It Was Always Nicki, Nicki, Nicki....Until It Wasn't
Now that girls run the world, Nicki Minaj is at a crossroad.
Welcome to the 35th issue Backseat Freestyle. This is my weekly hip-hop newsletter I send out every Friday focusing on one big thing that happened over the past seven days. I also include links (15-25 of them) to what I’ve been listening to, reading and watching. You can check out the archive, here, and read more about me, here. If you’re already a BF subscriber, thank you for your continued support. If you’re arriving to this issue by way of a forward, LinkedIn or social media, please subscribe below. And please share this newsletter with your circle so that they can enjoy it, too; personal referrals are my best path to long-term growth. With that said, let’s get into it….
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This is what’s driving hip-hop this week….
I WANTED TO bring back Backseat Freestyle after its hiatus with a piece talking about Nicki Minaj’s sound and what it would be on her forthcoming album. This was after the Lil Baby collabs but before "Super Freaky Girl." It would be an attempt to examine her as a superstar who relied on radio play prior to streaming dominance. What would be next? Along the way, well, a lot happened. And it made me recall the sympathy I have for Nicki being pedestal’d as the one notable female rapper for so long and the effect of that tokenism. Also, I couldn’t get past how she was lashing out at everyone, even those trying to pay homage. That crown got crooked.
Respect my mind or die from lead shower.
THERE’S NO MISTAKING the dominance of Nicki Minaj.
She has eight music videos on YouTube with over one billion views. She has 21 Top 10 singles (including solo tracks and her features). She was the first female rapper to appear on MTV’s Hottest MCs list and when RapCaviar solicited fan suggestions for the fourth slot on a 2010’s Mount Rushmore of Rap, she easily joined Drake, Kendrick Lamar and J.Cole.
For all these achievements and more, Nicki was recently the recipient of this year’s Video Vanguard Award.
What struck me the most about the MTV honor, however, was how the network created another award to serve as a more prestigious nod: Global Icon Award, which was presented to the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
"Nicki told the cameras at the end of the clip, 'you have to be a beast' to deal with the politics of the music business."
In the past, that Vanguard award was the preeminent honor. There wasn’t another level when Missy Elliott, Britney Spears, LL Cool J or even the RHCP’s were tapped at the top dog of the night. But this year there was.
It reminded me of what most would associate as Nicki’s finest moment, her song-stealing 16 on Kanye West’s “Monster” record. That Kanye wanted to bury, for either Jay’s verse only or cut the entire song, because he was afraid everyone would think she killed it. She did.
There’s a clip from the MTV documentary, “Nicki Minaj: My Time Now,” (at the 30:15 mark) where Nicki is visibly bothered by something and someone; if my memory serves me correctly, that was about Kanye and the ordeal over “Monster.”
It’s like Nicki couldn’t win for losing.
She told the cameras at the end of the clip, “you have to be a beast” to deal with the politics of the music business.
So she did what she had to do.
I never thought it was easy for her, regardless if she chose to be a beast or not to protect herself. Case in point, her oft cited streak of seven BET Awards in a row for Best Female Rapper. Yeah, it was exulting for her but when the streak finally came to an end as Remy Ma took the award one year, the loss only heightened a tension between the two, whether it was real beef or just the sharp elbows between two talented artists with pointed bars.
"Nicki doesn’t need to be the current queen, in the same way that Jay-Z doesn’t have to be what Drake is."
For so long, Nicki was so good that the industry didn’t aid the culture of women in rap by supporting or nurturing new talent. Just shrugs that perpetuated the lie that glam cost makes the investment less financially prudent. For years, Nicki was the female rap business.
Of course, that’s not the case today. There’s never been more talent at one time. What used to be Nicki’s World is now inhabited by Latto, Rico Nasty, Flo Milli, Rapsody, GloRilla, Ice Spice, Megan Thee Stallion, and the current queen, Cardi B.
Nicki doesn’t need to be the current queen, in the same way that Jay-Z doesn’t have to be what Drake is.
She can be something different and that’s what I originally wanted to explore by way of her sound; I’m all the way in on the “Do We Have A Problem” and “Bussin.” Same for “We Go Up.” She’s the OG on both records with the young boys gleefully riding shotgun. Likewise on Coi Leray’s “Blick Blick!” where Nicki leads the way.
Then “Super Freaky Girl” arrived. It went number one on the Hot 100 yet it sounded like a retread, a version of Nicki we already heard before. Personally, I was disappointed. But a hit is a hit.
The remix quickly proved to be an upgrade, as Nicki put the spotlight on a slew of talent with the Queens Mix that rarely got that kind of shine, particularly Katie Got Bandz and Maliibu Mitch. (The record is fire and the way Nicki stays present throughout to serve as hype-woman is dope; also, Bia floated on her verse.)
"Emblematic of the entire thing, perhaps, was when, in an interview, Latto remarked that female rap is thriving and it turned into a controversy."
What would have normally been a triumphant moment was overshadowed by another remix, Megan Thee Stallion’s “Plan B,” which featured Lil Kim, who’s punchy lines were interpreted by the Barbz as tee’ing off at Nicki: "Nigga, you's a bitch, your father's a bitch, your brother's a bitch/Keep acting like this and your son gon' be a bitch," Kim rapped on the portion in question.
Kim took to IG to clarify that the lines were in keeping with the theme of the song about exes and the remix never appeared on DSPs after premiering on Hot 97.
From there, though, Nicki went scorching hot tea party (which extended from Twitter to Queens Radio). She fired back at the Shade Room for pitting women against one another, including her and Coi Leray, but then Nicki also seemed to be throwing a shot at Coi with a comment about “entitled duds.” Her fan base were riled up and Nicki super charged them, even at the expense of a woman who questioned such behavior. The women is suing Barbz; Nicki also has a lawsuit against a blogger.
It’s gotten ugly.
Emblematic of the entire thing, perhaps, was when, in an interview, Latto remarked that female rap is thriving (although with clunky phrasing that Nicki isn’t the only rapper out now), and it turned into a controversy in and of itself whether it was a dis or was Latto equating herself to a legend like Nicki.
It was exhausting.
To Latto’s point, it was all about Nicki. That was good then, but the Queens rapper has inspired a generation. Now it’s more than just about Nicki—it’s about her and the new crop who look up to what she’s done—and for someone who had to shield herself for so long and “be a beast” there’s an ugly side that reared its head.
It hasn’t always been easy to be Nicki. Nicki also doesn’t have to make it so hard for us to remember that. Maybe it’s not about us wondering what her actual sound will be, but instead about her navigating the challenges of who she's becoming, who she’s been, and the experience for her along the way.
The beauty is she wouldn’t have to be a beast to do that.
Music, news, reads, podcasts and videos that I’m checking for.
- Admittedly, Freddie Gibbs isn’t someone I was absolutely all in on; I think he has a particular flow that can be uneven on songs but when he lands he lands. His latest album, he’s an Avenger with the landing. Superhero. $oul $old $eparately is outstanding, even more so considering all the acclaim his collaboration albums have and this is arguably his best work. “Too Much,” “Lobster Omlette” and “Decoded” are early favorites. [Listen]
- YG is nothing if not consistent and he’s a lot more thoughtful on his records than he gets credit for. I Got Issues is another introspective set from the Compton rapper. Peep “No Love” for some vintage West Coast heat. [Listen]
- A tag-team tandem I could stand to hear more from: Smino and J.Cole. The pair get busy on “90 Proof,” a slow burning funk number from the former’s forthcoming album.
- Man, listen, this Unc & Phew project feels like it’s gonna be a banger. Because the singles are there. The latest, “Nothing Change” by Quavo and Takeoff,” is out of here. The Migos are so good and so influential, it’s easy to take them for granted. Especially if they don’t hit their standard. But when they do? Sheesh. [Listen]
- Gonna put more time in over the weekend with Kid Cudi’s new album, Entergalactic (and Netflx companion), but I like him snatching up a son of his, Don Tolliver, for “Somewhere to Fly.” [Listen]
- RIP to Coolio. He might be best known for “Gangsta’s Paradise,” but he entered the game on the grind and keep it real his entire career. [Info]
- ATL Jacob is making moves with a new deal via Republic Records. [Info]
- Swizz Beatz and Timbaland settled their lawsuit with Triller. [Info]
- Moneybagg Yo is definitely a favorite of mine and I really enjoyed this profile of him by Jon Caramanica in The New York Times. [Read]
- A lot of folks are high on J.I.D’s latest album (it has some good ass moments, but the sequencing isn’t there, for me; dope project just not among the year’s best imo), here The Ringer takes a look at The Forever Story being a step toward greatest things for the young spitter. That, I can agree with. [Read]
- Harlem on the rise! Cam’ron is a really good listen when he wants to be; check him out with Gillie and Wallow. The Ma$e episode was excellent too.[Listen]
- The RapRadar pod is back (just like Backseat Freestyle, ya dig!) and Ell and B.dott did a nice job with this Alchemist and Roc Marciano conversation. [Listen]
- Simple but effective, Rome Streetz’ “Non Factor” clip featuring Westside Gunn is potent (from his new album, Kiss The Ring.). There’s a way underground rappers can be predictable, but Griselda does a good job of flirting with those conventions without succumbing to them. Maybe that’s a future newsletter topic. [Watch]
- Everything about GloRilla and Cardi B together and this video for “Tomorrow 2” is perfect. [Watch]
- EST Gee has a heater of a new album on his hands in I Never Felt Nun and “Backstage Passes” with Jack Harlow is good way for him to bend toward the mainstream without breaking to chase mass appeal. [Watch]
Backseat Freestyle is written and produced by me, Jayson Rodriguez, for Smarty Art. If you have any comments, feedback or questions, feel free to email me: [email protected] If you would like to discuss sponsoring an issue of the newsletter, contact: [email protected] smartyartllc.com and check out the rates, here. And follow me elsewhere:
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