Competition? Why yes, I would love some.
– Nicki Minaj, “Check It Out”
When Nicki Minaj enters a song, it’s like all the doors of a house blow open. In Gucci Mane’s laid-back “Haterade,” she’s not going for fireworks as in “Monster” or “Roman’s Revenge”; her rapping is quick and clipped, as if she’s making an effort to keep her cool. Even before she starts rapping, she’s sucking in breaths between her teeth, because nothing is more frustrating than being underestimated.
The in-your-face-haters spirit of her opening lines–“This one goes out to all of my critics / Don’t you feel stupid? Look how I did it”–has a long history in hip-hop. Think of Biggie, dedicating Ready to Die to “all the teachers that told me I’d never amount to nothin’, all the people that lived above the buildings I was hustlin’ in front of that called the police on me when I was just trying to feed my daughter.” When everyone else expects you to fail, some swagger upon proving them wrong is more than warranted. Moreover, there’s a reason braggodocio is so fundamental to hip-hop: if no one else will tell you you’re awesome, you have to tell yourself. But Minaj’s response to her critics’ low expectations is particularly interesting given her status as the only big female star in current mainstream hip hop.
As Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote earlier this summer in Thirteen, there are plenty of talented female rappers out there; however, the mainstream music industry’s cards are stacked against them. Despite such commercially successful female rappers like Queen Latifah, Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliot, Foxy Brown, and Monie Love, hip hop is still perceived as a masculine genre–primarily made by men, for men. In “Haterade,” Minaj notes that her spot at the top of the Billboard Rap charts hasn’t been held by a woman in a long time: “It’s been eight years but I broke the record.” It’s an impressive accomplishment, but why did it take so long for a song by a solo female hip-hop artist to get there?
In the song, Minaj is aware that she’s triumphed against some serious odds. Having silenced nay-sayers with her success, she next addresses her fellow rappers: “I’m all that I can be/ And I must admit I’m appalled when you envy / Cause you could do it too, and you could do it too, / I just happened to be the girl that they threw it to.” The sentiment behind these lyrics– that others who are just as talented could be in her place–is generous and rare. Most of the time, when rappers address jealous competitors, they just tell them to get lost.
The story where you’re a great rapper but you also got lucky doesn’t have quite the same sweep as the story where you’re a rap giant and success is your destiny. I’ve got no problem with the second kind of story; as Sunny Biswas wrote earlier this year at The Awl, “making people feel like superheroes for three to five minutes at a time is one of the greatest things that pop music does.” There’s a transitive property to the joy we derive from hearing Lil’ Wayne or Jay-Z declare themselves the best rappers alive; when they pump themselves up, they pump up their listeners too. But how much more interesting is it to admit, as Dizzy does in 1000 Miles to Downtown, that “some of the best rappers never get signed”? Minaj wants her competition to know that she knows they’ve got skills. They could be stars too, but that’s no reason for her not to take advantage of the opportunity she’s been given.
As much as I love the unexpected humility of those lines, I also wonder if Minaj feels compelled to bring herself down a peg or two because of her place as a woman in hip-hop. When she says she’s the girl “they” (the boy’s club) happened to throw success to, she seems to be downplaying her remarkable talent. If there were more female rappers with songs on the airwaves and videos on rotation, maybe Minaj wouldn’t need to explain her rare success at all. No wonder the woman would love a little competition.
But in addition to crediting luck and outside help for her stardom, Minaj makes hard work sound heroic. Now that she’s at the top, she’s going to devote herself to showing the world she deserves her place there. She vows, “So I’ma bounce back, I’ma ball out / And every time you see me, I’m gonna go all out.” She’s going to work ten times harder than anyone else, make critics and competitors alike spit out the haterade they’ve been sipping. There’s a reason Minaj is where she’s at. “Don’t be mad when you see me transcending,” she concludes, throwing the song back to Gucci. It might just be my imagination, but when he starts rapping again I think he sounds a little stunned. Minaj is always a tough act to follow.