You Could Be the King But Watch the Queen Conquer

Thinking about blogging – how does a person function in public space?  How does a woman function in public space?  How does a woman claim public space in a way that is attended, noticed?  Noticed and powerful.  I keep thinking about these things.

These questions make me want to write about Nicki Minaj.  Because I love her as an artist.  Because she receives a tremendous amount of attention in a genre inhospitable to females.  Because she acts in ways that resemble a woman “getting attention” (i.e. playing up sexuality, ‘acting like a man’, whatever that means) but she inflates them to self-parody.  Gender baroque, hashtag rap.

Her insane number of guest appearances, a parody of the feminine sidekick role – always helpful – and then she demolishes the headliners.

Recently, Brandon Brown posted the Roman’s Revenge remix that (thank you Nickster) jettisoned Eminem for Lil Wayne.  In newly listening to Roman’s Revenge I’ve been newly obsessed with Nicki’s identifications.  She makes it easy to notice her masculine identifications (“If i had a dick, I would pull it out and piss on ’em”).

In R.R., “I’m not Jasmine / I am Aladdin” reads as a flip of her “You be Harry Potter and I’ll be Hermione” to Wayne. (On the mixtapes, she’s still a woman – but this is her first album – she’s a man now.)  But, how strange to be Aladdin.  Or maybe I mean strange that the Harry Potter / Aladdin moments of gender selection both seem so…cute?

In interviews I’ve heard Nicki say that she can do what mainstream male rappers can’t for fear of compromising their masculinity.  Would Wayne call himself Harry Potter (or Hermione)?  Well, Wayne might.  He might not.  But I want to hear Jeezy do it.

And then, a bit later in Nicki’s lyric:  “I am a bad bitch / I am a cunt.”  As a listener that stepped me back.  Not ‘bad bitch,’ which she says all the time, but ‘cunt’.  (As in, she’s always talking about pussy but usually in the context of sexual service.  Praising her services, or in instances I don’t know how to process, procuring those of other women.)

I was surprised that she went there.  To “I am a cunt.”  To aggressively identifying as female.  With a language that would still – I think? – feel forbidden to most male rappers.  On the other side of forbidden from Harry Potter & Aladdin.

That move, the quick swerve from cutesy masculine to aggressive feminine feels so Nicki to me.  All her identifications seem tweaked.   I think of her avowed list of influences:  Foxy, Lauryn Hill, Larry David, & Judge Judy.  It’s her swagger to be literal and mysterious.

I looked for performance footage of Roman’s Revenge and in this live performance she’s wearing a backless suit.  (Well, the back must be mesh or something.) Wearing the pants with a bare ass.  And then she turns around and shows her ass to the audience for what feels to me like ten minutes.

What does that moment even mean?  Another gender flip – right after she calls herself, “Manning, Eli”.  And it’s right before Busta Rhymes’ appearance, as if to say, “Top that.”  I can read it as a critique, of her letting us know she knew we were waiting for her to deliver the goods.  But maybe not.  It feels so triumphant.

Like, Brandon on Facebook wrote about “Nicki’s swaggering feminism.  If that’s what it is.  Eeeek.”  And I know what you mean, BB!  Is it swaggering feminism or swagger?  Is swagger from a woman feminism, part-feminism at least?  It does hold space. 

Anyway, I realize I may be letting that moment mean more to me than I ought to, because I love Nicki Minaj.  At Stephanie Young’s recommendation, I just read One-Dimensional Woman by Nina Powers, which talks about current capitalism’s pressure on women to become resumes for themselves.  That is, in affect, sexuality, personality, to advertise oneself as job-worthy – nothing is hidden.  I think of that and at one level I feel depressed by Nicki’s display of goods.

But again it seems so over-determined and strange.  And they are such hyperbolic goods.  She sells well and she’s strange.  She still feels unknowable.  And I like that she has a hypeman in the Flava Flav style, a hypeman who shouts her lines with her.

My question, I think, to get stuck on with Nicki Minaj  – Stephanie is good at reminding me of this – is her relationship to other women in the industry.  Making her moves by herself seems predictable, and not in an exciting overloaded Nicki way.

In that, she does what you’d expect as ‘the one’ in a male industry.  She plays out aggression toward female MCs, not the boys (and except for Lil Kim it’s not clear to me who she’s even talking about, considering the dearth of female MCs of market stature).  She’s appearing with men, she’s beefing with Lil Kim.  Her songs that are more feminist in their lyrics are in a ‘soft’ R&B mode, aimed at a different market segment.

If you google some performance videos she’s surrounded with guys on the stage.  (Security?  They’re big guys.) What would it be like if she was surrounded by women milling around doing nothing?  With women milling around on stage and a hypewoman.

And of course I can’t hold Nicki responsible for this, but why isn’t she compared more to Missy Elliott, I wonder?  The big New York Times article compares her to Ke$ha.  I get paranoid and feel as though Missy is being erased.  That there’s not room for more than one crazy innovative creative and tireless woman rap star to even hold memory.   I love Nicki Minaj, I miss Missy Elliott.

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6 Responses to You Could Be the King But Watch the Queen Conquer

  1. BB says:

    Long time lurker, first time commenter. Lauren, I love this exposition of the semiotics and vicissitudes of Nicky Lewinsky.

    I just want to shout out your question about the very loud silence around Missy Elliott and to second the suggestion, “That there’s not room for more than one crazy innovative creative and tireless woman rap star to even hold memory.” What I would add is simply the white elephant in the room of that NY Times piece is Ke$ha’s particular “brand” of whiteness—one inflected by a kind of slang repertoire, but challenged by a kind of white trash / hipster slime social identification.

    Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Ke$ha. And the picture, such as it is, is quite complex. But I think the erasure of another crazy innovative creative and tireless African American woman–well, it’s a loud silence is all.

    • Lauren Levin says:

      Hey Brandon, Thanks so much for this. I would love to hear more of your thoughts about Ke$ha’s “brand” of whiteness. Is it the elephant in the room in the sense of the saleability of rap by white people (as in Eminem etc.)? I don’t know Ke$ha and am pretty curious about what’s going on with her.

      Now I’m going to rant, warning, but I found that article so bizarre in lots of ways – as indicated by its headlines “Kesha Rises as Nicki Minaj Stumbles” and (ugh, even worse) “Gaining an Edge in Female Rap Race”. So, reinforcing the “there can only be one” narrative. And, why would it be that if one rises, the other must stumble? And, why should it be that these two completely different artists should have a line drawn between them at all? I mean, if you want to conceive of Pink Friday as a failure, why not compare it to “Rebirth”, another album by a Young Money artist that was attempting to increase the artist’s musical range and was critically panned? Why Ke$ha? Sigh, I mean, I think I know the answer, any two artists in the world can be related – even have a causal relationship, apparently – if they are women. But come on, New York Times….

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  3. estaiti says:

    This is great Lauren, thanks!

    I have this strange desire to defend everything Nicki does, which I admit, is not healthy. But I feel concerned about some of the criticisms of her in the name of feminism because they sound to me too much like “why doesn’t she do it more like this?” Why does she sing those soft R&B songs, why aren’t there more women on stage with her, etc. Those questions seem dangerous to me. I don’t feel like I hear male artists talked about in that way. Why can’t a woman be an insanely talented rapper AND also be a great singer? Why would we want her to limit her talents? I don’t want to regard Nicki as some object of feminism that I can place my desires onto. I want to regard Nicki as an autonomous artist, take her on the terms she sets for me, and trust that she knows what she’s doing. Maybe she’ll change her style a few times over the years, or maybe she’ll be erased, or maybe she’s got it all worked out right off the bat, but whatever she’s doing, she’s doing it.

    • Lauren Levin says:

      Hi Erika!

      Thanks for the awesome & useful comment – a lot to think about. I agree with you that the impulse to project a feminist ideal onto Nicki Minaj is troubling (even though I have that impulse, since I manifested it in my post). If I think about it, the desire to hold Nicki to higher standards than a male artist probably comes in part from my endless font of self-criticism, which, yikes.

      Where I do want to maintain an argument, though, is that Nicki’s superstardom (as in, what does a woman need to do to get attention in a male industry?) reveals the conditions of the industry in a way that’s distressing. Not that she as an individual is doing something wrong, or to deny her her tremendous autonomy as an artist – she’s so impossibly original.

      But at that level of fame there must be something about broader currents, within the individual artist. I hesitated to even write about the male entourage; I felt so ridiculous to myself for wanting a female entourage and hypewoman. But I wrote it down in the end because it felt so impossible for me to imagine her sharing the stage with a hypewoman or a big female entourage, and I wondered why.

      I felt like it showed something about my own internalized constraints – that I also expect one woman in a crowd of men, and that was depressing to me; I wanted to challenge myself.

      Anyway, it’s the same arguments about critiquing the individual vs the system. I don’t want Nicki Minaj or individual women artist to be held to an impossible standard.

      But I do feel worried that as long as women are still in this tokenized, ‘one great woman allowed’ position, and encouraged to fight each other for that position – like there’s only attention for one woman at a time – it will be really easy to keep erasing women and their contributions. And that women are also allowed in by being attached to male artists or crews in some way, and that makes it easy to retain the men while ‘erasing’ the woman.

      Yeesh, I feel like each of these points goes on endlessly ramifying in my head – maybe there’s another post in this somewhere? But I’ll stop now.

      Thanks again so much for your thoughts…

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