We know what Nicki Minaj is doing. That the whole Barbie(TM) movement is manufactured. Yet there’s something about this that’s refreshing—a rapper seemingly comfortable in her skin, who recognizes that being an artist is just that, an art, so why not have fun with it? The doll-inspired limb movements, the girly giggles, her flow and her lyrics all show that Nicki is in on the joke, and part of that joke are her voices. Sometimes high pitched, other times deep, and often unpredictable.
Yet, the one criticism I’ve been hearing, more from men than women is: She’s dope but why the stupid voice?! Well, why not?
Aside from her visible assets, it’s her voice, like a supermodel’s strangely out-of-place mole or angular jaw, that makes her interesting. Complain about her rapping about resting a certain body part on someone’s sideburns if you will, but I could care less what voice Nicki uses, as long as it’s one that’s being heard.
If you have no problem with Ludacris using his jumbo voice and enunciating every other syllable and can still appreciate his lyricism, or Lil Wayne croaking all his verses while unleashing 1,001 similes in the process, the same should be the case for Nicki. And Busta Rhymes anyone? Or is it jarring to hear a woman be so animated? You have to be highly self-aware to be comfortable switching schizophrenically between an indoor and outdoor voice. In Nicki’s case, lines like: “It’s Nightmare on Elm Street and GUESS WHO’S PLAYIN’ FREDDIE?!” on Ludacris’ “My Chick Bad,” a song in which Luda does the same thing: "Comin' down the street like a parade. MACYS!"
The distorted syllables and inflections are all part of the act, and you can tell that Nicki has picked some of this up from Wayne. Just yesterday, I heard a remix of Jason Derulo’s tepid club track “In My Head,” wherein she drops this line: “Put me in the wall. Psyche/Smash more clubs than TIGER WOODS’ WIFEY” and then lets out a self-amused “ha!” It’s a different type of aggression we haven’t heard much from other women rappers.
When Foxy Brown and Lil Kim got hardcore, they discussed things like shooting people up and transporting stash across borders, activities that amount to romping with the big boys. With Nicki, you get the sense that the big boys want to be down with her, and not just sexually. (See: Nicki Minaj And My Relationship with Female MCs.) Jonah Weiner wrote a great “character” analysis of Nicki in a piece for Slate.com a few weeks ago, stating that: “She treats the relative absence in hip-hop of strong (and strongly defined) female voices as though it were an inviting blank canvas, not an oppressive void, and she hops from persona to persona with a license we can hardly imagine a mainstream male rapper enjoying.”
Whether consciously or inadvertently, Nicki is embracing the concept of being a chameleon. There’s too much transparency in rap these days not to. So she dresses up in Barbie costumes and crazy-colored wigs like Halloween never ended and speaks in (presumably) a British accent, but unlike Lil Kim—whom I adored but who always seemed like she wanted to actually be an ideal—Nicki seems to just be wearing the mask, at least for now. And because we can see through her, we see her clearly. —Clover Hope
Clover Hope is a senior editor at VIBE with a love jones for rhythm and blues who's written for publications such as Billboard, ESPN The Magazine, XXL and Village Voice.