Nicki Minaj is at a crossroads. Her accolades and record sales are undeniable as she’s one of the most successful rappers, regardless of gender, the game has ever seen. Unfortunately for her, rap legacies aren’t solely built on numbers. They’re built on bodies of work. And for Nicki Minaj, clearing that hurdle with her fourth studio album Queen might be tough.
A few weeks ago, Wanna Thompson, a fan and former intern for media mogul Karen Civil, stirred up the hornet’s nest when she made an observation about the South Side Jamaica, Queens rapper. Thompson tweeted how “dope it would be if Nicki Minaj put out mature content…just reflecting on past relationships being a boss, hardships, etc. She’s touching 40 soon, a new direction is needed.”
“The Barbz,” a name for Minaj’s rabid social media fan base, viciously attacked Thompson. During the ongoing verbal attacks, a question arose. Why does Nicki Minaj have to grow as an artist when so many of her male counterparts aren’t, supposedly, held to the same expectations?
To begin, every rapper has a theme central to their music, core tenets which rarely deviate from who they are and what they represent. While experimentation and expansion are encouraged and generally appreciated, most artists’ music fits within a paradigm which carries itself over the course of their career. Growth, then, is measured by finding creative ways to spin these themes without growing stale. There are artists managing to successfully pull this off.
Vince Staples is a good example. The Long Beach, L.A. rapper’s two releases from 2014, Shyne Coldchain 2 and Hell Can Wait, find him dealing with the ups and downs of a life where early death is certain and bleakness feels inescapable. Yet, he expands on the theme, and changes the presentation, throughout his catalog. The suffocating atmosphere of 2015’s Summertime 06 is sonically different from his work on Prima Donna in 2016. For 2017’s Big Fish Theory, he again deviated from past work with production fitting, according to Staples himself, the aesthetic of Detroit techno music. On the album, he wasn’t interested in being played in someone’s Toyota Camry; he wanted his music played in the MoMa.
Missy Elliot is a groundbreaking artist who has paved the way for every female rapper who’s come after her. She’s one of the few rappers of either gender whose work does not fit neatly into any category, since she was capable of giving fans so many different sides of her talent. From her 1997 debut album Supa Dupa Fly or her last album, 2005’s The Cookbook, Missy has explored a variety of vocal, production and creative styles, striving to push hip-hop forward in the process. Though her career predates social media, it’s difficult imagining anyone asking the Virginia native to show growth in her music, because nobody ever knew exactly what to expect when a Missy album dropped.
Not everyone is capable of making such a smooth transition into different phases of their careers. Some critics have commented Drake suffers from a similar perception: namely, his content hasn’t grown much since the release of 2009’s So Far Gone. This is particularly alarming given the Toronto rapper’s penchant for churning out hit records.
Drake shows an innate ability to incorporate (or, steal) other cultures and accents, but his content has, possibly, grown stale. There are only so many tales of Instagram models, and his lamenting about their loss, that fans can accept before rolling their eyes and pressing the skip button. Craig Jenkins summed this up in his Scorpion review, where he notes Drake is still rapping about “[his] obsessions over who dumped him and why, [which] are the same concerns he had ten years ago.”
The call for Minaj to align her age and lyrical content is notable since it’s debatable whether her male counterparts are held to the same standard. Pusha T, for example, isn’t burdened with such lofty expectations. His projects never amount to more than meticulously penned lyrics and metaphors about one topic, and one topic only: cocaine. Pusha mentioned fans’ complaints about his incessant drug talk during the Daytona promo run. He also noted after time passed, fans no longer clamored for a deviation of his lyrical excursions through the drug game. They were itching for the former Clipse member to give them more “dope” lines.
Fans arguing in support of Minaj are likely aware of the hundreds, if not thousands, of male rappers who take the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to music. So, the question again arises, why is she being treated differently?
For starters, Nicki Minaj is Nicki Minaj. People expect more because she’s shown that capability in her earliest days as a mixtape artist and her “Monster” guest appearance with Kanye on his 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Also, with Cardi B’s ascension aside, she’s still one of the marquee names of rap. With great power comes great responsibility and great responsibility comes with a higher bar to clear. Nicki can make whatever sort of music she wants, but she threw herself into “best rapper” conversations and loves to remind everyone she’s the Queen of Rap. It’s reasonable for people to ask her to prove it.
On the other hand, it’s disingenuous to forgo an obvious reason she’s held to a higher standard. She’s a woman in a traditionally male-dominated industry. She has to work twice as hard to get half as far and critiques about her lyrical content could be construed as having more to do with her gender than her actual skill set.
But, it’s worth noting that a self-professed fan made the request for a more mature album. That’s not something that hasn’t been asked from rappers of a similar or higher stature. Before his Grammy-nominated release, 2017’s 4:44, some were against the idea of another JAY-Z album, with the mixed reviews to his previous album 2013’s Magna Carta…Holy Grail leading them to believe that he had nothing else to offer musically.
The JAY-Z who fans heard on 4:44, however, was unlike any of the variations of previous years. Hov’s earliest foray into topics more suitable for his status as a rap veteran, 2006’s Kingdom Come, is arguably the worst in his catalog. But, after his wife Beyonce’s seminal work with Lemonade, allegations of cheating, becoming a father, facing the possibility of losing the wife and mother of his child, sparked Hov and he created something that didn’t, and couldn’t, exist at any other moment in his career. He used his current life experiences to create his best album since 2007’s American Gangster.
Nicki Minaj isn’t JAY-Z, but she’s also not another run-of-the-mill rapper trying to make a name for herself. With nearly 15 years in the industry, people are expecting more than what’s she done thus far. Minaj can continue to make the same music she’s always made, but asking her to grow up musically, isn’t unreasonable. It’s part of the game.