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Tuning In: Nicki Minaj

 Today I focus on Nicki Minaj, a female rapper who is part of Lil Wayne's Young Money crew and has recently gone solo She's been on my radar for some time. Jonah Weiner recently wrote a Slate column about her. Jay Smooth and Maura Johnston had in an interesting exchange about her for NPR. Apparently this Web site gets several searches for her as well, so she's clearly someone we should be talking about.

 In all candor, I've avoided talking about Minaj because her music doesn't interest me. I also find her sexualized, glamorous image more boring than scandalous. However, I could make similar arguments against several female pop stars, as many capitalize on post-feminist notions of material wealth and (hetero)sexual desirability, which feminists like Susan Douglas believe perpetuate enlightened sexism.

 That said, there's plenty to talk about. What first comes to mind is Minaj's relationship with Barbie. Her deep identification with Mattel's blond icon is intrinsic to the rapper's identity that her fans even refer to themselves as Barbies. Johnston points out that there may be something celebratory about Minaj's appropriation of an eminent symbol of white femininity, which Smooth contests as complying with these standards.

 

For me, I wonder if the aspiration results from some black girls wanting to find dolls with whom they can identify, yet constantly being reminded by toy makers that they haven't figured out how to cater to a
group that still doesn't appear to be their ideal market. This was recently made clear when Wal-Mart sold Ballerina Teresa at a cheaper retail price instead of placing the same value on the doll and Ballerina Barbie because Teresa was reportedly not as high a seller. Ty also had a difficult time creating dolls of color. This was evident with the reaction garnered from the Sasha and Malia dolls, whose hair and facial features aligned with white post-adolescent beauty standards. As a result, the company later claimed the dolls were not modeled after the first daughters.

The racial politics of hair factor prominently into this discussion as well. Amidst the discourse around the maintenance of Zahara Jolie-Pitt's tresses and the pathologizing of black women in Chris Rock's documentary Good Hair, several issues around Eurocentric beauty standards and the cultural ignorance many people have around black people's hair came to the surface. This necessitated the intervention of many cultural critics, including my friend Kristen at Dear Black Woman.

When I think of Minaj's image, two female solo artists come to mind: Lil Kim and Lady Gaga. Both represent extremes of sexual and material excess. Furthermore, fellow rapper Kim got her start as a member of Notorious B.I.G.'s Junior M.A.F.I.A. crew and packaged herself as a living doll in the music video for "How Many Licks." In the clips that accompany "Massive Attack," "Bed Rock," and Ludacris's "My Chick," Minaj likewise revels in the possibilities of empowerment that luxury, sexual agency, and aligning with powerful men may offer.

 As with Kim and Gaga, Minaj's moneyed feminine excess does lend itself toward camp, which may have feminist potential. So I find it interesting that Minaj has been noted for her potentially subversive fashion sense and her visual identification with figures like Wonder Woman.

 

But much of this is still connected -- regardless of Minaj's own sexual orientation -- to heterosexist iterations of female power. Minaj doesn't barge into nail salons and bridal shops and grinding with female customers like Yo! Majesty did in the music video for "Don't Let Go."

 Perhaps the main issue regarding Minaj's image has less to do with her than the dearth of female MCs in mainstream hip hop. Artists like Lil Mama, Estelle, Ke$ha, and Kid Sister get some recognition, but not on the level that kingpins Jay-Z, Kanye West, T.I., and Lil Wayne receive. Older female rappers have either become less culturally relevant, like Missy Elliott, or have branched into a variety of creative and merchandising opportunities outside of hip hop, as Queen Latifah has done.

There have been some interesting female voices who have emerged from underground hip hop. Considerable interest gathered around Lady Sovereign and Northern State during the last decade. Veterans Bahamadia and Jean Grae are getting recognition. Several queer MCs are visible, including Jen Ro, Invincible, and sissy bounce mainstays Katey Red and Big Freedia. Dessa, Rye Rye, Speech Debelle, and Psalm One have received critical praise.

As Minaj is often cast as the lone female in a man's crew or the guest star on a male rapper's single, I do like that she plays with accent and dialect. Minaj's flow is distinctive in part because she floats in and out of a variety of voices and characters. As a feminist who came of age during the third wave, I'm inclined to read this stylistic choice as an indication of the fragmented nature of female identities.

 However, I have to wonder if part of this has to do with Minaj trying to create multiple women within herself so she can have another female rapper to talk to. Thus, while I bristle at the Barbie femininity on display in the music video for Mariah Carey's "Up Out My Face," I'm happy Minaj can at least find one kindred spirit. But let's also remember that Psalm One believes in her too.

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Comments

6 comments have been made. Post a comment.

EXACTLY

"I also find her sexualized, glamorous image more boring than scandalous."

Exactly! She's being bankrolled by a group of guys who brag about making your bed rock. So I'm going to wait and see if she's a mainstay, or a flash in the pan. And as she gets some credibility, maybe she'll become multidimensional.

EXACTLY

With any luck, she'll become more developed. At this point I'm still like "what else do you have?"

Alyx Vesey

Thanks!

Thank you for this! I definitely understand bringing Nicki Minaj into a Bitch-style feminist-pop-culture-critique style conversation but on a more basic, totally non-critical level thanks for introducing us to her (yep, I find her style appealing/entertaining eek!) and all the rest. I think Minaj reminds me of some of my pals (esp. drag performers) at their most over-the-top entertaining best, just loony.

I love these posts where I get introduced to a big list of artists I otherwise (as a usually non-music-oriented person) would never hear about. Rye Rye in particular I love for her rhymes, fashion (!) and DANCING. Really, seeing anyone just rocking out in a t-shirt, shorts and sneakers (vs. a bikini & high heels) is refreshing. Makes me want to hit a dance party *right now.* (5:30 am!)

Thanks!

I totally get the connection between Nicki Minaj and drag performers. Taking the Gaga connection one step further, let's not forget that there was that Internet rumor that she had a penis, which she made light of in the "Telephone" video. I think much of that same aggressively favorable attitude toward feminine excess and the panic of what it could be hiding could easily apply to Minaj.

As for Rye Rye, I like her sporty attire, which isn't blatantly hypersexualized (see also Dessa's casual look and Janelle Monáe's perchance for buttoned-up menswear). I also like her throwback rhyming style, which to me recalls the playground chant style popularized by Roxanne Shanté. She's really fun in performance too. I saw her during SXSW, and she was flanked by two male dancers who were locked in step and wore leather jackets and tank tops with "Rye" written across them. Easily one of the most fun sets of the festival.

Alyx Vesey

Like Chaka Khan, I Am Every Woman

You lettin her game you more than you think. Her image goin over peoples' heads... Yes, Nicki Minaj is bankrolled as far as her ASSets go by Young Money, and perhaps Barbie could convey the plastic in her body. It's her body... she can do whatever she want. She is not as fake as she may appear. Her rapping is entirely her own. She was discovered on the Come Up DVD "Click Clack" and did a bunch of mixtapes like most struggling rappers.... "Autobiography" gives you insight on what life was like for her in Jamaica Queens... Minaj has paid her dues. She is not an airhead manufactured personality made up by the hip hop industry. Lil Wayne liked what he saw and heard on the Come Up then put her on. So far she's released a lot of garbage and a few good borderline stellar tracks.... Yes she did her thing with "Monster" and the newest "Right Thru Me" will likely be a hood girl anthem and later be played in middle school dances lol. Potential is there but which direction will Nicki go? Many hood chicks freakin adore her, and Minaj has cross over appeal like Cyndi Lauper... I never thought I'd see harajuku fashion on the cover of Vibe EVER but here we are in 2010.... Wanna Minaj? I'd like to see a female emcee do it big, why not? Nicki got bars when she wanna put 'em out!!!

Over Thinking the Woman!

I personally find Minaj empowering. She is showing that in a place overpowered by men, a woman can do the same. You're way over thinking her image, and that's quite annoying. I believe she's doing what she wants, leave her alone, and be proud of her; I believe, since she is paving the way for the next generation.