Nicki Minaj

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Best thing to happen to hip-hop in ages, or worst thing to happen to hip-hop in ages?
If those are the only two choices, we lean much closer to “best” than to “worst,” but that’s kind of simplistic. Nicki’s exciting, but she’s also pretty new; and if she’s bringing a lot of interesting ideas to the table she can also be pretty hit-and-miss with her execution. We’re definitely on her side, but we’re reserving definitive judgment until she’s got more than one album under her belt.

Isn’t she noteworthy just for being a successful female rapper?
Unfortunately so. Don’t get us wrong—there’s nothing unfortunate about her success, but it’s criminal that there haven’t been more female rappers who have enjoyed long-term success. To her credit, Nicki doesn’t pretend she’s any kind of trailblazer in this regard: from the Sequence and Lady B to Queen Latifah and MC Lyte to Lauren Hill and Lisa Lopes to Missy Elliott and Foxy Brown to Jean Grae and Estelle, hip-hop has always had more room in it for female voices than a lot of thug-centric narratives might claim. But there’s little doubt Minaj is the most successful female MC ever, at least by some metrics. She’s the only person ever to have seven songs simultaneously in the Billboard Hot 100, she’s the first unaccompanied female to top the Hot Rap Songs chart since 2002, and she’s the first female MC to have a No. 1 album since The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1998.

So what kind of name is Nicki Minaj anyway?
A stage name, obviously. (If you don’t get the double entendre of Minaj, far be it from us to spoil it for you.) She was born Onika Tanya Maraj in 1984 in Trinidad, a Caribbean island nation near the South American coast. Her parents are of Afro-Trinidadian and Indian descent, so Nicki can claim American, African, and Asian heritage. She moved to Queens, New York at age five, and went to arts schools in Queens and Manhattan, where she studied music and drama. She released her first mixtape, Playtime Is Over, in 2007, and followed it with Sucka Free in 2008. She was making a name for herself in underground rap circles while developing her free-associative, multi-vocal style, and her third mixtape, Beam Me Up Scotty was quickly followed by the announcement of her singing to Lil Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment.

So she owes everything to Lil Wayne?
We wouldn’t say that, and not just because of the sexist assumption that behind every successful woman is a more successful man. Sure, Weezy’s championing of her is how most people got to hear of her, but he’s championed lots of his friends over the years, and very few of them have gone on to release platinum albums. She became part of the Young Money crew, rapping on five songs on the crew’s late 2009 debut We Are Young Money. The first single from the album, “Bedrock,” was her introduction to mainstream pop music, especially when it reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 2010. Her verse, with its rapid-fire vocal changes, stood out even among the fanciful wordplay of Lil Wayne, Tyga, Gudda Gudda, Jae Millz, and Drake and the smooth vocals of Lloyd.

Oh yeah, speaking of that. What’s with all the weird voices?
This is usually what people focus on when they talk about Nicki being innovative or exciting. Following in the footsteps of rappers like the Wu-Tang Clan or Eminem, she’s created several alternate identities—including “Harajuku Barbie,” “Roman Zolanski,” “Martha Zolanski” even “Nicki Minaj” (while “Onika”—supposedly the closest to her real self—has even made an appearance on Pink Friday). Keeping them straight—as well as keeping track of all the new ones she’s always unveiling—could be a full-time job, but getting fans to invest in her mythology is one of the ways she’s become more than just a rapper: she’s a full-fledged pop star.

Yeah, about that. Is she a rapper or a singer?She’s both! Like Lil Wayne, Drake or Kid Cudi (or like Lauryn Hill, back in the day), she moves easily between hip-hop, pop and R&B, not wanting to limit herself to any particular audience or any particular style. That doesn’t mean she’s equally good at both—for our money, her spitting is way better than her singing—but she’s not bad at either, and it’s hard to argue with the success of left-field ballads like “Your Love” and “Right Thru Me.” One of the common refrains has been that she’s a better guest rapper than she is a solo artist, and we’re not about to claim that she’s not the best thing about Ludacris’ “My Chick Bad," Trey Songz’ “Bottoms Up" or Kanye West’s “Monster” (where she also gets to blow Jay-Z and Rick Ross out of the water), but her flair for the dramatic makes even her slowest songs compulsively listenable.

So the album’s uneven?
That’s a good way of putting it. There’s nothing actively bad on it (okay, “Right Thru Me” is a little wearying), but probably the worst thing about it is that it doesn’t contain her debut single “Massive Attack” with Sean Garrett, probably because it didn’t do great commercially, but it’s an excellent club banger with some of her most inventive language-warping. Still, there’s a lot of good stuff on Pink Friday—the boastful “Did It on ’Em,” Euro-hit “Check It Out” with will.i.am and the album’s strongest cut, “Roman’s Revenge” with Eminem, featuring her gay alter ego Roman Zolanski.

Hasn’t she been kind of controversial?
We guess? Every pop star is controversial, just because that much exposure means there’s that much more opportunity for people to find fault. But there have been a few repeated assertions about Nicki. The first is that she’s not actually as gay-friendly as she’d like to pretend. The worst charge here is that she made her “It Gets Better” statement about her instead of gay kids (and she’s hardly the most self-involved pop star); the fact that she backtracked on her supposed bisexuality is more notable for its honesty than its homophobia. There have also been concerns that some of the flamboyant sexuality of her early imagery was less than helpful, but she’s moved away from the early Harajuku Barbie image of her mixtapes: the cover image to Pink Friday is all about how exaggerated stereotypes of femininity are distorting and damaging to real female bodies.

I heard she married Drake?
That was a Twitter joke, based apparently on the video shoot for “Moment 4 Life," where he plays a mopey Prince Charming to her fabulous Cinderella (and Fairy Godmother). She keeps her private life pretty private.

So what’s next?
It seems unlikely that Pink Friday has exhausted its possible singles; in the meantime, she’s collaborated with SNL rappers The Lonely Island on “The Creep” and seemingly continues to appear on every other single released to airplay. But don’t worry—as soon as we know what’s next, we’ll let you know.

Bedrock
My Chick Bad
Massive Attack
Your Love
Bottoms Up
Monster
Did It on ’Em
Check It Out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqky5B179nM
Roman’s Revenge
Right Thru Me
Moment 4 Life
The Creep

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