Andrew Noz just recently took back what he said about Nicki Minaj a few years ago, but I still feel like that line that I lifted from him for the title of this post is still a pretty apt description of her. I don’t mean it in a negative way either, I just think it perfectly expresses how thick the layers of abstraction and artifice are around her whole style, how you can’t just listen to her music and get it right away, there’s a lot you have to be clued into in order to grasp what’s going on. Not to say that she’s has some kind of elitist or esoteric slant, it’s all low-brow pop culture idioms that you have to have experience with and appreciation for in order to be on board with her style. Say what you want about it, it is undeniably original and attention-grabbing.
Amber just recently sent me an article that a Huffington Post blogger named DJ Louie XIV wrote about Nicki and the phenomenon of the female rapper, and he brought up some interesting points, but I felt his assessment of the situation was fundamentally flawed in a few ways. In the article, he points out that so far, no female rapper has been able to achieve the longevity that many male rappers have achieved, and wonders about how Nicki Minaj will fare in that regard. He points out that her style and approach differ greatly from the prominent female MCs of the past in that she doesn’t focus on rapping alone to get her message out, even though her skills in that area are hard to question, and she is taking many cues from the largely-white pop scene to gain greater popularity. From the subtext of his writing, it seems pretty clear that DJ Louie XIV is a big fan of hip-hop, and he feels disappointed that Nicki doesn’t stick to the stuff that he enjoys listening to, the rapping, which I can understand. But it’s strange that he points out that all previous prominent female rappers didn’t do what Nicki Minaj is doing now, and is sad about their lack of longevity in the industry, but also criticizes Nicki for not blindly following in their footsteps and suffering their same fate.
I think the male/female thing is a little bit of a red herring here. What’s really going on is a separation between pop and underground, and in those terms, the rules are the same for males and females alike. If you’re going to be widely popular for a long period of time, you have to adjust your style to be appealing to a wide, diverse audience. Popularity is a numbers game to the core, if you don’t have masses of people buying your albums, merchandise, and concert tickets, then you’re not going to have mainstream success, that’s what those terms mean by definition. It’s interesting that he picks Jay-Z as his poster boy for a male rapper that’s enjoyed success for a very extended period of time because Jay-Z was criticized heavily for “going pop” after his first album, Reasonable Doubt. If you listen to Reasonable Doubt and then listen to any other album he’s done since (except maybe The Black Album which he envisioned being his final album and wasn’t as concerned with continuing his career and being widely popular into the future), there is no doubt that he adapted his style and abilities to be more appealing to a wide audience. That’s what mainstream success is. Nicki is doing exactly the same thing. If you listen to “Don’t Stop, Won’t Stop“, you can’t deny that she wasn’t putting as much energy into being appealing to a broad audience as she is now. And now she is widely popular, after adapting her style. If Jay-Z had kept to his pre-pop style, he probably would have skated by with a cult following in the rap community and could have had moderate success for a while, or maybe even a long time, but he couldn’t have had anywhere near the fame and attention he gets now if he hadn’t switched it up. Just like how Nicki would be now if she’d kept to her “Don’t Stop, Won’t Stop” style. They would both be where all the female MCs Louie XIV talks about are, obscure and only moderately appreciated. You have longevity as a mainstream artist if you can consistently make things that a wide number of people will pay money for, period.
Where the male/female dynamic does come in is the pressure that is almost assuredly put on female rappers by an industry run predominantly by males and with predominantly male fans. I can’t see how there couldn’t be a lot more skepticism for any female artist trying to make it as a rapper by the rap power structure, so the lengths she must got to just to get noticed and promoted are far greater than what an equally-skilled male rapper would have to go through to gain that same recognition. It’s like any industry controlled by men: the women have to work harder and usually get less pay and recognition than their male counterparts, and I imagine that this extra strain put on the female MC is just too taxing to keep up for a Jay-Z-length career. The industry and the fanbase is just too harsh and unforgiving for the female rapper, and I feel that it’s that factor that is responsible for the ill-fated career of all the once-famous lady MCs out there. Just read the comments in that article, there are countless male rap fans that make blanket generalizations and dismissals of female rappers, it’s no wonder it’ hard for them to make it, especially for extended periods of time.
And maybe the record labels are right, maybe a woman does have to warp and alter herself to the extreme in order to be marketable, and it’s not just the label’s fault, it’s a failure in our society to recognize and value the true greatness of women for their natural born qualities.