Hip-hop, for most of its history, has been a story of men. The presence of women has been tokenistic, with barely two or three female rappers given acknowledgment for their skills at any one time, and almost none enjoying the opportunities that allow for a lengthy top-flight career. Most people can recite the tiny core of names — Missy Elliott, Lil Kim, Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, Foxy Brown, Salt-n-Peppa — hip-hop has been willing to acknowledge to any significant extent, but that list has to be seen in light of the vast cadres of male rappers shown far greater respect, and as an overwhelming retort to the idea that hip-hop does not have a problem giving credit to female performers.
This is why it’s so amazing to be here in 2020, witnessing an avalanche of female talent rising to the top. Megan Thee Stallion, Young M.A., Tierra Whack, Rico Nasty, Doja Cat — there has never been such a wide array of powerful female hip-hop artists gaining a following. While we wait in hope to see if the door has been permanently kicked wide open, it’s fair to acknowledge that one individual smashed down the barriers and rolled out the red carpet for this new generation: Nicki Minaj. We’re living in the house that Minaj built and recognition that she is the finest rapper of the past decade, and one of the Greatest of All Time is overdue.
“I am doing everything the boys can and have done, plus more.”
The fundamental underpinning of G.O.A.T. status is talent and, in this regard, Minaj is a singularity: she can rap at pace or in a dozen flows; she binds her tone and delivery perfectly to the sentiment expressed; her acrobatic change-ups rely on an underrated level of athleticism to ensure total control over her breath. As a lyricist, her words are a firework display of sharp metaphors, humorous comebacks and putdowns, a rainbow of emotion backed up by a talent for wordplay. While many rappers lean into a single style from start-to-end of a song — or even a career — Minaj is alive to the potential of her performances and challenges herself on the mic, a remarkable feat given we’re ten years deep into her reign over the rap kingdom.
Wide-ranging comparisons have been made when analyzing Minaj’s abilities — Lil Wayne’s scattershot imagination; Jay-Z’s mastery of flow and structure; Eminem’s tongue-twisting and flawless annunciation at any speed — but the crucial point is that her talent is so broad that summarizing her requires references to a host of all-time-greats. Among the qualities that keep her competing at the top of the game are an extremely keen ear for high-quality beats, as well as the flexibility to find her space and sound good inside nearly any music. Rap is more than just a bloodless technical exercise, however. What elevates Minaj is the charisma, soul, and attitude inhabiting her animated cadences.
Three criticisms have been leveled at Minaj to imply that she’s unworthy of consideration as an all-time-great — none stand up to consideration. The first is the suggestion that her themes are repetitive. In truth, every rapper has their core terrain — imagine Lil Wayne without endless pussy talk, Jay-Z without drug dealing, or Drake without his sad boy musings — so it’s churlish to deny Minaj that same space. Her core is flex, the million and one ways she’s able to say she’s stronger, sexier, richer, better than anyone who might contest her. What’s heartening is that, far more than money or power, she takes the strongest pride and roots her claims in her ability as a lyricist and performer — it’s her art that’s at her center.
The second criticism is that Minaj’s music is impersonal, bubblegum, or hashtag rap. Her fierce defense of her privacy indeed mitigates against confessional raps or extensive story-telling, but it’s wrong to deny that her personal life and back-story have been a regular presence in her lyrics. It also glosses over the wide array of rap forms she’s demonstrated mastery over. This is an artist who turbo-charged Eminem’s ‘multiple personality’ model to encompass a full half dozen vividly drawn alter egos. Harajuku Barbie, Nicki Teresa, Nicki Lewinsky, Roman and Martha Zolanski each allow her a dynamic range of characters and concerns to be expressed.
The third criticism suggests that Minaj can’t be rated as a serious voice because her work isn’t overtly political. Besides the fact that many of her male competitors are apolitical, this view ignores Minaj’s focus on society’s dissection of the female body, the social expectations placed on how women can exercise power, on the necessity of financial independence when living in a country that hates its poor. While she doesn’t flag topics in a manner that has middle-class critics waving Pulitzers at Kendrick Lamar, or musing on the Nobel Prize for Literature for Eminem, Minaj has established broad topical foundations that allow her to speak to anything without being dilettantish. She bows to no one in hip-hop when it comes to topicality.
Even in hip-hop, artists’ critical standing still relies on their ability to carry a coherent long-form work. Being unable to criticize her rapping skills, or her ideas, one school has claimed that she can’t be a G.O.A.T. because her albums are compromised by having one foot in pop, one in hip-hop. While that split is visible, it’s ultimately irrelevant because it’s vanishingly rare that any of hip-hop’s acknowledged greats released a near-flawless album. To name but a few, Tupac’s All Eyez On Me was repetitive and had cheap-sounding beats; Nas’ whole career has come with a built-in shrug of “it ain’t Illmatic“; Eminem’s albums have all been so long they make for muddled listening. This point just doesn’t carry weight.
“I do not see myself as a female rapper anymore. I see myself as a rapper.”
Minaj is often described as the best ‘female’ rapper, or the queen of rap. In terms of her place in the lineage of female rappers, Minaj came into the game heavily aware of past models for female success — Missy Elliott’s off-the-wall humor; Lil Kim’s overt sensuality; Foxy Brown’s genre-straddling — and she transcended them. She has created a uniquely layered and flexible artistic persona of her own. No artist is ever free of precursors. What matters is their ability to reckon intelligently with the past, then to reimagine the spaces opened up, to make something new and distinct. The point is that Minaj has done far more than stand on the shoulders of other women.
What Minaj did was to supplant the male artists who had owned the G.O.A.T. crown since the millennium. In the afterglow of his ‘best rapper alive’ era, Lil Wayne signed Minaj, whereupon she and Drake became the steel spine keeping Young Money at the top while Wayne’s quality control ebbed. A further symbolic passing of the crown happened on stage at Yankee Stadium in 2010. Minaj was the guest of Jay-Z — who was rehashing old drug tales and semi-retired to focus on his business career — and Eminem — whose continued lucrativeness was not matched by critical reception or cultural resonance. This was the moment when the enduring legends of the game made clear she was an MVP who could play on their level.
The only other artist, at that time, who could claim such elevated status was Kayne West and this is where ‘Monster’ comes in. To his credit, West recognized Minaj’s verse on the song was the finest thing on his album — he even considered removing it — but decided it was so good it had to stay. Her verse is the acknowledged best of 2010, a single athletic minute of pure fire in which she out-performed all-time-great Jay-Z, his successor West, as well as the increasingly respected force of Rick Ross. Minaj has always had the good grace to credit the support given by artists like West, Lil Wayne, and Jay-Z, but she didn’t rise because they willed it. She earned the right to stand alongside them without gender as a preposition.
“I’ve never been afraid to walk into the Boy’s Club. Ever. Ever, ever, ever.”
What gold-plates Minaj’s claim to G.O.A.T. status is her longevity. While her competitors of yesteryear are significantly diminished figures standing on legend, no new has arisen whom Minaj hasn’t actively contested for the crown. Drake is the only rapper to have endured a decade in the same realm, but it’s not unfair — while recognizing the mutual respect between them — to point out he’s played second-fiddle to her on every song they’ve ever shared. Other contenders of recent years have ultimately, for clear artistic reasons, wound up in niches rather than reaching Minaj’s ubiquity. This leaves Kendrick Lamar as the only other rapper to rise to the top, but his success doesn’t negate or detract from her astonishing consistency.
A characteristic of Minaj’s reign has been that, since taking over from Lil Wayne as the industry’s guest verse artist extraordinaire, she has amassed a back catalog of top-flight appearances that’s nearly unmatchable in its scale and its quality. This has meant avoiding the risk of dissipation, of phoning in performances. She has never been overshadowed by a host, whether that’s Gucci Mane or Playboy Carti, 2 Chainz or Big Sean, Yo Gotti or Young Thug. She’s hip-hop’s equivalent to Serena Williams, a superior athlete whose indefatigable hard work and unbeatable competitive spirit mean she’s still winning while most fall away. Here in 2020, Minaj is still super-sizing other artists’ streaming stats.
As part of this, and a further testament to her flexibility as a performer, Minaj is in the unusual position of being one of the very few established rappers able to sound like a natural compatriot to the new generation of performers, whether she’s propelling 6ix9ine’s ‘Fefe’ or Megan Thee Stallion’s ‘Hot Girl Summer’ to career peaks; ceding the spotlight to Swae Lee on ‘Chun Swae’; giving Juice WRLD global tour exposure; being fined vast sums for breaking curfew at London’s o2 to give young rappers Ms. Banks, Stylo G, and Lisa Mercedez guest spots; or publicly raving about Malliibu Miitch, Asian Doll or Kash Doll.
It’s often mentioned as a negative that Minaj has simultaneously juggled a pop career, the suggestion being she’s tainted and compromised and therefore can’t be viewed as a hip-hop G.O.A.T. This is sheer nonsense. It takes incredible talent to be a one percent performer in one genre. It’s almost unheard of to encounter an artist straddling a top-flight career in two at the same time. This reinforces Minaj’s exceptionality while lending weight to the adage that a woman has to do everything a man does, “but backward and in high heels” to earn even partial respect. Minaj has no equal on this front, she stands alone.
While it’s a regular money-spinner for a rapper to guest on a pop song, Minaj’s capabilities in both rap and pop mean she’s taken it to a level no one else can reach. She’s guested on everything from the up-tempo production of David Guetta to the smoking soul of Ciara, from Beyoncé’s imperiousness to Justin Bieber’s global teenybopper overlordship or Karol G’s Latin chart hits. In all cases, her appetite for music has allowed her to elevate the songs she graces with her presence, and to prove her ability to rhyme with undiluted passion in any sonic space.
“You have to be able to know that you need no man on this planet at all, period.”
Mogul-status is respected in hip-hop, whether as a pose or as a reality, voiding the school of critical snobbery that dislikes factoring commercial performance into claims of an artist’s achievement. In the case of Minaj, her claim to the throne is bolstered by the fact she’s at a near unmatchable financial level. The stats are indisputable: as a singles artist, Billboard position her behind only Drake, the Glee cast, Lil Wayne, and Elvis Presley for the most Hot 100 Entries of All-Time; the chart positions for her past four albums mean she keeps company only with Eminem, Drake, Lil Wayne, Kayne West, and Kendrick Lamar; meanwhile her only hip-hop company on all-time-best-seller lists are Eminem, Drake, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, and Kayne West.
The latter achievement points to her global and cross-demographic appeal, as well as to her wider business endeavors. Wise endorsements with Pepsi, Mattel, MAC Cosmetics, Adidas and Beats by Dre; a clothing line with Kmart alongside fragrances, alcoholic beverages, lipsticks; a TV presenter gig on American Idol and occasional film appearances; private circuit performances at birthdays; savvy investments in Tidal; the ongoing ratings success of Queen Radio…Minaj has established herself as a cultural icon who is as at home goofing around in Saturday Night Live sketches as she is walking the carpets at New York Fashion Week. Perhaps only Snoop Dogg can match her multichannel presence, let alone her business acumen.
“I’d have to wear some baggy pants and Timbs for men to openly give me props.”
The use of Minaj’s sexualized public image as a way of dismissing her skill is a latter-day twist on a tactic of oppression with lengthy historical roots. In medieval England, money lending was one of few occupations open to Jews, but once they had been forced to adopt the profession, they were then crudely caricatured, thus “justifying” attacks even to this very day. Native American tribes, decimated by European diseases, were portrayed as violent savages to excuse the exponentially greater violence of settlers across several centuries. White slave owners criticized African-Americans as lazy and ignorant, while denying them education and forcing them into a labor system that guaranteed neither motivation nor reward, in which go-slows were a key mode of resistance.
As a last example, Nazi propaganda first portrayed Jews as sub-human vermin, then robbed them of their livelihoods and property, next forced them into horrendous ghettoes, before claiming that the deliberately starved and disease-ridden remnants were proof that the propaganda had been right all along. Throughout history, subjugators have forced a mask of fear and hate over the faces of their victims to justify their victims’ exclusion and erasure.
The same process has played out in hip-hop. During its ’80s-’90s independent heyday, there was space for fly girls, b-girls, sisters with attitude, and regal queen mothers. Corporate conglomerates achieved increasing dominance, then piled investment behind certain clichéd images and — against a backdrop of massive female under-representation and straight-up abuse in the business — ended the era of respect for female hip-hop artists. For the past two decades, only women who accepted a strictly circumscribed role as commoditized sex objects received opportunities, female identity was defined by pornification, and the ‘video ho’ became the omnipresent role for women in rap.
Nicki Minaj came up in an industry where women were to be seen — semi-nude — and not heard. There’s a form of victim-blaming at work in condemning Minaj for excelling in the space permitted, the game as it could be played, when the selling of the female (black) body, was not a choice — it was a requirement. It’s hypocritical too when her male compatriots’ also compromise with a hip-hop capitalism that’s built on commodified black sexuality and criminality. Similarly, it’s to her credit that she has achieved such mastery in hip-hop when the system had been fine-tuned to place far more opportunity in front of, and far greater investment behind, men.
“In any field, women must work TWICE as hard to get HALF the respect her male counterparts get.“
As part of this same process of reductionism, legitimate discussions of feminism have been co-opted, then used disingenuously by those with no great stake in the cause. This implies that Minaj’s body and image make her unworthy of consideration as a serious lyricist or performer. By contrast, no such questions regarding the warping of black masculinity, or retrograde presentation of gender relations, are laid before male rappers when evaluating their art. The criticism of Minaj isn’t made to reinforce feminism or female success, it’s used to slap down a threat to an ecosystem that requires hip-hop artists to lean on negative imagery of women drawn primarily from sex work.
The Nicki Minaj/Cardi B feud was not just another round of the media’s tired love of ‘beef’, it was a traditional demonstration of how female power is diminished. Stoking a feud reinforced the lie that two women can’t inhabit hip-hop harmoniously. Female artists are not a monolith and shouldn’t be required to like one another. The disgrace lies in the fact it took an artist of Minaj’s exceptional nature to persuade the industry to invest in women in the first place. It takes nothing from anyone to say Minaj’s trailblazing laid the groundwork for Cardi B to become the first female winner of a Grammy for best rap album and only the second solo female rapper to hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 — a shocking 19 years after Lauryn Hill.
A similar double standard is visible when one considers how uncontroversial it was for Lil Wayne’s to boast of being “best rapper alive”, or Eminem’s claiming to be the best of all-time. By contrast, Minaj’s desire for respect is positioned as presumptuous at best, that she’s a bossy bitch at worse. As a female rapper, Minaj is required not just to rap, but also to pass tests for likeability and acceptability. There are unwritten and constantly shifting standards defining how she should speak and act. What makes it absurd is that many “great” male hip-hop lyricists have committed violent assaults against women, some spit homophobic rhyme, and some have convictions for sex offenses — even murder. No record label or rabid fan one would ever dream of conjoining those issues with an appraisal of their talent.
It’s unsurprising that a decade of constantly being required to re-prove her hip-hop credentials, being spoken to as a sidebar to a plethora of male artists of the moment, would make Minaj sensitive to criticism. But nothing — not the griping around the release of Queen, the growling at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2015 — was substantially unfair comment. I may have despised the cyber-bullying of Wanna Thompson by Minaj’s Barbz, but nothing about it detracts from the quality of her art, nor do her words or deeds have to pass an etiquette censor for her to be rated as the best rapper of our era bar none.
Rappers have fallen off for numerous reasons: laziness, distraction, overindulgence, descent into ‘the sunken place’. In this era many have fallen prey to America’s opiate and prescription drugs crisis, others have lost years to legal issues or financial troubles, still more have tarnished themselves with buffoonish behavior. Minaj remains at the top because of her professionalism, she remains a beacon of devoted workaholism. There’s an underacknowledged gap between the characters she inhabits on the mic versus the reality of the admirably cool intellect who escaped the poverty trap and built her fortune. The quiet spirit who stayed 14 years loyal to a longtime boyfriend and has since married a childhood friend.
“What’s left that I didn’t do?“ ‘LLC‘, Queen.
The strength of Minaj’s legacy gives hope for significant realignment. It takes away from no one to say that her style and approach are now written into the DNA of the world’s most successful female hip-hop artists. At this very moment, Minaj’s star-power has pulled Doja Cat to no. 2 on Rolling Stone‘s Top 100 list, surmounted only by Megan Thee Stallion (featuring Beyoncé) — another rapper to have benefited from a Minaj hand up.
Hopefully, acknowledgment by the rappers who form her legacy, who stand as testimony to the omnipresence of her influence, will ensure her status is recognized. Even the most dispassionate appraisal indicates there are few areas where she is not competing with the best. Nicki Minaj has an undeniable case to be considered one of the greatest rappers of all time, an ironclad right to be deemed the dominant hip-hop talent of the past decade, and a claim for best rapper alive. Here’s to Nicki Minaj!