It may have taken over 10 years, a fan streaming party, and an NSFW scam by her collaboration partner, but Nicki Minaj has finally accomplished the goal she’s been striving toward for seemingly her whole career. For the first time since she broke into the rap blog ecosystem over a decade ago, the rapper who dubbed herself the Queen and who has at times been both underdog and tyrant, has topped the Billboard Hot 100 alongside Doja Cat with her remix to Doja’s viral hit turned chart-climbing single, “Say So.”
And yes, her Barbz and Doja Cat’s “Kittens” staging a “streaming party” to juice their stats did help push them to No. 1, but the song they were most directly competing against this time, Megan’s “Savage” remix with Beyonce, received a similar push from the Hotties and Beyhive, making the race more-or-less even, for once. Nicki had other chances in the past. She came close in 2011 with “Super Bass,” which peaked at No. 3, again in 2012 with “Starships” (No. 5), and in 2014, she came as close as she ever got to No. 1 with “Anaconda,” which landed at No. 2 behind Taylor Swift and “Shake It Off.” Those past records were all massive hits, so why is Nicki only just now securing this accomplishment? And more importantly, where does she go from here?
In looking at why Nicki has always fallen just short of that coveted No. 1 spot, it’s probably worth noting that a lot of the songs that surpassed her were notable for being novelty tracks or for coming from one-hit wonders (Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” is in there, as is LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem“). They’re also shamelessly poppy — just like some of her attempts were. This is probably the main reason: ‘Til now, Nicki competed with pop stars for position at the top of the pop charts, trying to beat them at their own game. With the above-mentioned songs, she downplayed the very thing that shot her to prominence in the first place: Her top-tier rap skills.
It also bears examining Nicki’s own reasoning — that the industry is weighed against women, especially Black women. It’s certainly true that every artist who beat her to the top in the above examples was either Caucasian, male, or both. In the whole history of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, Black women have been disproportionately represented; it was only recently, after Billboard changed its metrics to allow for streaming numbers, that this began to balance out (hip-hop has dominated the chart ever since, reflecting the genre’s popularity in modern times). And who is to say how Nicki’s songs would have faired if streaming numbers were tabulated into Hot 100 results back then?
But Nicki’s insistence on trying to game the charts by making music that appealed to those sensibilities was a little like when Michael Jordan decided to play baseball for a year. It just wasn’t what her fans wanted her to do — and it wasn’t what she wanted to do, as she later admitted to regretting those songs and not sticking to her own style. Likewise, her collaborations with pop stars like Ariana Grande, Britney Spears, David Guetta, Jessie J, and Justin Bieber read as disingenuous to her natural sound, which would have grated alongside their perky tunes. She muted herself to accommodate the whims of a notoriously fickle audience, all while refusing to play to her strengths by collaborating with other female rappers.
It’s no surprise that when she finally started cooperating in sisterhood with younger rappers like Megan Thee Stallion and Doja Cat, she saw a return to the top ten for the first time since the surprise release of “Chun Li,” the lead single from Queen, which peaked at No. 10 due to her long absence from recording before its release. With “Say So,” Nicki showed that she could not only rap toe-to-toe with the men of rap, but also with the peers to whom she’d be compared to most often (whether fairly or not).
It’s poppy, but not in an overproduced, techno-drenched, manufactured way — its dance groove hails from the mid-70s R&B traditions of Black music, while both Doja and Nicki get some serious bars off. It’s the sort of song Nicki should have been making all along; not running from her roots but toward them. While fans read drama into the bars — as they’ll probably do forever — for once, she didn’t try to use beef with another female rapper for promotion and retired “bitches is my sons” from her vocabulary, at least temporarily. In fact, she even turned around a brewing feud that her fans started with Doja, for once, mobilizing them to promote a critic rather than bullying them. She became someone you want to root for again.
Call me naive, but I personally refuse to believe that anyone was actually gullible enough to think Doja Cat would really “show her boobs so hard” once the song reached No. 1, so the other explanation — the simplest one — is that Nicki finally made the music fans wanted from her, (mostly) free of gimmicks, of needless needling, goofy voices, or obvious pop radio reaches. We don’t know if she’ll stick to this newly winning formula, but given how badly she’s wanted this one accolade and how long it’s eluded her, don’t be surprised if her next album finds her firmly in a new mindset, putting the music first without the need to pursue the numbers.