer to themselves as “queen”. Do we applaud risks taken in order to create music? Yes, hence the critical response to The Pinkprint following her decade-long relationship with Safaree Samuels ending and more. But unless you were a diehard Barb, you couldn’t name a song that grabbed your attention and held it beyond “Truffle Butter” and “Feeling Myself,” neither of which would be full Minaj-led moments.
Popularity drives the narrative at times when questioning one’s “rate” in music. Statistically, there’s no one that can match Nicki in regards to accomplishment. Are any of these numbers hollow? Probably. Many of these accolades are thrust upon her solely because she’s the lone person you recognize in the field. Six consecutive BET Award wins for Best Female Rapper, even in years without an album or a single is proof of this. Or winning Top Rap Artist from the Billboard Music Awards, a sales driven award where all of the factors into awarding musicians can be easily manipulated
Awarding Nicki Minaj status as a great will forever feel hollow, mainly due to the fact that her ascent occurred during a dry spell of female rappers that record labels were willing to push. Once upon a time, every name of the moment had a female artist nearby. In the 2000s alone we saw albums from Amil (Jay Z), Lady Sovereign (Jay Z), Ms. Jade (Timbaland), Remy Ma (Fat Joe), Eve (DMX), and Jacki-O (Trick Daddy) and, yes even Iggy Azalea (T.I.) Now? You have to combat the execs searching for the next big thing with a heap of names that exist and are thriving right underneath their noses. It took almost ten years before Minaj jumped on another female rapper’s record, Young M.A’s catchy “OOOUUU” single from 2016 — and that was just a Soundcloud remix.
The majority of Minaj’s needle-moving records such as “Anaconda” need the visual to match in order to fully sell the concept, or they employ her Young Money cohorts Lil Wayne & Drake. Stand-alone, good-to-great Nicki singles arrive as often as memorable Summer Jam performances — which actually don’t come by all that often. There is something inside of Nicki that is capable of pulling things off that will truly shake up the world, but after giving people a suite of each of her three respective “sides” and having most of it fall by the wayside to the general consumer, I doubt that “something” wants to try it again. Much like Drake, she’s become too big to fail; unassailable only because a fan base refuses to ignore her warts and imperfections, to put it mildly. She will be considered a champion and a trailblazer in some respects. But most of those pieces of praise come with the feeling that you’re only heaping them upon her solely for existing, not for creating anything particularly great.–Brandon Caldwell
Nicki Minaj Is Underrated
Hip-hop as a genre is full of cartoons; from Busta Rhymes to Kool Keith, from Biz Markie to Young Thug, the personas are what make rap music. Each is distinct and integral to the mystique and charisma of individual rappers: Snoop Dogg chose to render himself as a cartoon canine on his seminal debut, Doggystyle; twenty years later Kanye West is depicted as a mascot bear in a letterman jacket, represented by a famed Japanese designers in an anime-inspired, “superflat” style. Ludacris regularly transforms and exaggerates his features, airbrushing his abs into a pack King’s Hawaiian rolls in one video, blowing out his afro to impractical proportions in another, menacing unsuspecting clubgoers with Popeye arms in the next, and then literally becoming the “mouth of the souf” to lend extra volume (in both measurements) to his commands to “roll out!” Given this historical context, the fact that Nicki Minaj, as the most outrageously colorful, dynamic, varied, and fully realized array of these types of characters is often not included amongst the pantheon of greatest rappers by those critics and consumers and tastemakers within the genre is nothing less than the definition of underrated.
There is Onika Maraj, the closest representation to the actual person behind the pink wigs we will probably ever get. It’s her we here on gems like “Moment For Life” and “Pills N Potions” and “Dear Old Nicki,” when we hear her at her most vulnerable. Where we praise MCs like DMX, Tupac, and yes, Drake for spilling their hearts on the page, Nick’s poetic testimonials are overlooked. She’s good for at least one track on every album that will crack the door ever so slightly to allow us a glimpse into the survivor that she is. From abuse and abandonment, from heartbreak to anxiety, to pride in her accomplishments, Nicki is always willing to bare her soul, if only a little bit, but the thing we all rush to pat her male counterparts on the back for doing generally elicits little more than a flippant shrug from the casual listener. It’s almost like there’s a double standard.
But when it’s time to get fierce, that’s when she switches alter egos to the towering, snarling Roman Zolanski. Here is the ferocious firestarter that “Renegaded” (a term named after Eminem’s guest verse on Jay’s song of the same name, where he basically ran laps around his host to the point it practically became Marshall’s song more than Jay’s) Kanye, Jay Z, and Rick Ross right off of “Monster.” Never one to fear receiving the same treatment, she invited the term’s originator, Eminem, onto “Roman’s Revenge,” and more than held her own alongside one of the few unanimous titans of verbosity in the game today. The song’s hook even contains a call back to one of the most animated of rapper’s, Busta Rhymes, coining his iconic “‘Rawr! Rawr!’ Like a dungeon dragon,” line into a near bestial chant, transforming the raucous party-starting proclamation into a sinister threat. She’s just as lyrical as any other rapper, and has proved it again and again, but one need look no further for proof than “Lookin’ Ass,” where she takes the game to task, blasting off round after round, until almost no feeling is left unhurt. Don’t mess with Nicki in Roman mode — she’s dangerous.
And then there is the form most are maybe familiar with: Harajuku Barbie, she of the precariously tall stilettos and pink chicken wing pendants, with a penchant for physically inhabiting the limited mobility of a life size girl’s doll while rapping over everything from Nicki’s Trinidadian-native dancehall strains, to glitchy, glossy EDM. This is the one that garners the most (undeserved) ridicule for daring to strain the edges of traditional, masculine-driven hip-hop, coloring outside the lines on pristine pop productions designed specifically to cater to twelve-year-old white girls in the suburbs and their minivan-driving moms. She’s the one who makes regular appearances on doting daytime host Ellen Degeneres’s show; Ellen is known to have a serious crush on Nicki, even dressing up (tastefully, in a non-minstrel show-y way) as Nicki for Halloween. Nicki, in turn dubbed herself Degeneres (get it? Get it?) Queen as a way of both paying homage and equating them both as the very top performers in their respective fields — Ellen’s show often competes for #1 female-helmed daytime talk show with Live With Kelly, just as Nicki’s releases have spent plenty of time at the peak of Billboard’s record charts.
Here’s the thing though; it works. Not just in record sales or radio plays either; in those quiet moments, when no one is watching, you can admit to yourself that you just can’t get away from joints like “Anaconda,” “Your Love,” or “Starships” — nor do you want to. They’re better than just guilty pleasures. They are gym motivators, rush hour traffic saviors, and “Giiiirl, hold my drink!” dancefloor magnets, and that’s no small feat. Besides, what’s wrong with a little experimentation? Jungle Brothers dabbled in house in 1991, Gorillaz’ dance pop barn burner “Feel Good Inc.” was absolutely made by the star turns provided by De La Soul, and Kanye practically kicked the gates of rap sampling off their hinges with Daft Punk on “Stronger.” Also: Drake. ‘Nuff said.
Here’s the part that hurts: Nicki is far from the first innovator in her respective lane of the hip-hop superhighway. She owes a massive creative debt to Missy Elliott for making it possible to mix in eclectic pop elements, to switch from rapping to singing, from song to song, from verse to verse, from verse to hook, and all on everybody else’s hits. Seriously, peep both their guest verse catalogs; they’ve guested with everyone from Jay Z to the Hot Boyz to French Montana and have always been the standout.
If anything, Nicki is only missing the ability to bring multiple women together to truly celebrate the diversity of styles in hip-hop. Even there, she can scarcely be blamed for the — yes — blatantly sexist practices of the men who still dominate the boardrooms and executive seats of the modern entertainment industry. She stepped into a business that didn’t have a lane for her anymore and bulldozed everybody else out of the way. She took that unspoken fifth element of hip-hop and wielded it better than anybody else ever had before, and she earned one of the top spots in the game. If she’s “feeling herself” it’s because she deserves to; she put herself in the crown and she more than deserves the respect that comes with it.–Aaron Smarter