What Is Nicki Minaj Doing?
Five women critics discuss Nicki Minaj's recent press run, which only raises more questions.
Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and this year’s Queen of Rap debacle is causing migraines. When Nicki Minaj announced the forthcoming release of Queen in May, she’d been dominating rap for a decade. For many young women rappers, she was the prototype: the genre’s first female act to successfully crossover. This was the first time in her reign that she’d be expected to defend her title, as she wasn’t the only woman in hip-hop setting records anymore.
During the rollout for Queen, however, Minaj’s actions would lead people to wonder if she was paranoid her monopoly was disintegrating. In June, after Toronto-based culture writer Wanna Thompson tweeted she was looking for “mature content” from Minaj, the rapper fired back. “Just say you jealous I’m rich,” Minaj wrote her in a direct message, which also included jabs at Thompson’s appearance (following the exchange, Thompson said she received death threats from Minaj stans and was let go from an internship with Karencivil.com, whose eponymous founder counts the rapper as a client). A month later, Nicki released a collaboration with polarizing Brooklyn rapper 6ix9ine, who plead guilty to a charge of “using a child in a sexual performance" in 2015, then announced him as an opening act for her upcoming tour. Would her response to constructive criticism and alignment with an artist like 6ix9ine put a stain on her feminist stance, one that was already growing muddy after her questionable comments about sex workers in June?
By all appearances, this album cycle has been a rocky one for Nicki. Queen debuted at number two and sold 185,000 units in its first week, compared to 2014’s The Pinkprint, which launched at number one and sold 198,000 units. Last week, Live Nation announced Minaj would be delaying the US leg of her upcoming tour until May 2019, this time without Future as a co-headliner. “You are now in the running for #CockSuckaOfTheDay award on #QueenRadio this Thursday,” she wrote in an Instagram post after a report from Billboard described the postponement as “a cancellation.” “Barbz get me the name of this writer then hit them and tell them this is one black woman they will not bully into a corner by FRAUDULENT SHAMING TACTICS.”
Between career-spanning 90-minute promotional interviews, she’s also engaged in Kanye-level Twitter spats. One involved $12,000 hair plugs for her ex-Safaree Samuels; in another, she blamed Spotify, Travis Scott, Kylie Jenner, and their six-month-old child together, Stormi, for the album’s position on the charts. Responding to the backlash she’s been receiving for such comments, she defended her willingness to air out the industry’s dirty laundry by invoking the legacy of Harriet Tubman. “All the Queens I remember shook shit up! Queen of the week may go to Harriet Tubman! Had she just sat there and ate her rice, you niggaz history would’ve been a lot less triumphant,” she tweeted.
If Nicki’s actions over the past few months have angered and disappointed some fans, it’s partly because lashing out at other women—including the female critics who have written about her—goes against her resolutely pro-woman brand. Still, it’s hard to hold Nicki accountable for her actions without wondering whether our desire to do so stems partly from the unfair expectations we put on black women to begin with. When bravado bubbles up in a woman, why do we view it as a sign of weakness and pettiness? Should we be angry at Nicki for actively silencing other women—or should we be directing that anger at an industry that reinforces the belief that only one woman can prosper in rap in a time, while disproportionately rewarding problematic male rappers? I’ve assembled a panel of women music critics—including Kaila Philo, KC Orcutt, Kai Miller, and Thompson herself—to reckon with the controversy surrounding Queen and its release, as well as the larger questions it raises about the complexities of navigating success as a black woman.
Let’s start off by giving credit where it’s due. When did you start being a Nicki fan, and what aspects of her music really resonated with you?
WANNA THOMPSON: I stumbled onto an early Onika Maraj viciously rapping over an infamous Notorious B.I.G instrumental for her video, “Warning.” Her tactical wordplay and sharp delivery caught my attention, and I spent the remainder of my night searching for her earlier mixtapes. Everything about the NYC rapper reminded me of her predecessor, Lil' Kim. I anxiously followed Minaj’s career and marvelled at the success she rightfully deserved. I admired her status in the industry and ability to crush any rapper in her path.
KC ORCUTT: My introduction to Nicki Minaj was her career-defining freestyle on “Monster.” It felt like everyone collectively ran it one back after that first listen, instantly wanting to know more about her. I was admittedly late to “mixtape Nicki,” but became a fast fan after Beam Me Up Scotty. Nicki has that magnetic persona, and to this day, her talent, confidence, and fearlessness is what draws me into her music. She is one of the best to ever do it, regardless of gender.
KRISTIN CORRY: I loved seeing the “first ladies” of rap cliques, and I searched for myself in my favorites. I absolutely adored Kim, Foxy, and Eve, but it was like I was grasping at straws for familiarity. Nicki is a Trinidadian from Queens, as am I, so her demeanor felt like home. I remember falling down the rabbit hole of Playtime is Over, Sucka Free, and Beam Me Up Scotty and thinking that “Itty Bitty Piggy” was everything I needed as a 17-year-old. There was a time when a new Nicki verse meant you had homework to do. I literally remember sitting in my dorm memorizing “Monster,” and when her verses came on in the club, those were moments for women to command the floor.
When Nicki announced that she had a new album on the way, what were you expecting? What did Queen need to accomplish in order to live up to its name?
ORCUTT: This is the part that particularly gets the non-stan-identifying fans in trouble: expectations. Even her biggest critics can find a way to respect how she has consistently delivered, [earning the highest number awards of any female rapper ever], releasing three chart-topping albums, receiving the key to Queens, and breaking countless records, such as surpassing Aretha Franklin when it comes to appearances on the Billboard Hot 100. Nicki’s reign over the past ten years makes us hold her to a different, higher standard. Because of this, many fans, myself included, feel as though we’re ready to experience a growth or evolution—something that shows she’s leveled up from the been-dope rapper we met a decade ago who came into the game guns blazing.
I want to see collaborations with women, top-tier lyricism, and songs that hold my increasingly diminishing attention span. There is a lot of important and interesting content for Nicki to dive into, including being single for the first time since entering the public eye and going through her brother’s trial and Meek’s convictions. It’s the growth and introspection so many of her fans crave. You can’t evolve from plastic, and perhaps it’s time for Nicki’s artist evolution to strip away some of the pop icon she’s spent years perfecting.
THOMPSON: I was expecting a classic album. How do I define a classic album? The qualifications are simple: no skips and heavy cultural significance. After taking a four-year hiatus, the rapper needed to deliver a solid body of work that deviated from the radio singles if she wanted to reclaim her throne as Queen. While I appreciated the undeniable Roxanne Shante influence on “Barbie Tingz” and the fire production on “Chun Li,” I wished the rapper would stop talking about why she thinks she’s the best, and just provide us with quality bars that have nothing to do with her competition.
KAI MILLER: Her initial rollout of releases, “Chun Li” and “Barbie Tingz,” were what I believed to be inklings of her tapping back into her former days as a mixtape wunderkind. It felt like a resurgence, a new sense of direction for her artistry. I hoped Nicki would remind her detractors why she is deserving of the title Queen. Much of the discussion centered around her music dials down to the validity of her lyricism, and what’s a better way to silence your critics than with bars?
CORRY: I personally enjoy Queen, and it has replay value for me. She revisited a lot of what made me like her: humor, the variation of flow, and that grunting we could never forget. But, in the era of cancel culture and because of the access we have to public figures, it’s extremely easy to decide not to listen. Because of her behavior, some people were over Queen before it was released. Social media and the streaming era has created that fatigue.
As the lane for female rappers continues to expand, how do you see Nicki's role as a veteran evolving?
MILLER: The evolution of Nicki’s role as a seasoned rap vet ultimately comes down to her willingness to extend her legacy beyond herself and pass on the baton. Many of the women buzzing today who are looking to occupy the same lane credit the Queens MC for inspiring their journey. Yet Nicki fails to embrace the influx of women shaping hip-hop’s new sound in the same vein as she does the Rolodex of men she often chooses to collaborate with (Lil Uzi Vert, 6ix9ine, Playboi Carti, etc.). It’s an alarming oversight, particularly for an entertainer who often vocalizes her distaste for the industry’s trivial double-standards.
MILLER: I would hope that in her taking on the title of Queen, and essentially that of queen of rap, Nicki understands that one of her primary roles is to make room for more women to occupy the same lane. There is a surplus of women—black women might I add—dominating rap at this present moment, and it’s time that the Head Barb makes it a point to recognize them. Her disregard of the next generation could ultimately be costly.
Do you see there being any ageism at play in some of the criticism surrounding this album and Nicki’s behavior? Why do people expect her to be entering a “mature” phase at this point in her career?
THOMPSON: Ageism is prevalent in hip-hop, but it tends to affect women more, along with sexism, misogyny, and a plethora of other 'isms. Ageism is unfair and crass but the only resolution is to evolve and grow with your audience and hope it sticks. I believe that Nicki is going back to the past because it seemed to work earlier on in her career, so perhaps it’s easier to go back to her “comfort place” instead of creating groundbreaking art.
KAILA PHILO: What Nicki is facing right now isn’t “ageism,” per se. The women who stepped through the door she opened—Cardi B, Rico Nasty, City Girls, Bbymutha—make more interesting music because they had to.
ORCUTT: Hip-hop as a culture is still growing; it’s barely just starting to get grey hair. While hip-hop traditionally appears to favor youth culture, there’s value in seeing artists embrace their maturation and demand longevity.
Ageism is something that the culture has no choice but to collectively confront and challenge—and I do think it’s an area where there is a double-standard, to a degree. Women have to work twice as hard to receive half the credit (Nicki can and does speak on this), and the same is true when it comes to remaining relevant in what has traditionally been a young man’s game.
CORRY: This summer’s releases were ruled by artists who “should be” washed, if we’re speaking in terms of rap skewing younger. We let PUSHA rap about coke at 41. Future is still making toxic bangers at 34. Kanye said he respects women now because he had a daughter. Age is not equivalent to growth, but if that’s where fans are drawing the line, it should apply to men and women across the board. There’s a way the masses will dab through Future’s depression and let Kanye befriend right-wing politicians in a way they’d never do for Nicki.
Wanna, you made her DM exchange public after you posted a mildly critical tweet. What do we make of her response to some of the criticism surrounding Queen?
THOMPSON: I'm disappointed, especially as a former fan. After making a simple critique on Twitter, the rapper entered my DMs and tore into me for making an honest observation. Her flagrant statements ultimately shed a light on a larger issue that many writers face: censorship. In my opinion, Nicki's “women empowerment” shtick is nothing but a façade after she made some pretty baseless comments about sex work in a recent article. She initially used the “aesthetic” of sex work to gain notoriety throughout her career, so it’s looking a little funny in the light.
ORCUTT: Nicki’s relationship with control has been very tightly wound when it comes to her image and her career, because for many reasons, it has to be. She has crafted her image as that of the off-limits Barbie who earned her spot to hang out at the boys’ club and is a bad-ass boss-bitch. Being anything less than [that] in the court of public opinion opens her to criticism that she’s getting old, that she’s slipping, that she’s lazy, that she’s no longer the best, etc. Nicki didn’t work this hard to “be caught slippin,” ever.
However, censoring and lashing out at journalists for criticizing where her career has taken her (among other commentary) is a move from Trump’s playbook—and that, to me, is just sad. Her treatment of criticism is a reflection of ego, pettiness, and insecurity—the opposite of what her music represents: empowerment, bossed up energy and confidence. A woman silencing a woman is not the move in 2018. Why is criticism Nicki’s kryptonite?
CORRY: Amid the rollout, her reaction to the press bothers me most. We may not ever be able to change her relationship with 6ix9ine, but the larger issue is how culture treats criticism, especially when it comes from black women critics. On episode 4 of Queen Radio, she made it a point to highlight how black women are silenced in the workplaces, and while that’s true, she hasn’t acknowledged her role in that censorship. Even after Wanna’s incident, Minaj joined fans as they critiqued Shanita Hubbard’s op-ed for Pitchfork about her friendship with 6ix9ine. I don’t recall seeing malice from her or her fan base after Elle interview, even though it spun her store into more Cardi/Nicki content.
There’s a misconception that writers are being paid to negatively critique her, when critics are simply being paid to critique. That’s literally our job. Nicki and the Barbz’s reaction to critics has become this thing where we’re conflating major issues but fighting the same battle. We’re women; we want to be seen and heard. We want to put out quality work and have integrity. Her delivery may not be people’s preferred method, but we’re not exactly fighting for different things here.
What were your thoughts on her collaboration with 6ix9ine?
ORCUTT: Her unapologetic embrace of 6ix9ine feels like a twisted misstep to me, not a rebellious act. In my opinion, she should be challenged and questioned for her decision to work with him. Seeing a 22-year-old troll-turned-rapper with a reputation for chasing controversy and a 35-year-old icon sharing an ice cream cone in a campy music video just repulsed me. It feels like every time Nicki collaborates with someone like a 6ix9ine, there is a missed opportunity to make history with a woman. So many other artists are worthy of the airtime.
CORRY: Agreed. I love “Coco Chanel,” and the homage to Foxy and Caribbean culture. It’s arguably one of the best songs on Queen. But it blows my mind that Drake put City Girls on “In My Feelings.” Imagine the impact of a “Ladies Night” or “Lady Marmalade” in 2018.
PHILO: How does one go from collaborating with Beyonce to 6ix9ine? I don’t think she has a cohesive message for Queen, because based on her Elle interview, she seems to be full of contradictions at the moment—for example, disparaging the use of sexuality for money while releasing a long-anticipated album with her breasts out on the cover. All of that is fine! Nobody’s sure of themselves all of the time. [Still,] it seems as though she produced Queen when she should have been doing some immense soul-searching, and that usually leads to either poor choices or an extended hiatus. [In choosing to collaborate with 6ix9ine] She chose the former.
CORRY: It’s unfortunate that the perception of her friendship with 6ix9ine isn’t set to the same standards as her contemporaries’ embrace of other problematic artists. No one flinched when Kendrick threatened to pull his music from Spotify after their hateful conduct policy against XXXTentacion. Unfortunately, because rap is built on misogyny, people aren’t going to double down on men who actively engage with abusers. When a woman does it, and she also says that she wants to uplift women, that makes her susceptible to criticism —even though we’re not exactly tasking rappers like Drake and Future with uplifting women in the first place. Black women know the “twice as hard” speech.
What, as fans of Nicki, can we take away from all the controversy surrounding this album?
THOMPSON: I haven't listened to "FEFE" or Queen, for personal reasons. I refrain from listening to toxic artists within the industry, including R. Kelly and Kodak Black. I want to say that Nicki is still passionate about music and prioritizing quality over quantity, but her actions over the last few days prove otherwise. While her stans keep her name trending on social media, they have failed to give their Queen a number-one album and a sold-out tour.
PHILO: There’s a lot to take away: That she’s panicking, for starters. Entertainers have it easy to blame their failures on identity politics, like when Kanye demanded only black music writers review The Life of Pablo after some random white man said he didn’t like it. All the while, he hasn’t spoken to a black-led music magazine in years.
It seems like Nicki now believes she’s passed her prime, and she’s spiraling because she thinks it’s all downhill from here when it doesn’t have to be. People are saying that this is her best album yet, and it is! But it must be scary to release your apparent magnum opus, only for it to be bested by someone newer and younger to the game.
ORCUTT: Since Queen was released, there’s been a lot to digest, between the album itself, the numbers it did, her reaction to said numbers, her airing out Safaree, her sticking up for Normani at the VMAs, her rescheduling her tour, her Beats 1 Radio Show, and her making what felt like a refreshing and overdue but at times tense press run. It’s become hard to separate the wins from the losses, and it feels as though where the pendulum falls depends on your own fandom.
To me, fandom culture is equal parts dangerous, intriguing, and somewhat understandable, and while its degree of severity may be transient over time, fans of megastars and the call-to-action aspect that comes in line with said fandom isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. Queen, if anything, further solidifies that. The conversations surrounding Nicki’s legacy certainly aren’t dying down either, and I’m curious to see what else goes down as 2018 continues to unfold, even if Queen isn’t necessarily part of my go-to, day-to-day soundtrack, like a part of me hoped it would be.