A version of this essay first ran at The Chicago Reader.
“I’m a bad bitch,” Nicki Minaj declares on “I’m the Best”, the opening track of her debut album Pink Friday. It’s a claim she’s made before – and the only difference here is that she doesn’t seem to mean it. Just a year and a half ago on “Itty Bitty Piggy” from her mix tape Beam Me Up Scotty she came across as a potty-mouthed cackling machine-gun, declaring her badness and her bitchiness in a deranged rhythmic repetitive sing-song that made you believe in both and really not want to meet her in a dark alley. In comparison, “I’m the Best” sounds like — well, like a rapper looking to go pop by eschewing weirdness for rote R&B backing and rotely inspirational lyrics. “I’m fighting for the girls who never thought they could win.” That’s a long, sad trip away from the profane nuttiness of: “If you see a itty bitty piggy in the market/give that bitch a quarter and a car/tell her park it /I don’t fuck with pigs like a salaam alaikum/, I put em in a field, I’ll let Oscar Myer bake em.”
I wish “I’m the Best” was an aberration. But alas Pink Fridayis filled nigh to bursting with blandness. You know those swelling, earnest, I-have-overcome bullshit tracks that even decent rappers often put at the end of their CDs where you can conveniently skip over them? Imagine you had a whole album full of that, and you’ve got a general idea of what Minaj has perpetrated. The Rihanna collaboration “Fly” sounds like a song called “Fly”; the Natasha Bedingfield collaboration “Last Chance” sounds like a Natasha Bedingfield collaboration. Just so you won’t blame the R&B songstresses, though, Minaj proves that she can suck all on her loneseome with dross like “Here I Am,” where she actually says, in all earnestness, “I’m a woman, hear me roar.” So what’s next — is she going to declare that Lil’ Wayne is the wind beneath her wings?
Quoting Helen Reddy with a straight face on a hip-hop album seems like a good indication that you have lost your way in a fairly spectacular manner. If you were so inclined, you could see this as a desperate and misguided effort to reach a mainstream audience. And it clearly is that.
But at the same time, the albums’ rudderlessness seems like part and parcel of Minaj’s persona. Switching from Barbie cuteness to rasta declamation to faux British accents to sped up tourettes, Minaj’s flow has always been about spastic incoherence. It’s no accident that perhaps her most acclaimed performance is deliberately and gloriously bipolar. In her verse on Kanye West’s “Monster,” she switches back and forth between a flirtatious little girl coo and a fierce, ranting growl, using the alternation to create an escalating momentum so massive it makes the other rappers on the track, from Jay-Z to Rick Ross, sound positively precious.
As “Monster” makes clear, Minaj has flirted throughout her career with the standard hip hop roles for women: sex kitten and ball breaker. That flirtation, though, always tends to be oddly, and in some ways refreshingly, half-hearted. Minaj may don preposterous ass-accentuating outfits in her “Massive Attack” video, or giant castrating claws in Ludacris’ “My Chick Is Bad,” but for the most part it’s remarkable how little she seems to care either about teasing cocks or cutting them off. Instead, her focus is almost always on, as she invariably says, “bitches.” One of the decent tracks on Pink Friday, “Did It On’em,” is fairly typical, as she threatens her peers with explicit machismo. “All these bitches is my sons…If I had a dick I would pull it out and piss on ‘em.”
The other side of wishing you had a dick to piss on ‘em is, of course, wishing you had a dick to do something else to them. Minaj is famously semi-closeted. Her most explicit statements of lust on record have almost invariably involved, not men, but other women. The exception that proves the rule is perhaps Christina Aguilera’s “Woohoo,” where two not-all-that-straight women serenade each other about the pleasures of cunnilingus (“Lick, lick, like a lolly.”) Or, on the other tongue, there’s Usher’s “Little Freak”, and Gucci Mane’s “Girls Kissing Girls,” in both of which Minaj hornily anticipates a (ahem) ménage, offering to hook her brothers up.
Pink Friday doesn’t have anything that hot and heavy — and no wonder. Minaj may enjoy lasciviously contemplating your “kitty cat” and asking if she can “touch her,” but she’s careful to rhyme the whole thing with “Usher.” Lesbianism is only OK packaged for male consumption. Minaj wants girls . . . but it ain’t no fun if the homeys can’t have none.
In short, Minaj can’t be a sex bomb and a bad ass; she can’t be a castrator and one of the boys; she can’t be dyke and have a career. She’s got no place to go — which isn’t always a bad thing. Her see-sawing between identities is surely a large part of her appeal and her genius. What other female rapper has claimed to be Monica Lewinsky, Barbie, and Freddie from Nightmare on Elm Street? Minaj ‘s refusal to stay in the hip hop box labeled “women” has allowed her to be silly, unpredictable, and fierce in a way that few rappers of any gender have managed.
But sometimes freedom can be a trap too. A debut is where you show the world who you are, and for Minaj that’s death. You can see the problem most clearly, perhaps, on the album’s best track — “Roman’s Revenge” with Eminem. Swizz Beatz drops the two rappers into a factory full of hammering synths, and Eminem proceeds to tear that shit apart, bouncing from S&M to pissed off Happy Meals to bondage water sports, his brain spewing tangled knots of filthy punchlines so fast that lesser mortals don’t even have time to be knocked on their ass. “So I tied her arms and legs to the bed, set up the camera and pissed twice on her. Look! Two peas in a tripod.”
Like most rappers, Minaj doesn’t have Eminem’s skills, but she doesn’t get blown away either. From her first stuttering transgender declaration, “I am not Jasmine, I am Aladdin!” she spits insults and threats, references Eli Manning, and generally sounding lean, mean, and nuts.
The only thing is…well, Eminem is up in there getting a blow job and pissing on women, you know? And in response Minaj…starts sneering at bitches again. There’s a general consensus that she’s calling out Lil’ Kim in particular, and fair enough. But can you imagine Minaj cutting off a guy’s bits and Slim Shady saying, “ayup”, and then going after some random third party? Indeed, you have to wonder if he’s glancing sideways at Minaj when he snaps (ostensibly again to Kim), “look who’s back again, bitch/keep acting as if you have the same passion I have/yeah right, still hungry, my ass.”
The point isn’t that Minaj has to fight for the rights of women everywhere. But it Is to suggest that, even at her most feral there are places she won’t, or can’t, go. “I feel like people always wanna define me and I don’t wanna be defined,” Minaj said in a Vibe Magazine interview. (in a Vibe Magazine interview). Unfortunately, on Pink Friday, that fear of being defined seems to have made her unwilling to say anything of interest at all. At some point, if you’re not going to stand for something, you might as well sit down.