Wednesday, February 29, 2012

How Are You Doing? Nicki Minaj a True Rap Renegade

I truly love the Non-White Afrostocrasy’s (NWA's) quirky sense of priority. A quick rundown of recent events: 

- Billy Crystal uses the memory of Sammy Davis Junior as an excuse to do blackface at this year’s racially tense Oscars. NWA: At least Octavia won, poor, poor Viola.

- Petrol companies continue to wreck environmental and political havoc in Africa’s most populous country. NWA: Yawn. Can you believe gas is gonna hit $5 a gallon?

- Nicki Minaj’s Grammy performance. NWA: BOYCOTT NICKI MINAJ! BOYCOTT NICKI MINAJ! 

In `Moment of Clarity’, Hova famously raps, “If skills sold, truth be told, I'd probably be/Lyrically Talib Kweli/Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense/But I did 5 mill' - I ain't been rhyming like Common since”. The best rapper alive admits to dumbing down his music (or at least masking his intelligence) because commercial audiences are aggressively stupid.

If you’re outraged by or dismissive of Nicki Minaj chances are he’s talking about you...Yeah, I'm going there.

Nicki unquestionably plays to the lowest common denominator. But, those who care to listen -and think - know that there's much more going on. Maybe…just maybe she’s holding up a mirror to today's women, shining a light on femininity constructs and exploiting society's unflinching amorality.

One of rap’s creeds is: expect to be misunderstood. And, even for artists not on a Lupe Fiasco like ‘esotericism’, the craftier the composition the more likely it is that you’ll be explaining yourself to people not particularly interested in understanding. Why? Because certain audiences are committed to seeing things through  lenses of stereotype and self-serving prejudice. Like really, who thinks that 'uneducated' black people are capable of complex narration and masterful socio-historical critiques?

There isn't much reason for rap artists to entangle themselves in the `does life imitate art?’ debate. Mos made it plain on `Fear Not of Man’, saying, “We are hip-hop…next time you want to find out how hip-hop is doing, ask ‘how am I doing?” And, if you want to get all afro-cultural: from the days of village djelis and before, `black' performance artists operated in a tradition of ‘call and response’ and improvisation. The (post) post-mods have just caught up, telling us that 'the audience is part the‘text’’. 

Hip-hop’s been on this, though. What’s an OTT freestyle if not recognizing audience reaction as a co-author? And, the 18th letter already told us what 'mc' means.

Going back to Hov’s plays on ‘common sense’ we see that, musically and lyrically, even hip-hop’s literal meanings can’t be appreciated without reading context (i.e., 'audience reaction') or tracking a subtext conveyed through progression, multiplicity and allusion. Fact is, subtlety and critique don’t move the crowd much these days. So making money makes an emcee. Or does it?

Biggie’s Ready to Die gives you your sex and violence ration, sometimes hilariously and other times chillingly. But, its a critique of the (Black) American Dream: the complex of expectations - and deprivations - set black kids up for mental health problems and early graves. It's probably B.I.G.’s spin on his one-time roommates’ T.H.U.G.L.I.F.E (The Hate You Gave Little Infants Fucked Everybody) theory. For goodness sake. Just look at the album cover: a baby picture is captioned `Ready to Die’.

The album begins by dramatizing antecedent action. A sound-montage establishes music as a marker of time. Or even a setting of sorts. Through dialog and transition, the sound-play depicts critical transitions in B.I.G's life: joy at his birth gives way family dysfunction, his precocious criminality leads to a violent juvenile delinquency, his imprisonment and release beget uber-crimey aspirations. The first song, `Things Done Changed’, describes B.I.G’s return to his Brooklyn neighborhood. The inciting force - the question - is an existential crisis particular to life in a 90’s American bantustan. Memory provides a contrast which contextualizes his resumption of criminal life: a vision of an idyllic past, where kids “pitched pennies” and “shot skelly” is crashed by a mercenary reality. The Crack Trade has turned child's play into a high-stakes, zero-sum sport. Sample choices compellingly echo these pressures and shifts, marking B.I.G as a man out of time.

'Things done changed up this side/Remember they used to thump, but now they blast right?' is lifted from Dr. Dre’s “Little Ghetto Boy” which depicts the rise of gun culture in South Central L.A. It too links current conditions to past political events. Its intro takes us to something reminiscent of a Black Panther rally: impassioned talk of racial solidarity and co-operative economics. The song’s first verse is narrated by a young man who proves himself in a prison riot; the second, tells the story of an ex-con, OG gunned down by a younger gangster he had up for a mark, the third act brings closure and context: Snoop Dogg explains that gang life and making money in the drug trade makes a man a `real man’. Underscoring the progression is Snoop signifying as a Crip: a L.A.-based gang that had its origins in a Black Panthers community organization. These allusions bring even more weight to `Little Ghetto Boy’ and consequently to B.I.G.’s quiet paranoia in `Things Done Changed’. 

And, it gets weightier still.


‘Little Ghetto Boy’ is a remake of a Donny Hathaway’s song of the same name. Hathaway’s version though was an inspiration anthem, rooted in a “Up with Hope-Down with Dope” Civil-Rights ethos. It empathizes with a boy growing up in the ‘hood, but then challenges him to overcome his reality. Not only that. Through resolve, and I guess and 'content of character', ghetto boys are to change the 'hood for the better. It’s grand ol’ American bootstrapism gone soul. Snoop’s response to Hathaway’s questions helps scare any inkling of conscience right out B.I.G.

The sampling in “Things Done Changed”, rich with political allusion and import, puts a palpable 'adapt-or-die' pressure on the soon to be tragic hero. And, in the fractal sampling pattern there’s a ‘fuck you’ to the ancestors. I mean, just what are we to make of adults publicly committed to justice but selling 'the revolution'? Or watching from the sidelines - selling hope and DIY redemption - while a familiar program of `racialising’ disenfranchisement unfolded?

Biggie survives these socio-political constructs. More than survives, actually. `Juicy’ celebrates his living the dream. But the album’s mood changes immediately. His conscience returns and self-disgust plunges him into depression. He then kills himself. His 'unmaking' underscores then flips the album’s theme: even if you do `make it’ (Black) American dreaming is killer.

In the 90s few people responded to that meaning. Our filters, aversions and investments - our dreams - just didn’t allow for that kind of engagement. But Ready to Die was an instant success. A hybrid. It's street credibility and `mainstream’ success changed the course of East Coast rap music. The 'glorification' of sex and violence however sparked outrage. Outrage that coincidentally (?) promoted the album but didn’t help anyone understand what a deep social commentary it was. The intermingling of judginess and willful ignorance continues in how we, who should by now know better, receive Nicki Minaj.

Much of the NWA either doesn’t 'get' Nicki or choose to see her as an airhead 'selling out' for fame and fortune. It’s understandable. Fake boobs. Fake butt. A rather liberal use of make-up. The wigs. Airs and affected accents. But, there's a catch. With a sort of 'it's-mine-'cause-I-bought-it' posturing, Minaj is unapologetically artificial. How's that 'fake'? Taking in her lyrics makes it impossible to have her up as just some affected dummy. Don’t believe the hype. Don’t dare believe that Minaj isn’t a real emcee or that as a story-teller she's incapable of the kinds of allusions that brought chilling dimension to Ready to Die. Trey Songz’ `Bottoms Up’ for example is a carefree club song, but, Minaj is very crafty with her allotted 16.   
She begins her verse by asking, commandingly, that Trey buy her some very specific hoity-toity drinks. Then, Minaj ups the ante, assuming the voice of `hyper-sexed' ingénue: King of the Hill’s Luane Platter to wring out of Mr. Songz a bottle of Dom Perignon Rose. It's dear: costing about $1000 in the club. Nicki flips, bragging about having men so weak that she doesn’t have to say `hello' to get the ultimate wifey props: keys to the Benz. She gets suddenly defensive; protecting her privilege and yet 'proving' independence by threatening to go upside a rivals' head then 'making it rain' on her. Minaj regains her composure, apologizing and returning to a now less convincing Luane impersonation to smooth things over. See, it's a 'Young Money’ thing. And really they do some good stuff for people. Really...Slim and Baby haven't been bad influences at all. 

Nicki then mimics Trey's lothario crooning to get herself more looks from women and in the process likens herself bi-sexual Playboy bunny Anna Nicole Smith. (It’s easy to miss how she’d already shouted out one tragic starlet: it was Em’s 8 mile co-star Britney Murphy who voiced the Luanne character). With “Say hi to Mary, Mary and Joseph”, Minaj suggests Smith's made it to heaven and then drinks, on Trey's dime, to the memory of her fallen sister.

Minaj’s signifyin’ sequence offers plenty. The calculated voice switching says: `I’m not really a bimbo but I’m having fun playing one to get what I want.’ How affected is that? Women everywhere claim to 'dumb it down' so as to not have men feel threatened and  'play' `male hegemony’.

Guess they're kind of like rappers.

And, there’s a slightly morbid twist to Nicki's allusions. By shouting out and mimicking the siliconed-up centerfold, as well as voice-actress Britney Murphy - both of whom died of prescription drug complications – Minaj’s saying something like, ‘Yes I know this might end quiet badly, but until then, wheeeee!’ She's ready to die. Pink Friday shows her to be profoundly ambivalent about what she’s 'had to do make it’. It also shows that she's given some thought to the girls looking up to her.

After the credit card swipe heard round the world, the women of Spellman college declared enough was enough. They partnered with Essence Magazine to launch the Take Back the Music (TBTM): a campaign intending to curb the misogyny in rap music. Mainly through manufactured outrage, racial appeals and shaming tactics.

No one bothered ask just who the fuck listens to Nelly? Or who’s idea it was to include that particular gag. Or why didn't Essence, owned by Time-Warner Publishing, devote its considerable insider clout to the cause? Nope. There was public misogyny and hurt feelings: the victim-privilege opportunity machine flew into high gear.

Conferences were held. A few rousing talks were given. But, the campaign accomplished little: it didn’t stop videos from getting more explicit. It didn’t stop some times pretty accomplished women from fighting for the chance to skin-out in rap videos. And – quite notably – it didn’t make the industry's female execs, managers, stylists and PR- types 'want to take back the music'. 

It didn’t even break a single new female artist.

About the time TBTM was in its death throes Onika Maraj was still a relative unknown. The Port of Spain transplant had had a tumultuous childhood in Queens; living with a crack addicted father and witnessing domestic abuse. She’d attended LaGuardia Performing Arts School, depicted in the series ‘FAME’, and focused on Drama, but left school before graduating. By 2007, she was appearing on mixtapes and in DVD’s. That Nicky didn’t quite have the polish we see today: much less of a split-personality black Barbie and more 'hood chick as likely to crack your brow with the mic as spit fire into it'. She did though create a buzz. And, the rest is a Cindarella story: “discovered” by President Wayne Carter 'Nicki Lewinsky' was whisked away to luxury and unprecedented ‘success’. Minaj was the first female rap artist since 2002 to top the charts; the only artist ever to at once have 7 songs in the top 100 and, as of this writing, Pink Friday's  sold 1.7 million units.


Her debut LP though makes no attempt at sustained narrative. For the most part, the beats are boring, cotton-candy affairs. It’s a pop record. But, there are insightful flashes that offer glimpses of unutilized depth. Wit infuses and adds substance to her persona(s). And, Minaj has cribbed wisely from her influences: she borrows Lauryn’s insight, Foxy and Kim’s bad-bitchedness, Remy’s menace and Missy’s weirdness. The voice changes, punch-lines and extra-ordinary rhythmic sense, are skills that no rapper - male or female - besides Busta can lay claim to. And though Nicki’s since depicted herself as a rapping blow-up doll, Pink Friday had little fucking, innuendo or even the sultry yearning of Miseducation. Yet, I found the album intriguing for some of the same reasons I was initially cool to Lauryn’s solo effort. 
There’s a disarming soul-baring, and more singing than I expected. Tracks like “Right Thru Me” and “Save Me” make it pretty clear that Minaj is a layered personality managing self-destructive streaks. “Dear Old Nicki” is an ode to that ‘Come Up DVD’ girl who the media skewered and Now Nicki sacrificed to the Gucci gods, a decision she now regrets, certainly more than Jay-Z did: ‘Did I chase the glitz and glamour money fame and power?/ ‘cause if so that will forever go down my lamest hour’. In `I’m the Best’(bitch doing it), reminiscent of Jay's 'you wasn't using it right' comeback to Nas' claim that Jay bit his style, Nicki basically raps the song as Lil' Kim. And, while sinking her nails into the Queen Bee's throat, the new and improved black barbie acknowledges 'women’s struggle' and her role in it: “As long as they understand/That I'm fighting for the girls never thought they can win/’Cause before they could begin you told them it was the end/But I am here to reverse the curse that they live in.” Empowering, no? 'Fly’ with Rihanna is estro-triumphalism that Minaj ends on a motivational note, “cried my eyes out for days upon days/ such a heavy burden placed up on me/ but when you go hard your nay's become yay's/ Yankee Stadium with Jays and Kanyes”.  Sly. Because when next to those two on wax she showed everyone what a real monster sounds like.  

Let’s speak of monsters of another kind. In 2001 the Catholic church faced a slew of civil suits: it emerged that in the U.S., Mexico, Belgium and Germany, priests had been - for decades - diddling boys. That wasn't all.  Often church officials were aware of the abuse but covered it up: re-assigning pedophile priests to new jurisdictions. Most just found fresh victims. Many Catholics questioned their faith – or lost it outright. The Vatican was moved to action: John Paul declared those rapes to be spiritual sins, and ordered new screenings for priests and church workers. They'd get tough on child abuse. He opposed, however, extending the statute of limitations likely because that'd limit the church's exposure to criminal charges.

In summer 2011, Pope Benedict’s `sex-abuse adviser' (I'm not making that up), Riccardo Seppia, was allegedly caught soliciting boys for coke-fuelled sex parties.  It turns out that the good father asked specifically for boys with `family problems'. This year, cases continue to make the news: in January a class-action suit filed in 2007 against the California Diocese was settled for an unprecedented $600 million. In the agreement, the Diocese didn’t have to admit any wrong-doing. 

I didn't watch the Grammy's. And haven’t listened to Nicki in a while. Been busy. But, when I heard that she attended the ceremony with the Pope on her arm and in character as `inexplicably’ angry gay boy Roman Zolanski, my first thought wasn’t: `that Nicki Minaj what a ‘Stupid Hoe’.' I was thinking she’s saying something about the cyclical and institutional nature of sexual abuse. And, given Minaj's history of gay rights advocacy and what was all over the news just weeks before, how could one not?  

Predictably, everyone was outraged and confused by Minaj's exorcism of Roman. Granted, her Grammy performance wasn’t coherent - or accessible - but there was an obvious attack of church child abuse. Yet, the NWA muses over a Minaj boycott. As if. Emboldened the Catholic Church went on the snark offensive: claiming that Minaj might truly be possessed. Others just went on and on about how clueless and ho-ish Nicki was and that we ought not bother with her. It was a pretty effective, and suspicious, `shutdown'.
There’s a Kat Stacks interview from a few years back that’s simply vile. On Hot 107.9, though obviously drunk, Kat goes into autobiography, breaking down to break down in detail the child sex-slave trade that thrives in virtually every major U.S. city. What was particularly disgusting though was how Kat's story received. The hosts pretend to care then use Kat’s sex-work background (which stemmed from her being forced into child prostitution) to undermine her persona and, conveniently, dismiss all she’d said about how ingrained the sex-slaving of children is in the U.S. The `Durtyboyz' displayed the kind of callousness that cowards master: they ignored what was made plain, and refused to see Kat in a way other than what was for them socio-emotionally convenient.

Some women claiming to be feminists have had harsh things to say about Nicki Minaj. They see a ‘sexualized’ black woman - and despite sexual expression being marketed by women as a preferred form of ‘empowerment’ or the subversive streak in Minaj's work - part-time feminists straddle the highest horse and gallop off to their Hansberry Readers. Or, worse yet, they dig up Saartjie Baartman’s horror story of racial spectacle, sex-work, dismemberment and macabre enshrinement in L'Ouvre to frame things.

That reaction though isn't too far removed from the one Kat Stacks received in that 107.9 interview (or the one Baartman got for that matter). Its the (neo)colonial status-building tactic of `othering'; seizing upon – or inventing - a particular image then responding only to define the 'other'. How masterfully these responses unfold, and how justice tropes are invoked, makes me wonder who the real phony ‘sell-outs’ are.

And maybe that's been Nicki's point.

While it’d be a stretch to 'prove' that Minaj presents an intelligible polemic on post-modern femininity I promise you someone, somewhere, maybe even at Spelman, is frantically clacking away on ‘On Onika Maraj becoming Nicki Minaj: Mirage play, the work of  De/Constructing the Black Female Body and the Impossibility of Knowing’. Or some crap. It wouldn't be entirely off base. Minaj is pastiche; a clever absorption and critique of her forerunners. And she gives us plenty reason to believe her Minaj character is a caricature of society's own contradictions animated by our failures as listeners and our worship of `success'. A product of her environment.

A test: Without the plastic surgery, the “fakeness”, the gimmicks - and controversy - how many of us would have known of little Onika from Queens? 

And, what would her NWA critics give to see Nicki’s next album produced by Missy and executive produced by Queen La? And feature Jean Grae, Eve or some phenomenal femcee we've never heard of? What would they give to see it distributed by a company owned and controlled by Nicki? Probably nothing. The NWA'd not ruin a chance to appear morally superior by pretending to care.

So. Say, how are you doing?

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