Nicki Minaj’s Queen, an album four years in the making, is the latest in a recent surge of new music from a particular generation of rap titans.
In rap’s fourth decade, as the entertainment industry at large reckons with an apparently longstanding culture of sexual abuse and harassment, what are we to expect from the pre-eminent female rapper?
Though its title might suggest a merging of the personal with the political, this album is primarily a contemplation of Minaj’s sustained success and her particular relationship with sexuality and power. Queen sets out to reassert Minaj’s status as the alpha woman of the rap game, a characteristically explicit message to her rap rivals and pretenders to the throne.
In a musical landscape currently saturated by the irrepressible personality of Bronx-based rapper Cardi B, and in the wake of 2016’s embarrassing beef with fellow rapper Remy Ma – who, in her scathing diss track “ShETHER” accused Nicki Minaj of sleeping with dozens of men in the rap game – Minaj’s fourth album needed to impress.
Queen’s mix of ultra-feminine pop tunes and bona fide gangsta snarl recalls Minaj’s previous albums. That she has consistently straddled the distinct personas of gangsta boss and sexy pop siren without truly committing to either has become her signature. Her chameleonic ability to match, even surpass, some of rap’s most verbose (Eminem), witty (Kanye), filthy (Lil Wayne) and pop-friendly (Drake) is also what makes her claim to the throne so precarious. Rap fans all want more from Nicki Minaj but seldom agree on which version.
One song that has attracted significant attention is “Barbie Dreams,” a reworking of Notorious B.I.G.‘s “Just Playin’ (Dreams)” and Lil Kim’s “Dreams.”
Instead of reveling in gratuitous fantasies of sex with R&B singers like the song’s two predecessors, Nicki Minaj chooses instead to reject and belittle the gamut of her male rap contemporaries. Highlights include the already iconic lines:
“Drake worth a hundred milli’/Always buying me shit/But I don’t know if the pussy wet/Or if he’s crying and shit” and “Had to cancel DJ Khaled boy/We ain’t speakin’/Ain’t no fat ni##a telling me/What he ain’t eatin’.”
This song, which Nicki Minaj has already defended against misinterpretations of her insults as “disses” (true insults), demonstrates the trickster persona at the root of hip-hop culture. “Eshu,” an Orisha (spirit) of the Yoruba religion, has been traced through African diasporic cultures all the way to hip-hop and is thought to be a significant inspiration for the rapper or “emcee” tradition. He is characterized by his combative but ultimately tongue-in-cheek spirit of the mischievous wordsmith.
The queen of rap’s response is perfectly on brand: Nicki Minaj wields rap’s hypermasculinity to emasculate and scorn the men who continue to benefit from hip hop’s everyday misogyny.
In doing so, she uses a contentious brand of “girl power” that is distinct to hip-hop and frequently critiqued from both within and outside of rap circles. Hip hop, especially in its mainstream and gangsta iterations, is routinely characterized as misogynistic.
While a disturbing amount of rap lyrics are undeniably degrading and offensive to women, rap’s intrinsic hypermasculinity doesn’t have to be used like this. In other words, while rap is seldom politically correct, it is not inherently sexist.
Nicki Minaj’s work taps into an undernourished but treasured tradition of female rappers taking up the mantle of hypermasculine braggadocio and skewering their male counterparts with the same apparent delight.
Is Queen’s self-absorption, its obsession with establishing Minaj’s singular claim to rap supremacy, often at the expense of other female rappers, problematic?
Rap, like many popular music genres, has been historically dominated by male artists, and there are too few female rappers whose voices break through to the mainstream. But expecting Nicki Minaj to extend overt support and encouragement to up-and-coming female rappers on the basis of feminism is to overlook one of the central tenets of rap as both an art form and a sport. At its heart, rap is about combat.
Crew-based nepotism aside, male rappers do not jump to support new artists on the scene and are quick to identify worthy adversaries in the perpetual contestation over who is kingpin.
Accordingly, some of Queen’s standout tracks – including LLC, Majesty, and Ganja Burns – display Nicki Minaj at her most confrontational, eager to decimate her rivals both real and imagined. “You wear a Nicki wig and think you can be Nicki?/That’s like a fat nigga thinking he could be Biggie,” she raps on Ganja Burn.
Queen does not reconcile the multiple personalities that have long been at the heart of Minaj’s vexed relationship with hip-hop “authenticity.”
But it is her most coherent body of work to date. The album presents Nicki Minaj at her most confident yet, suggesting that in the age of overexposed social media celebrity, she is still most comfortable behind her personas. This is why the most celebrated bars from the album so far are among her cattiest – being fake is Nicki Minaj at her most real.