Nicki Minaj Going Back to Her Hip-Hop Roots Doesn't Make Sense
Fifteen years after Diddy and Ma$e strapped on goofy shiny suits, we're still talking about what "hip-hop" is. Why?
On Friday evening, Nicki Minaj released “Yasss Bish!!!,” the latest in a succession of songs hyping her oft-discussed return to her hip-hop roots. Adopting the ever-popular Migos flow, she spends four minutes successfully ripping the guts out of Soulja Boy's bottom-heavy beat. It's enough to make fans of mixtape-era Nicki Minaj extremely happy. Nicki Lewinsky is back.
But for all its theatrics, “Yasss Bish!!!,” like the rest of Nicki's recent material, leaves more questions than answers. Because despite its clever appeal, you can't help but wonder how her fleeting moments of lyrical dynamism will sustain Nicki Minaj moving forward. Every celebrated artist reaches that point where they want to get back in touch with what made their early work incredible. Sometimes, the effects of those efforts—living in the past, if you will—can do more harm than good. An artist gets so caught up retracing steps they've already taken, that they fail to plant their feet forward on any new ones. Think of 50 Cent and the ten years he's spent searching for what made him so enigmatic on Get Rich or Die Trying. Or Cam'ron, who seems eternally frozen in time, the calendar year never inching past 2002. Even hip-hop's most successful star, Eminem, appears to be perpetually stuck trying to recapture the spirit of Slim Shady.
Nicki's music of late has been enjoyable, but not groundbreaking. “Chi-Raq” and “Lookin Ass,” while respectable, fail to expand upon or offer anything new to the Nicki Minaj canon. And the remixes—“Danny Glover” and “Boss Ass Bitch,” respectively, plus the appearance on YG's “My Nigga”—are cool in the sense that they prove something we already know to be a fact. Nicki Minaj is great at rapping. Songs like these are akin to listening to Stevie Wonder futz around on the piano. Some people are okay with that—Stevie Wonder is awesome—but him just doing that for his whole career isn't really going to cut. What if everything Kendrick Lamar did was like his “Control” verse? It's exciting for a bit but then it's like, what else is there? There's got to be more.
One of the reasons why Nicki is rounding herself back into hip-hop form is predictably because of all the shit the hip-hop community gave her over her last LP Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded. Adam Fleischer wrote in XXL at the time that it was “something that Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, or any other pop idol would churn out, rather than records singular to the femcee’s often uncommon style.” And Alex Thornton at HipHopDX quipped, “Those of us who started collecting with the original line should probably just find a new hobby—Mixtape Nicki has been discontinued.” That more than half the album featured hip-hop songs was somehow lost due to it also containing a handful of slickly-produced pop songs that were meant for broader audiences. Fifteen years after Diddy and Ma$e strapped on goofy shiny suits and danced their way into the hearts of white America, the guardians of hip-hop culture suddenly grew a conscience about this sort of stuff. Strange.
But for all the pushback Nicki received, it had zero effect on her mass appeal. If she lost five rap fans, she gained 25 elsewhere. Songs like “Starships,” “Pound The Alarm,” and “Whip It,” despite their presumed triviality, were and still are insanely catchy and fun to listen to. And songs she did with David Guetta (“Where Them Girls At”) and Justin Bieber (“Beauty and the Beat”), not to mentionearlier Pink Friday cuts (“Super Bass” and “Right Thru Me,” particularly), exposed her to new people. She performed on Good Morning America. She sat down with Ellen DeGeneres. She appeared on a dozen different award shows and with Madonna at the Super Bowl. She dyed her hair and wore crazy outfits. Everyone was Nicki Minaj for Halloween. “Starships” sold seven million copies. American Idol came calling. She became a pop star.
Hip-hop has a problem with this because in a perfect world Nicki would become a star without resorting to trend-hopping or becoming a caricature. But this isn't a perfect world and the market is what it is. Hardcore hip-hop has always struggled to make it onto urban radio, let alone break into Top 40, and without something gimmicky, something that makes people take notice of you, nobody actually will. In a world where everyone is fairly talented, talent alone will rarely cut it. It won't get you to the next level. You need hits. You need an image. You need a personality. How happy do you think Pharrell might be right now if he hadn't worn that stupid fucking hat? Does anyone give a shit about Lady Gaga if she's not walking around in a meat dress or pretending she's a man? People know who Katy Perry is because she kissed a girl and she liked it. That's to take nothing away from their art, or whatever, but this is what music has come to.
Had Nicki Minaj not become something of a character, there's a strong chance she'd have always remained a niche performer, someone who never quite graduated from the farm to the big leagues. And it's not like she was being inauthentic either. Her formative years were spent studying dramatic arts and music—in a public school, worth noting—and when her post-grad plans of becoming an actress failed, she built that into her music. “I never put a limit on myself,” she told Peter Rosenberg during her face-to-face with him last year. “You should be able to try whatever the hell you want to try, as long as you keep your integrity. When I'm on stage performing my rap songs it's more organic, it's more authentic, because that's how [I grew up]... But, I still grew up loving Cyndi Lauper and Madonna, [too].”
She's certainly far from alone in that respect. Many people who grew up listening to hip-hop listened to other genres of music. This idea that things are black and white—if you listen to this, you can't listen to that; if you make hip-hop, you can't make anything else—is juvenile and reductive. Moreover, it's like, how are we really still having this narrow-minded conversation, where we assume that there are four restrictive walls surrounding every single genre, and every artist working within that genre has no capacity for doing anything else? It's like telling Martin Scorcese he has to keep remaking Mean Streets. He might genuinely want to do that too, but he also might feel like making a romance a la Age of Innocence. He should be able to.
That's why Nicki Minaj going back to her hip-hop roots doesn't make much sense. Her first two albums played with a variety of genres and showed that she was capable of incorporating them all for the greater good. For her to just rap now, well, that's rather rote and predictable. Have the critics gotten inside her head? Potentially. But hip-hop culture—the attidude, influences and social mores that make a person hip-hop—now extends far beyond the capacity of a drum beat or a 16-bar verse, and bowing to that chorus of haters seems the antithesis of progressive. What made Nicki so compelling was that she was able to authentically marry hip-hop with a world that it in some ways was still ignorant to it. Pre-Nicki, pop was just a gaggle of goofy white girls doing bad rapper impressions. Post-Nicki, that shit won't fly. So, retreating now feels like it was all for naught. Maybe it's just a phase. Maybe she'll see she doesn't owe anyone in rap anything. Maybe then, she'll be able to deliver us another “Starships.” Or, hopefully, something even better.
Paul Cantor is a NYC-based award-winning writer. He's on Twitter — @PaulCantor