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In An Industry That Prioritises Male Artists, Nicki Minaj Is Resuming Control With 'Queen'

12 September 2018 | 3:11 pm | Cyclone Wehner

"The roll-out of 'Queen' has been accompanied by drama, controversy and counter-narrative."

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Nicki Minaj should be feeling triumphant. The Queens MC has finally presented her much-hyped comeback, Queen – an album that celebrates her lyrical prowess, longevity and legacy. Over summer, hip hop's Cleopatra will return to Australia to headline FOMO 2019. But the roll-out of Queen has been accompanied by drama, controversy and counter-narrative. Minaj is now resuming control.

The theatrical Minaj heralded her ascension when in 2010 she blitzed Kanye West's Monster. Officially premiering with Pink Friday on Lil Wayne's Young Money Entertainment, she'd become hip hop's most successful female artist. The rapper, singer, diva, aesthete, actor and one-woman-brand last issued an album, The Pinkprint, in 2014. In the interval, she remained ubiquitous via guest spots – notably rapping on Migos' MotorSport alongside The Bronx artist Cardi B. Still, as her fourth outing, Queen was always going to be career-defining. In 2017, Cardi, who achieved internet fame as a personality stripper, blew up with her trap banger Bodak Yellow. This year, the underrated Latina followed through with an acclaimed debut, Invasion Of Privacy, topping the US charts. Inevitably, Minaj and Cardi have been relentlessly set against each other. At a Harper's Bazaar event during New York Fashion Week, Cardi allegedly hurled a shoe at Minaj before shading her on Instagram. She implied that Minaj had queried her parenting skills (Cardi has a baby with Migos' Offset). Minaj expressed her "mortification" over the altercation – and refuted the accusations – on her Beats 1 show, Queen Radio.

Unfortunately, of Queen's singles, only Chun-Li charted significantly (oddly, Bed, Minaj's slinky duet with Ariana Grande, was slept-on). Minaj likewise successively changed the album's release date (admittedly hardly an anomaly in hip hop). This perceived chaos made pundits cynical. The pushback didn't cease with the LP drop. Minaj railed when, because of the modern marketing machinations behind Travis Scott's ASTROWORLD, Queen failed to reach #1 Stateside. She (dubiously) proclaimed herself "the new Harriet Tubman". But, for all the negative discourse, Queen has been well reviewed. Minaj broke Twitter with Barbie Dreams, a flip of The Notorious BIG's playa anthem Just Playing (Dreams), in which she jests various male MCs – Drake included. It now has a puppet video from Hype Williams that is comic genius.

Meanwhile, Minaj continues to be called out for fostering the problematic Brooklyn cloud rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine, who in 2015 pleaded guilty to the use of a child in a sexual performance. Minaj not only graced 6ix9ine's single FEFE, but also invited him on tour – the North American dates of which have been postponed from this month to May 2019 so she might rehearse an extravagant show. Of course, the speculation is that ticket sales were dismal. Minaj hasn't taken such commentary passively, charging critics with riding a "Nicki Hate Train" and vilifying her. Regardless, even here, Minaj has faced scrutiny for her role in precipitating a toxic online Stan subculture – elements of her fan legions, named The Barbz, cyberbullying detractors. Indeed, she's cast more as Mean than Queen. But, if Minaj is hyper-defensive about her legacy, she could have justification. Being a black woman in the male-dominated hip hop world involves battle.

Minaj is a powerful analyst of misogynoir. Again on her Queen Radio podcast, she incisively critiqued the cartoon of tennis champion Serena Williams at the US Open Final by Mark Knight for the Herald Sun – a cartoon that has been condemned globally. Minaj honed in on how black women's anger is depicted in popular culture. (And she awarded Knight "Cocksucker Of The Day".)

In 1990, the Compton, California rapper Yo-Yo sparred with her mentor Ice Cube on It's A Man's World – which resonates today. Pop's female icons are invariably invalidated through ageism – ask Madonna. That sexism is heightened in hip hop, which relies on generational turnover. The seasoned Miami rapper Trina has steadily released albums since 2000's Da Baddest Bitch. Nevertheless, hip hop fans are not exactly vibing on her upcoming LP The One – even with guests like 2 Chainz. This phenomenon conceivably accounts for Minaj's furious indignation at Canadian hip hop writer Wanna Thompson over an otherwise unobjectionable critique on Twitter. In questioning the age-appropriateness of Minaj's music, Thompson identified her anxiety: "You know how dope it would be if Nicki put out mature content? No silly shit. Just reflecting on past relationships, being a boss, hardships, etc. She's touching 40 soon, a new direction is needed." (In fact, Minaj is 35.) Mind, Minaj is a survivor. The Pinkprint dropped in the same year as Iggy Azalea's The New Classic but, in 2018, the contentious Australian is deemed passe. 

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Originating with battle culture, competition is integral to hip hop as both a form of entertainment and as a determinant of excellence. During the '90s, rivalry between performers was exploited for promotion. In the digital era, it's fuelled by the industry, media and fans. Yet hip hop's female artists are routinely established as adversaries in a way that exceeds battling. The narratives thematise territory and rule: Who is sovereign? Lineage is important in hip hop. But, as much as rappers are expected to 'bow down' to their forerunners, hip hop is increasingly evolving through rupture and iconoclasm. In 1996, Brooklyn allies Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown became opponents when their debut albums (Hard Core and Ill Na Na, respectively) were scheduled within a week of each other. Years on, Kim clashed with Minaj, claiming the arriviste was biting her steez (she cut the regicidal mixtape Black Friday). Currently, it's Minaj versus Cardi B. 

Female rappers are tokenised. In the '90s, every crew, label or male MC sought a ride or die chick – but she was expendable. Though Foxy Brown styled herself as a gangsta Bonnie to Jay-Z's Clyde on their collab Bonnie & Clyde Part II, Hova bonded with new R&B girlfriend Beyonce on the Kanye West-helmed follow-up, '03 Bonnie & Clyde. The rap industry prioritises male artists. Female rappers are frequently sidelined by labels. In 2014 Detroit's DeJ Loaf inked a deal with Columbia Records on the basis of her buzz single Try Me. But, while the Eminem-endorsed MC has recently aired back-to-back singles, her album, Liberated, is still unrostered. The assumption is that only one 'femcee' can run the game. As such, hip hop has many slumbering princesses. 

Lil' Kim, aka "Queen Bee", has long reigned as "The Queen Of Rap". Joining The Notorious BIG's supergroup Junior MAFIA as a teen, Kim emerged as its star. On her solo project, Hard Core, she ushered in a streetwise NY playa rap with a feminist subtext, revelling in her sexuality, aspiration and empowerment. Kim was tagged "The Black Madonna". But, apart from Foxy Brown, there was another contender for 'The Queen Of Rap' title in Philadelphia's glamorous Charli Baltimore – also BIG's mistress/protege. Signed to Lance "Un" Rivera's Untertainment Records, Baltimore released the sharp af single Stand Up with the Wu-Tang Clan's Ghostface Killah (and RZA producing). Alas, her album Cold As Ice – with further beats from DJ Premier – was shelved. Baltimore bounced to Murder Inc, home of Ja Rule. Again, no album surfaced. 

The Daily Mail and Fox News have been criticised for shaming Cosby Show actor Geoffrey Owens – lately working as a cashier at a grocery store in New Jersey. However, for years hip hop heads have gossiped about Amil, Roc-A-Fella's former First Lady, reputedly holding down day jobs at anywhere from Walmart to Macy's. In 1998, Jay-Z introduced the New Yorker on his hit Can I Get A… with Ja Rule. Sadly, Amil's debut, AMIL (All Money Is Legal), floundered – despite the presence of Beyonce on the single I Got That. She vanished. In 2014 Amil graciously told Billboard that she simply wasn't committed to rap: "I faded myself. No one faded me."

Pre-Minaj, Eve conquered the pop realm. A gamechanger, she presaged the rapper/singer trend. Eve did struggle. The ex-Philadelphian stripper generated buzz on aligning herself with Dr Dre's Aftermath Entertainment. But, here, she was neglected as Dre focussed on developing Eminem. Switching to the Ruff Ryders fold, Eve eventually premiered with Let There Be Eve... Ruff Ryders' First Lady in 1999. Later, she enjoyed a mega-hit with a (Dre-produced!) Gwen Stefani collab, Let Me Blow Ya Mind – winning a Grammy. Ironically, the self-described "pitbull in a skirt" shaded both Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown for their rumoured dependency on ghostwriters ("Some of y'all ain't writing well, too concerned with fashion"). After three big albums, Eve was seemingly exiled to the indie wilderness with 2013's Lip Lock. Astutely, the charismatic Eve prepared for vocational lulls by pursuing acting roles (first starring in Vin Diesel's xXx) – something Minaj has emulated. She now co-hosts CBS' daytime chat show, The Talk.

Ambitious, Minaj has been accused of being an opportunist feminist. Paradoxically, she has capitalised on her feuds and dramas in the viral economy while decrying them. Like her Rebel Heart pal Madonna (and Lil' Kim), Minaj subscribes to a postmodern corporeal feminism: celebrating (or commodifying?) her sexuality. Yet, in an Elle cover story, she incongruously rued, "I didn't realise how many girls were modern-day prostitutes." (And, in sub-dissing Cardi B in Queen's Hard White, she raps, "I ain't ever have to strip to get the pole position.") Conversely, her defence of Serena Williams emphasised her body positivity: "Our culture and our community loves this woman's body, by the way."

Discord aside, Minaj has demonstrated solidarity to female rap peers. She's consistently supported Foxy Brown, who joined her on stage back in 2012. Minaj's having Brown cameo on Queen's Coco Chanel has revived the Ill Na Na's fortunes amid years of legal and health woes following 2001's Broken Silence. But Kim may have won the beef with Minaj by regally bowing out. Queen Bee (who previously declared herself Team Cardi) declined to discuss Minaj's titling an album Queen in an interview with Los Angeles' Real 92.3 about her own comeback, instead challenging sexist narratives. And it's even possible to rule as a female hip hopper and largely avoid warfare: just study the universally revered, and relevant, Missy Elliott.