In which Lindsay block quotes Eminem; ready your gag reflex.
I don’t know that I’d have made it out of bed most mornings this month without the help of Nicki Minaj’s aptly titled self-empowerment anthem “I’m the Best.” I’m at that point in the East Coast winter doldrums where it takes more than usual strength to get out the door and face another day, but the first track on Minaj’s debut album Pink Friday has been doing the trick. Opening in a gloriously overblown flurry of synthesized fanfare, “I’m the Best” is the decade-and-a-half-late female answer to Biggie’s “Juicy:” an earnest narrative of the emcee’s sudden rise to the top, a celebration of the newfound luxuries of his/her fame and, most crucially, a gleeful fuck-you to all the people who doubted him/her along the way. “See you told me I would lose, but I won” isn’t exactly the most impressive line Minaj has ever spit, but in the context of the song its unexpected simplicity and candor just destroys me. And then at the end of the second verse, she gives us this:
I ain’t gotta get a plaque, I ain’t gotta get awards
I just walk up out the door, all the girls will applaud
All the girls will commend, as long as they understand
That I’m fighting for the girls that never thought they could win
Cause before they could begin you told ’em it was the end
But I am here to reverse the curse that they live in
Especially in the last decade, you’d be hard pressed to find a verse on a mainstream hip-hop track that so directly addresses the female listener — let alone one that actually acknowledges an understanding of the contradictory “curse that she lives in” (the verse ends “To all my bad bitches, I can see your halo”). Pink Friday opens with the promise of being a radical departure from the familiar, misogynistic perspective exhibited in most mainstream hip-hop. Unfortunately, you’ll only make it to the next song before realizing it doesn’t completely follow through.
The second track on the album is “Roman’s Revenge,” a collaboration with our old friend Eminem. Embodying her male alter-ego Roman Zolanski, Minaj comes out of the gate seething, “I am not Jasmine/I am Aladdin” and continues to complicate her hyperfeminized image by literally embodying other figures of male power (“I call the play, now do you see why? These bitches callin’ me Manning, Eli”). Awesome, right? Well, yeah, it all feels pretty empowering until Slim Shady unzips and pisses on the party (no homo!):
Every last woman on Earth I’ll kill off
And I still wouldn’t fuck you, slut
[…] Bygones will never be bygones
So won’t be finished swallowing’ my wad
I ain’t finished blown’ it, nice bra
Hope it’ll fit a tough titty, bitch
Life’s hard, I swear to God
Life is dumb blonde white broad
With fake tits and a bad dye job
…there’s more (upon anticipating what comes next after a line that ends in “maggot,” you think, “Really, Em? Still?”), but you get the point. As someone engaged in the familiar struggle of being a hip-hop fan and a feminist, my issue with Eminem’s verse is one I’ve had countless times before: I can appreciate his virtuosity on certain parts of this track, but on a gut level I’m totally repulsed by it. As a female listener, I don’t even feel the possibility of address in this verse; I feel lumped in with the generic grouping of “every last woman on Earth” that Em would render extinct just for the sake of a played-out punchline. But coming immediately after “I’m the Best” (arguably the most directly feminist track she’s ever done) and even Minaj’s gender-bending verse on “Roman’s Revenge,” Eminem’s brutish intrusion is even more disappointing. The contrast between these two tracks is a pretty clear embodiment of the “curse” that Minaj and other female rappers live in: the more mainstream success they aspire to, the more they feel they have to compromise or dilute their feminism. “Roman’s Revenge” is a reminder of the rules of the mainstream rap game from which Pink Friday could have been a welcome escape — and a reminder of who and what Minaj will have to to align herself with if she wants to continue winning.
Before the long-awaited Pink Friday was released in November 2010, Minaj had built her reputation on a couple of mixtapes and more than a few scene-stealing guest verses on other artists’ tracks. Her most famous guest spot was on Kanye West’s maniacal epic “Monster.” On the track, Minaj — the only female among the many guest rappers on West’s acclaimed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — spits the best verse of her career: following none other than Jay-Z and making his lines seem utterly forgettable in comparison, Minaj addresses her critics with pure, theatrical fury (“If I’m fake, I ain’t notice ’cause my money ain’t”) and, by many accounts, steals the whole album in a little over a minute.
That Pink Friday doesn’t live up to the hype surrounding the irresistible weirdness of her “Monster” verse isn’t a huge shock: the bar was set unbelievably high. But when Minaj was still just one of the most sought-after guests on other people’s tracks, there was a sense of mystery surrounding what her own album would sound like — and what the rules would be like on her turf. Pink Friday‘s disappointment is that it finds Minaj playing it safe rather than playing to her confrontational strengths. The album’s singles have been saccharine, radio-friendly songs (“Right Thru Me,” “Your Love”) celebrating her man (even though she’s made the point in countless interviews that she’s too busy to date; when Out magazine asked her about her sexuality, Minaj described an attraction to women but says she doesn’t date them, before adding, “I don’t date men either”) or songs that feature guest spots from popular male emcees like Drake and — perhaps the least confrontational dude in mainstream hip-hop — will.i.am. Right before Pink Friday‘s release, Minaj told Rolling Stone her five-year plan: “a film career, a perfume line, a clothing line and possibly records that feature her singing as much as rapping.” As we all know, women don’t usually achieve that sort of mainstream world domination by sticking to a particularly radical or confrontational feminist message; Audre Lorde, as far as I know anyway, never got to see her face on a bottle of perfume. But if that’s what Minaj wants, then who’s to say she owes us something else?
Well, Jasmine Mans, for one. Mans, a slam poet and University of Wisconsin student, made a stir with a video of her performing “The Miseducation of Barbie,” a poem about Minaj (seriously, you need to watch this). A lot of people have misunderstood Mans’s intention: a Google search of her name comes up with such catty explanations as “Jasmine Mans vs. Nicki Minaj” or “Jasmine Mans disses Nicki Minaj,” but “Miseducation” is a critique of the systemic ills of women in rap rather than an attack on Minaj herself. It’s also a challenge: “I dare Nicki Minaj to be a PHENOMAL WOMAN and not a phenomenal Barbie,” Mans has written about the piece. Given the contradictory standards to which women are held in the industry and the narrow pathway to mainstream success, Mans’s dare will be difficult to meet. But in her poem, she speaks to that yearning we’ve all felt for an articulate female voice in the mainstream rap game: “Girls like me have been waiting for centuries/For a woman like you to stomp stiletto on history.” Time will tell if the shoe fits Minaj, or if we’ll have to keep waiting.