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Nicki Minaj shattered rap's glass ceiling — but never stopped fighting

Nicki Minaj performs onstage at the 2022 MTV VMAs at Prudential Center on August 28, 2022 in Newark, New Jersey.
Arturo Holmes
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Getty Images

"You have to be, like, a beast. That's the only way they respect you." A shock of neon in an otherwise beige studio, it's 2010 and Nicki Minaj is ranting. She's noticed that when guys like her mentor, Lil Wayne, act like divas, it goes differently than when she does. "When I am assertive, I'm a bitch. When a man is assertive, he's a boss!" she goes on, her dopey boyfriend nodding along from the couch. Her theater-kid roots are showing as she performs an impression of "You're fired!"-era Donald Trump, a man who gets what he wants when he wants it. "But when you're a girl, you have to be, like... everything. You have to be dope at what you do, but you have to be super sweet, and you have to be sexy, and you have to be this, and you have to be that, and you have to be nice, and you have to..." But then, she's ashamed. There's a camera crew filming all this for a documentary, and the Nicki Minaj who looks like an acid-trip Barbie and just delivered the hardest rap verse of the past decade (on Kanye West's "Monster") isn't supposed to stress about this stuff. "Don't use this footage, please," she says. "It's just gonna make me look stupid."

If you'd asked me then what feminism meant to me, I'd have sent you a link to that video. This was the beginning of an era that often conflated female empowerment with female entrepreneurship, when people got very excited about concepts of female corporate supremacy repackaged as activist fantasies. Looking back at the supposedly uplifting pop culture artifacts of that time, there's a lot to cringe at. But that Minaj speech still gets to me, because it's clear how much the topic weighs on her, and because I know what happens next. With four platinum records and more Hot 100 hits than any woman in history other than Taylor Swift, she will become the most commercially successful and creatively influential female rapper of all time, and she will have earned it. For a few years, she'll have a legitimate claim to the title of best rapper alive; for a few more years, she'll blur the lines between rap and pop and performance art with such fearless panache that even her critical flops will feel like breakthroughs, her most tossed-off guest verses more interesting than some of her peers' entire catalogs. For the better part of a decade, Nicki simply existing as Nicki — an oddball perfectionist outworking everyone to shatter rap's glass ceiling — felt like a radical act. Along the way, things changed: rap, the internet, fandom, feminism. Maybe Minaj did, too.

Last month, Minaj achieved another milestone: her latest single, a fun Rick James flip called "Super Freaky Girl," debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart, the first time a female rapper's done so solo since Lauryn Hill's "Doo Wop (That Thing)" in 1998. That this was a first for Minaj seemed odd. Doesn't it feel like that ought to have happened years ago — maybe with 2014's super-viral "Anaconda," the new song's obvious predecessor? It could've been any number of the career-spanning hits she tore through Sunday night at the VMAs — the charmingly weird "Super Bass," the villainous "Chun-Li," the totally bugged-out "Roman's Revenge" — where she co-hosted with Jack Harlow and received this year's Video Vanguard Award. Accepting her trophy in pink sequins and ice-blue contacts that gave the effect of a sexy, scary baby, Minaj appeared almost shy. "I wrote this down, I don't know why, y'all, but this was in my spirit to say," she read breathlessly from her phone. "I wish that Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson were here. I wish people understood what they meant and what they were going through. I wish people took mental health seriously, even for the people you think have the perfect lives."

In her most revealing moments — that sad video from 2010, a weirdly contentious New York Times Magazine profile in 2015 that painted Minaj as a drama queen, or an anecdote about a near-death experience tucked into a 2014 BET Awards speech that felt like a cry for help — it has often seemed that Minaj is profoundly unhappy, even at the top of her game. I associate her career's peak with the years between Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded (her most underrated record, with indescribably bonkers vocal performances on tracks like "Stupid Hoe" and "Come on a Cone" alongside some fun experiments in dance-pop) and 2014's emotionally raw The Pinkprint, an album with a startling number of references to pill popping, even for that moment. Those were contentious times, with culture wars waged over Nicki's duality. She spent the period effectively closing the case as far as her pandering to a teenybopper audience, or so said old heads like Hot 97's Peter Rosenberg. The radio personality, who had proclaimed that "Starships" was "not real hip-hop," later emphasized that the "Starships" chicks were being sidelined during Minaj's headlining set at the 2012 Summer Jam: "I'm not talking to y'all right now, f*** that bulls***. I'm here to talk about real hip-hop s***." She'd taken note of these assessments, too, dubbing The Pinkprint a return to her hip-hop roots. In between that performance and the album, there was the run of remixes, my favorite being her hysterically rude take on PTAF's "Boss Ass Bitch," during which no rapper's single was safe from Minaj sinking her claws in and claiming it as her own (in a mode mirroring Wayne).

Maybe Minaj had gone a tad commercial, loading her campy videos with spon-con and pumping out party-rock anthems for Bud Light, but she occasionally managed to make selling out look avant-garde, too. More importantly, her pen game never faltered. ("Bitches ain't got punchlines or flow / I have both, and an empire, also," she growled on the 2013 bonus track "Up In Flames.") Minaj never really needed to explain herself to anyone who found Mixtape Nicki and Pop Nicki at odds, like when she closed the deluxe edition of Roman Reloaded with a defensive 20-minute "press conference": "These other bitches that only did rap and now they're washed, and they're living in low-income housing — is that winning? Just so that a n**** in the street can give me a f****** dap? ... Get the f*** out of here!" It often seemed, in any case, that it was her visual presentation the Rosenbergs of the world were responding to: the candy-colored wigs, the burlesque outfits, the greased-up six-packs in the "Super Bass" video. Whether she was spitting like she did in her Smack DVD days or performing gonzo femininity over sparkly EDM beats, I mostly just liked it when she sounded like she was cracking herself up.

From the era I consider as Minaj's creative peak, the 2015 VMAs ceremony stands out as a moment of reckoning. Weeks beforehand, the nominations for Video of the Year had been announced; "Anaconda," the most talked-about music video of that summer, wasn't one of them. "If I was a different 'kind' of artist, Anaconda would be nominated for best choreo and vid of the year as well," Minaj had tweeted pointedly, punctuating her statements with sardonic smiley-faces. "Black women influence pop culture so much but are rarely rewarded for it." Her comments activated two of that moment's Main Pop Girls: Swift, America's sweetheart, who accused Minaj of not being a girl's girl, and Miley Cyrus, the Disney Channel star turned self-styled twerk queen, calling Minaj angry and "not too kind." Onstage to accept her award for Best Hip-Hop Video, Minaj turned to Cyrus, that year's host, with a glare that could wither houseplants, pressing her about her comments. A month later, in the aforementioned Times Magazine profile, Minaj clarified her position: "You're in videos with black men, and you're bringing out black women on your stages, but you don't want to know how black women feel about something that's so important?" she said, clearly still upset. "If you want to enjoy our culture and our lifestyle, bond with us, dance with us, have fun with us, twerk with us, rap with us, then you should also want to know what affects us, what is bothering us, what we feel is unfair to us." She was asking for Black women to be acknowledged as human beings rather than trends; commentary that remains prescient and is corroborated over and over in pop, most recently by the case of Megan Thee Stallion.

It's never not been a battle for Nicki Minaj, whether it's against hip-hop's gatekeeping boys' club, the racism thriving in pop music's upper echelons, the condescending press, or the catfighting with newer rivals after years of being lonely at the top. So it wasn't too surprising, during the lead-up to her fourth album, 2018's Queen, when Minaj rolled out a contemporary new marketing strategy: She'd become a s***poster. The day before her album's release, she debuted a new Beats 1 program, Queen Radio. In theory, it was a platform to connect with her fans in an era that prioritized engagement over art — in practice, it was a well-oiled controversy creation machine and a way to sic her loyal Barbz on enemies real and perceived. Upon learning that Queen had debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart, she let loose a stream of tweets that blamed everyone from Travis Scott (whose Astroworld album had taken the top spot) to Spotify, adamant that this could only be the result of sabotage. Citing her own streaming numbers like receipts, Minaj went off. "Do you know how many women get systematically blackballed out of their positions in an office building & can't fight back?????"

A month earlier, the 26-year-old culture writer Wanna Thompson shared a thought: "You know how dope it would be if Nicki put out mature content?" she tweeted. "No silly s***. Just reflecting on past relationships, being a boss, hardships, etc. She's touching 40 soon, a new direction is needed." In response, Thompson received weeks of hate mail from Minaj's fans, and a message from Minaj herself: "Eat a d***, you hating ass hoe ... Just say you jealous I'm rich, famous intelligent, pretty, and go!" If Minaj meant what she'd tweeted about women being blackballed, apparently the sentiment didn't apply to the apparatus she'd built around herself as one of the most famous people alive, leveraging the might of her success against another woman's constructive criticism. As if to reiterate Thompson's point, that same month, a new Minaj song dropped: "FEFE," a collaboration with 6ix9ine, who raps in belligerent baby talk and was, at the time, awaiting sentencing for a conviction on the "use of a child in a sexual performance." Watching the two pal around in the video, sharing ice cream cones and singing about how they didn't need friends, I found myself cringing — not because I believe a man's sex crimes are Minaj's responsibility, but because the whole thing was embarrassing. It was obvious the duo were giddy at the song's potential to piss people off. Minaj, taking her cues from 6ix9ine's stylebook, sounded downright lobotomized. They've since collaborated twice more, most recently on a single called "Trollz" (it debuted at No. 1).

But it isn't Minaj's responsibility to be a feminist role model, either. It's not really my business whether or not she makes space for fellow female rappers at the top. (In recent years she has been, giving her blessing via guest verse to everyone from Megan to Doja Cat, the truest current heir to Minaj's pop-rap throne and with whom she now shares a manager.) Last year's lawsuit brought against Minaj and her husband, Kenneth Petty, is a bit more complicated: A woman, whom Petty assaulted in 1994, alleged a pattern of harassment by the couple and is suing for emotional distress and witness intimidation. Minaj was eventually dropped from the lawsuit; Petty was sentenced this summer to three years of probation and one year of home detention for failing to register as a sex offender. Some seem to hold her accountable for his actions. What people have come to expect from stars in the decade-plus since Minaj infiltrated the mainstream often feels unfair, or at least unrealistic — beyond all the requirements she exhaustedly listed in that studio 12 years ago, you must now be morally unimpeachable, too. Feminist conversation has shifted since then toward topics of intersectionality that often feel cursory, or used to ward off public scrutiny. (Cue Swift enthusiastically lip-syncing along to Minaj's performance at this year's VMAs.) It's no wonder that stars seem so desperate to control their own narratives, insisting they're the winner, or the victim.

It's been sad, though, to see Minaj's obsession with winning often come at the expense of her art — to see one of the most gifted, inventive voices of a generation caught up in engagement metrics that devalue music and make modernity feel lame. She has dulled her brilliance for a monochromatic streaming infrastructure built to reward mediocrity and punish idiosyncrasy. Listening back through a few of Minaj's recent collabs with a new generation of tough-girl rappers, it barely even seemed fair: the sleepy sing-song currently in vogue can sound like radio static when compared to the dynamism, the elasticity, the sheer spectacle of any given Minaj verse. Call me a hater, or old, or whatever, but you probably know it, too.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Meaghan Garvey