It’s pretty easy to see why Nicki Minaj is making her much-touted return to hip-hop’s spotlight with a single called “Chun-Li.” Like the popular female Street Fighter character, she’s been the sole representative of her gender in a male-dominated game, yet kicked ass with the best of them.
She’s become a fixture of the genre as well; in the same way you almost can’t reference fighting games without mentioning the iconic, ox-horns-rocking, spinning bird-kicking Chinese reporter/spy, Nicki is a signifier to the mainstream of hip-hop authenticity and rap’s popularity across demographics. On the single cover of her impending comeback track, Nicki even adopts part of the song’s namesake’s striking, signature style: The twin hair buns Chun-Li has never been depicted without in the game’s nearly 30-year history.
Yet, despite some opinions to the contrary, Nicki Minaj is far from the first rapper to reference Chun-Li. Though it may surprise some, hip-hop and video game culture have intersected far more often than just Drake’s recent foray into Fortnite streaming on Twitch. Rappers and producers have not only used video references in their music through samples and clever punchlines, both have appeared in games of their own, like Wu-Tang Clan’s Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style and Def Jam Records’ Def Jam Vendetta and Def Jam: Fight For NY brawlers.
Chun-Li first debuted in Street Fighter II: The World Warrior as one of eight selectable fighters and the game’s sole female fighter. Naturally, she was popular among girls who played the game (my cousin was notorious for her cheap hip toss-lightning kick corner combo), but many boys loved the character as well. She’s been in every sequel since, up to the latest installment, Street Fighter V, released in 2016.
However, Chun-Li herself is so iconic that she’s the one reference rappers can’t seem to stop coming back to. Their fascination with her lightning kick and status as one of Street Fighter‘s most enduring characters stretches back almost to the character’s inception in 1991. Naughty By Nature’s Treach holds the honor of being the first rapper to mention her on “Yoke The Joker” that same year, sparking an enduring trend for the next three decades of rappers to follow.
This is evidenced by the sheer number of references to her in lyrics throughout hip-hop. Not only did DMV-area rapper Wale beat Nicki Minaj to the fierce punch by naming a Cardo-produced track from his 2012 mixtape Folarin after the fighter, the beat even samples the background music from Chun-Li’s stage in the original game, as well as her “yup” attack cry from her infamous kicking moves. Soulja Boy also used the title, as well as repeating the name in the homage’s hook, boasting that he stays in the trap, “kicking shit like Chun-Li.”
Besides Wale’s more obvious tribute, a number of other rappers have invoked the character as a punchline, most often in reference to the above-mentioned array of devastating special kick moves. In fact, some form of “kick it like Chun-Li” has been in circulation in hip-hop for decades. In “Like Whaaat,” Compton rapper Problem twists the reference even further, offering “she trying kick it fast as Chun-Li” as his spin on the popular punchline, evoking the character’s lightning kick special move, where she throws a dizzying hail of high-speed kicks at her opponent.
That’s not even close to all. Lil Wayne references Chun-Li’s impressively muscular lower body design in “Pussy Money Weed” by imploring “Hey Ms. Chun Li, I like to see your booty / Roll, like sushi.” (Sigh) Meek Mill tosses out a reference on “Pullin’ Up,” from 2015’s Dreams Worth More Than Money. Problem again mentions the fighter in his 2013 collaboration with Iamsu, “Change Up,” this time to big up his shoe collection: “Kick game stupid like Chun-Li.” Underground “nerdcore” rapper Sammus pays tribute on “Rap [Mario Kart]” becoming the second female rapper to reference the first female fighting game icon.
Nicki’s new track isn’t even her first time shouting out the Street Fighter icon. In 2011, she mentions her video game inspiration in a guest verse feature on a Willow Smith single, “Fireball.” Going all the way back to the ’90s, Naughty By Nature, Black Sheep, and the late Craig Mack all packed rhymes with references to the fast-punching pugilist.
Mack’s track, titled, “Do You Have What it Takes?” actually appeared on the the ultimate pinnacle of the crossover between hip-hop and Street Fighter, the soundtrack to the 1994 Street Fighter film starring Raul Julia and Jean-Claude Van Damme (this is a thing that exists, and you really should check it out, if only to be astonished that they somehow convinced a number of respected rappers from Ice Cube to LL Cool J to Nas to make appearances — it’s also weirdly good).
So Nicki Minaj is not just paying tribute to one of her favorite characters with her latest track, she’s honoring one of hip-hop’s favorite video characters ever and joining a longstanding rap tradition. Like the single’s namesake, she’s kicking open the boys’ club’s doors and carving out her own legend in a space long deemed hostile to women. Now, with “Chun-Li” due out at 1 PM EST tomorrow afternoon, she hopes to continue following in the first female fighter’s footsteps by proving her staying power and making sure her name is on everyone’s lips after a decade in the game.