Nicki Minaj Should Never Apologize for Going Pop
"I am not your typical rapper. I am not your typical person. I just did the biggest TV show in America for God's sake." —Nicki Minaj, 2013
All of the above things that Nicki Minaj says about herself are true, and it’s so hot and amazing when Nicki talks her shit and has insane stats like a season on American Idol and “Starships” selling 7 million copies worldwide to back up her claims, but I’m going to need her to be that sure of herself and assertive 100 percent of time.
Not 99 percent of the time.
In a rare moment of vulnerability, Nicki Minaj seemed withdrawn and apologetic when she had to talk about making outright pop music on her last album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, on Hot 97 last week. It’s difficult to notice without a trained eye. In the absence of an overconcerned attention to detail, you can fairly easily discern that Nicki is the baddest bitch alive and wholly owned that interview. That’s her general demeanor, and it’s especially apparent in a defensive situation—the way she responds to any comment even the least bit subversive with total poise—but releasing the music that made the Nicki Minaj name a global property is not something that she ever needs to be defensive about in the first place.
When questioned about the content of her sophomore album, Nicki held firm the entire time, consistently stating that she’s proud of her pop work, but it’s weird to see Nicki even having to explain herself. Why are we debating the merit of her foray into other genres like “Starships” isn’t incredible? Why aren’t we having a discussion about how positive her eccentricities are in an occasionally stagnant culture and why it’s necessary to not give a fuck about artistic restraints as much as Nicki didn’t on that album?
Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded is the most underappreciated, misunderstood album of our lifetime and thank God people like Noz retweeted this shit I said about the album a few weeks ago so we can spread awareness on the issue of this album’s flawed and worrisome undervaluation. As a “hip-hop head” in the classic sense of the term, someone like Peter Rosenberg is predisposed to hating the unconventional aspects of Nicki’s recent music, and anyone of that thinking is entitled to their opinion, but there’s a general level of respect that we as a rap-loving community should have when addressing a young woman who’s accomplished as much as Nicki Minaj, the same consideration blindly given to her male peers in the face of their respective missteps. When critics don’t offer Nicki at least that much courtesy, I understand why she isn’t shy to bring gender and race into the conversation—because what else could it be? You have to be mad that a black woman can do whatever the fuck she wants to have a problem with Nicki Minaj.
You can always make that argument like, “But yo, it’s about the music,” which is great for anyone who stands on my side, because Nicki’s music is excellent. You have no credibility in my mind if you think Nicki Minaj makes wack records, or that Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded wasn’t good, or that her pop tracks suck. And I know it feels like I’m just rambling about why Nicki’s so great and not actually presenting any case as to why, but it’s because I don’t feel like I have to explain myself.
For one, there are the stats. Six platinum singles as a lead artist. Nine more as a guest. More Hot 100 appearances than Mariah Carey, with only fewer entries than women like Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick. You can’t argue with the numbers, and I really don’t see the logic in dismissing extremely popular music just because it’s popular. Sure, taste is subjective, but there’s also a sound argument that if millions of people love something, there’s something good about it. We don’t need to shut up and nod in agreement with whatever’s fed to us, but so much of the backlash regarding anything popular is contrived, contrarian, posturing bullshit. I don’t like “Thrift Shop” at all, but after the hundredth listen due to its semi-permanent fixture on top of the Hot 100 even I had to put aside my bias and acknowledge why it’s a monster record. You can’t distort history and cover up what the people liked during a moment in time. Then you wind up with shit like Blender’s Worst Songs of All Time list from 2004 that tried to call Spin Doctors' “Two Princes” a bad song.
Nicki Minaj doesn’t even have the strikes against her that typically invalidate pop stars from unimpeachable glory. She’s not in a position like Paris Hilton, who can make an immaculate record like “Stars Are Blind,” but still be subject to scrutiny over her musical ambitions because she’s a DUI-getting, sex tape-filming socialite. Nicki Minaj is a pure artist, and she takes her craft seriously and it’s disgusting that we want to stunt her growth when she’s clearly so passionate.
During the aforementioned Hot 97 interview, Nicki said, "I studied for so many years how to make my flow sound to the point where it feels like you're watching art." God damn, I want to cry just reading that. Who else talks like that about their music? And it’s not an empty statement. She does just that all over her work, trying new flows, twisting her delivery, and she acknowledges the advantage of that approach: “Even when I'm on stage performing my rap songs, it's more organic, it's more authentic” but in the same breath she says, ”but I still grew up loving Cyndi Lauper and Madonna."
When Nicki Minaj makes pop songs, she exhibits the same energy that she puts towards spitting something hard, so you should respect it like you respect the work of those icons like Cyndi Lauper and Madonna. Don’t put limits on artists, because that rolls over into how we construct social capital, and the next thing you know we’re putting limits on our children and categorizing who they are and what they can and can’t do. Think beyond that. Consider how, because of her pop efforts, Nicki will go down in history next to Cyndi Lauper and Madonna, and not Remy Ma. And conversely, we should applaud how that helps hip-hop add to a larger doctrine of great, powerful female artists. Purists should congratulate Nicki the most. It’s like rap nerds pulled an inside job by placing Nicki Minaj in the pop leagues. Own that and recognize it as such. To me, staking an immutable presence in the mainstream is more impressive than when a traditional rap song goes pop. It’s still “a rap song that went pop.” Why can’t Nicki Minaj venture into her own land of Max Martin, Diane Warren-inspired fairytale?
She said it best herself: "I wanted to experiment. My whole career has been a playing field for me to try new things. I never put on a limit on myself. And I don't like when, especially black women, put a limit on what they can do." I’m not going to lean on sexism as a crutch to lash out against Nicki Minaj naysayers, because male rappers who stray outside of their predetermined lane get the same flack. It happened to Kanye West with 808s & Heartbreak. It happened to Lil Wayne with Rebirth. It happened when Wiz Khalifa “sold out” on the massively underrated Rolling Papers and felt so guilty about it that he wrote a letter to his fans even though that album was better than the more overtly rappy O.N.I.F.C., which is a testament to the fact he should’ve just given rap fans Taylor Allderice and that maybe altering his method to appease them on the second album was a mistake.
"You should be able to try whatever the hell you want to try, as long as you're keeping your integrity," Nicki went on to say in her interview. And she‘s kept her integrity more than most. She went on American Idol and didn’t let Mariah Carey intimidate her and fucking bossed up. Now she’s really going to keep her integrity and drop this fire ass rap album and I really hope she does call it the Pinkprint. Then we can end all of the silly discussions like she’s not a top 10 MC. Remember when Kanye West said she could be the second best rapper of all time after Eminem while he was doing My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy promo?
One of the main problems with “real hip-hop” is its neverending fascination with adhering to some false ideal of the past. We have to stop being so caught up in the past, and what’s sometimes worse, the moment, and start thinking about the future. Nicki is doing some unprecedented shit, and it’s going to matter in the long run.
That’s why Nicki Minaj should never apologize for going pop, and that’s why there were these quotes in that Hot 97 interview that I was sensitive to—subtle hints of tone and syntax that made me feel like Nicki wasn’t at her usual impenetrable self. The turn in the interview came when Nicki said, “I don’t need to do it again,” about her deliberate invasion of pop territory. She followed up with: "If I really wanted to right now, I could go back in and make another pop song like [“Starships”] to sell, and I'm choosing not to do it. I’m choosing to get back to my essence and just feed the core hip-hop fan."
If I’m going to be this much of a fanboy right now, surely I can respect where she’s choosing to take things artistically. But why retread? According to Nicki: "I feel like I need [rap] because it's just a more powerful platform for me."
But is it? In a sonic way, there’s the bombast of hip-hop that can’t be replicated on an American Idol panel, and of course, hip-hop offers an environment for Nicki to rap jaw-dropping things like, “Super Bass triple plat, when you see me on Ellen, just admit that I’m winning” without apology and make them rhyme, but it’s the pop records that get her opportunities like Ellen. If she doesn’t want to make records like that right now, cool, but those songs are too good for her to announce that she’s abandoning that platform for good. Don’t succumb to that pressure from fake ass hip-hop people who don’t want to see change, Nicki. You slayed all over the rap half of Roman Reloaded and the pop half was still better, so what does that tell you?
Let’s not make Nicki feel like she has to say shit like this during an interview with a rap station: "For the third album, I've just been getting back to where I was right before I dropped the first album." How regressive is that? We should all be proud of this woman’s growth, but more than any of us, Nicki understands why people as a whole are not:
"I was so hood. So people just thought, that's her, I got it. Then when they see other sides of you they feel like that's not you, but that is me. I've always been multi-faceted.”
So stay that way. Go to Hot 97 and anywhere else and tell those motherfuckers that Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded was a masterpiece and you don’t want to hear anything negative they have to say about it. We collectively shit our pants and threw roses at Kanye’s feet when he protested over the Hottest MCs he did it. The same way you said that you’ve seen people “walk on eggshells” around Lil Wayne, and presumably so for artists like Jay-Z and Eminem, don’t let detractors think that they don’t have to behave the same way around you. It goes against everything you stand for. Don’t go anywhere and say to press, “I agree that Nicki Minaj should focus on rap,” because if that was the case you wouldn’t be shooting a movie with Cameron Diaz right now. Kill it on this upcoming rap-driven album, but don’t repent for being able to accomplish things outside of that. And please don’t ever say “I did way too much” when talking about your second album again. That was the most interesting part.
Ernest Baker is a writer living in Los Angeles. He’s on Twitter - @ernestbaker_
Previously from Ernest: On Listening to "New Slaves" with White People