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.

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  1. Great post. I think you’re totally right on about how DJ Louie XIV wants Nicki to stick to his listening preferences, and your commentary about the pop/underground divide. I appreciate how the article shows a desire for more female hiphop success, but I think he really missed the mark by trying to claim that the Female OGs are missing from the game.

    For example, was really surprised about the way that article treats Missy’s work. Like her career’s gone cold? Give me a break! She may not be pushing her own name as hard a she used to, but that may be due to all the cool behind the scenes work she’s into with so many other people’s careers. Her 7th album is coming out this summer, and she is goin nuts as a producer- finishing up Trinas 6th album, Free’s debut, doin big collaborations with Sharaya, and you know she’s gonna be all over Timbaland’s new album too. I think her path is totally admirable and inspiring. She did what many others do who are adamant about music- she’s got her hands in so many steps along the path in the creation of music, she’s in it deep. She’s not in a position to get kicked off charts because a fickle audience is tired of one thing or another about the way she looks or whatever, she’s involved in the creative process all along the way cause she’s a musician, she’s creative, and she’s driven. Or at least that’s how I see it. However she got into what she’s up to, I think there’s a lot in there for young rappers (male and female alike) to learn.

    And where is the mention of “The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul,” Mary J Blige? I know she doesn’t always put rapping before singing, but she’s a woman, she raps, and she’s still killin it at 41. Plus, along with a huge list of impressive things she’s done, she is the only artist, male or female, with Grammy Award wins in Pop, Rap, Gospel, and R&B. She also launched her own record label, as well as several product lines.

    And how about “Queen of Neosoul,” Erykah Badu? She’s still makin waves at 41, touring with multiple acts & involved in activism in her home town.

    Jill Scott? She’s 39, and taken her career from spoken word style hip hop to being an award winning actress, as well as being heavily involved in charity work.

    Queen Latifah for goodness sakes? She’s 42, done everything, and is reportedly worth a chill $50 million.

    Although Beyonce is only 30, she doesn’t show any signs of stopping, and Nicki as well as just about everyone else you can imagine is quoted to look up to her for a myriad of reasons.

    If Janet Jackson is not an OG, I don’t know who is. She’s certainly done more than just hip hop, but she’s 45, and still touring, writing and acting – and hell, she started when she was seven, so I think she gets extra career-time credit.

    On the underground side of things, what about Jean Grae? She’s 35, & just put out another mix tape last year. She stopped for a while to tend to her family and was known to criticize the industry, but she hasn’t stopped doin her thing.

    These are just a few women that I could think of off the top of my head. My point is, the article asks what women are out there that “have proven that rappers can maintain artistic relevance and commercial viability well into their 40s” – And I say, for how young the genre is (compared to something as ubiquitous as pop), women are doing well. Could there be more? Sure! Will there be? You’d better believe it.

    And who does Nicki need to look up to? Looks like she’s doing just fine blazing her own path. Let her be the one someone else gets to look up to.

  2. Margaret says:

    I’m way older than the oldest rapper you mentioned. but I love it that there is recognition out there for women who are finding a way to make it at what might at first seem to be a man’s game. I don’t understand much of what goes on in rap but I have crashed a couple of glass ceilings and it always hurts and it always costs. Once the break is made, no one can remember when it was ever any different, so the success disappears. But that’s ok because there are always plenty more barriers to batter – we have to keep our eyes on the future. The point is that it makes a difference when anybody stops to say, wow, that’s remarkable, and to notice that the status quo just quietly inched forward. The recognition is as important as the feat; without the acknowledgement of its meaning, a victory is hollow, so somebody else will have to challenge that same barrier again some day soon. So thank you!!

  3. […] just trying to appeal to a certain demographic.  And it worked.  Like I talked about in this post, that’s what it takes to get that solid mainstream success, you have to cater to the […]

  4. […] reminds me of the stuff I talked about in this post, which is coincidentally (or maybe not-so-coincidentally) also about Nicki Minaj to a great […]

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