The Forgivable Inconsistencies of Nicki Minaj
How the rapper’s sporadic greatness has actually been beneficial
couple Thursdays ago, all I could think about was Nicki Minaj. After a months-long social media hiatus, the Trinidadian-born American rapper had made something of a “comeback” by releasing two singles: the minatory “Chun-Li” and the cartoonishly irate “Barbie Tingz.”
#NickiDay became one of Twitter’s trending hashtags; both songs skyrocketed to the top 10 of the iTunes charts. This was all topped
off by a candid interview with the radio personality Zane Lowe, in which Minaj suggested, tearfully, that there actually was, after much speculation, tension between her and the newcomer Cardi B, with whom she collaborated on the standout Migos track “MotorSport” late last year.
Thursday also reminded me why I continue to get caught up in Minaj’s theatrics whenever she calculatedly places herself at the center of cultural conversation. It doesn’t have much to do, however, with quasi-beef or shrewd self-promotion. I’d say it has more to do with the fact that I yearn, as I do with the promise of every impending Minaj album, for the return of Mixtape Nicki, an elusive construct I’m sure many of her fans who detest her pop but love her rap similarly have a strange inclination to.
“Chun-Li” and “Barbie Tingz” hint at a back-to-basics approach reminiscent of the music Minaj put out before the release of her first album. They are most in line with her wonky 2009 mixtape Beam Me Up Scotty, which was almost completely characterized by a mélange of warped, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny tracks upped by how nimbly and wittily Minaj could rap. Minaj has never necessarily lost sight of that sound (in many ways, later songs like “Roman’s Revenge,” “Beez in the Trap,” “Come on a Cone,” “I Am Your Leader,” “Feeling Myself,” and others capitalized on it), but since Pink Friday, her studio debut, every album effort Minaj has released has been much more made up of amorphous, sing-in-the-car pop than her idiosyncratic brand of hip-hop.
If other artists dared to do what Minaj has so shamelessly done over the years, they’d be accused of selling out, of losing what made them so peerless before becoming a public figure. Minaj has sold tacky, brand-boosting products; released songs and albums that have regularly, and usually unsuccessfully, catered to the sensibilities of homogenized radio pop; and has never been unafraid of reaping the benefits of an obvious stunt or publicity gig.
Yet in lieu of Minaj’s duplicitous marketing moves and the occasionally atrocious music she’s released, the hope always remains that she’ll one day live up to the “return to form” cliché. That she will, for once, set aside her belief that she has to maintain a brand and recapitulate on the aesthetics that made her a favorite of Lil Wayne and Kanye West well before she’d even released a big-budgeted album.
Her trajectory thus far has proved that this is probably never going to happen: 2010’s Pink Friday, 2012’s Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, 2012’s The Re-Up reissue, and 2014’s The Pinkprint were all by-and-large pop albums that contained just a handful of genuinely excellent rap tracks.
But when Minaj is good, she’s great. Her erratic flashes of genius manage to be enough to keep us interested. Over the years, Minaj has been more consistently disappointing than engaging, yet I still consider myself a fan. I wonder, then, if her spotty greatness has, in a way, helped boost her ongoing relevance. We often eventually take the formidability of regularly exceptional artists for granted, and then cast them aside when we’ve decided they’re no good after all. Because Minaj has never settled on virtuosity or shoddiness, waiting for new highlights have been enough to keep us coming even after bouts of less-than-satisfying material.
“Chun-Li” and “Barbie Tingz,” both of which feature some of Minaj’s most dextrous rapping, once again inspire wonderings of whether we’ll get an album’s worth of tracks like these. Would Minaj dare, now that she’s arguably at the peak of her fame, to release a record wherein she almost exclusively spits to nonconformist beats and song structures, as she did throughout the late-noughties? Or will she continue her somehow-forgivable cycle of inconsistency?
Toward the end of “Chun-Li,” itself a semi-homage to the belligerent Street Fighter character, Minaj pauses, thinking about her place in the zeitgeist of modern hip-hop. Then, to what I like to imagine to be an empty theater simply because it’s melodramatic, she cries, “They need rappers like me. They NEED rappers like me!” And I’m inclined to agree. We do, indeed, need rappers this unpredictable, this maddening, and this unwilling to be boxed in.
- APRIL 20, 2018
This piece also appeared in The Daily.