Nicki Minaj flips the script on hip-hop hypermasculinity with her album Queen

  • Written by Tara Colley, Casual lecturer, United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney
Nicki Minaj in the music video for Chun-Li, from her latest album, Queen. Youtube

Nicki Minaj’s Queen, an album four years in the making, is the latest in a recent surge of new music from a particular generation of rap titans. In rap’s fourth decade, as the entertainment industry at large reckons with an apparently longstanding culture of sexual abuse and harassment, what are we to expect from the pre-eminent female rapper?

Though its title might suggest a merging of the personal with the political, this album is primarily a contemplation of Minaj’s sustained success and her particular relationship with sexuality and power. Queen sets out to reassert Minaj’s status as the alpha woman of the rap game, a characteristically explicit message to her rap rivals and pretenders to the throne.

In a musical landscape currently saturated by the irrepressible personality of Bronx-based rapper Cardi B, and in the wake of 2016’s embarrassing beef with fellow rapper Remy Ma – who, in her scathing diss track “ShETHER” accused Minaj of sleeping with dozens of men in the rap game – Minaj’s fourth album needed to impress.

Queen’s mix of ultra-feminine pop tunes and bona fide gangsta snarl recalls Minaj’s previous albums. That she has consistently straddled the distinct personas of gangsta boss and sexy pop siren without truly committing to either has become her signature. Her chameleonic ability to match, even surpass, some of rap’s most verbose (Eminem), witty (Kanye), filthy (Lil Wayne) and pop-friendly (Drake) is also what makes her claim to the throne so precarious. Rap fans all want more from Minaj but seldom agree on which version.

Read more: Friday essay: the sounds of Kanye West

One song that has attracted significant attention is Barbie Dreams, a reworking of Notorious B.I.G.‘s Just Playin’ (Dreams) and Lil Kim’s Dreams.

Instead of revelling in gratuitous fantasies of sex with R&B singers like the song’s two predecessors, Minaj chooses instead to reject and belittle the gamut of her male rap contemporaries. Highlights include the already iconic lines “Drake worth a hundred milli’/Always buying me shit/But I don’t know if the pussy wet/Or if he’s crying and shit”, and “Had to cancel DJ Khaled boy/We ain’t speakin’/Ain’t no fat n—- telling me/What he ain’t eatin’.”

This song, which Minaj has already defended against misinterpretations of her insults as “disses” (true insults), demonstrates the trickster persona at the root of hip hop culture. “Eshu”, an Orisha (spirit) of the Yoruba religion, has been traced through African diasporic cultures all the way to hip hop and is thought to be a significant inspiration for the rapper or “emcee” tradition. He is characterised by his combative but ultimately tongue-in-cheek spirit of the mischievous wordsmith.

In the era of #MeToo, dozens of famous women have exposed the wrongdoings of their male peers, rendering themselves vulnerable in the process. While none of the men Minaj names in “Barbie Dreams” have been accused of misconduct (and she insists they are friends who are in on the joke), there is, nonetheless, a cathartic quality to the way she flips the script on rap misogyny.

The queen of rap’s response is perfectly on brand: Minaj wields rap’s hypermasculinity to emasculate and scorn the men who continue to benefit from hip hop’s everyday misogyny.

In doing so, she uses a contentious brand of “girl power” that is distinct to hip hop and frequently critiqued from both within and outside of rap circles. Hip hop, especially in its mainstream and gangsta iterations, is routinely characterised as misogynistic.

While a disturbing amount of rap lyrics are undeniably degrading and offensive to women, rap’s intrinsic hypermasculinity doesn’t have to be used like this. In other words, while rap is seldom politically correct, it is not inherently sexist. Minaj’s work taps into an undernourished but treasured tradition of female rappers taking up the mantle of hypermasculine braggadocio and skewering their male counterparts with the same apparent delight.

Read more: Five women to watch (and listen to) in Australian hip hop

Is Queen’s self-absorption, its obsession with establishing Minaj’s singular claim to rap supremacy, often at the expense of other female rappers, problematic?

Rap, like many popular music genres, has been historically dominated by male artists, and there are too few female rappers whose voices break through to the mainstream. But expecting Minaj to extend overt support and encouragement to up-and-coming female rappers on the basis of feminism is to overlook one of the central tenets of rap as both an art form and a sport. At its heart, rap is about combat.

Crew-based nepotism aside, male rappers do not jump to support new artists on the scene and are quick to identify worthy adversaries in the perpetual contestation over who is kingpin. Accordingly, some of Queen’s standout tracks – including LLC, Majesty, and Ganja Burns – display Minaj at her most confrontational, eager to decimate her rivals both real and imagined. “You wear a Nicki wig and think you can be Nicki?/That’s like a fat n—– thinking he could be Biggie,” she raps on Ganja Burn.

Queen does not reconcile the multiple personalities that have long been at the heart of Minaj’s vexed relationship with hip hop “authenticity”. But it is her most coherent body of work to date. The album presents Minaj at her most confident yet, suggesting that in the age of overexposed social media celebrity, she is still most comfortable behind her personas. This is why the most celebrated bars from the album so far are among her cattiest – being fake is Nicki Minaj at her most real.

Tara Colley does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Authors: Tara Colley, Casual lecturer, United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney...

Read more

More Articles ...

  1. How 'bling' makes us human
  2. Technology hasn't killed public libraries – it's inspired them to transform and stay relevant
  3. Six things you should do when reading with your kids
  4. They shall not die in vain: how the Islamic State honours its fallen soldiers – and how Australians do the same
  5. To keep patients safe in hospitals, the accreditation system needs an overhaul
  6. Can Australian streaming survive a fresh onslaught from overseas?
  7. View from The Hill – It's time for Turnbull to put his authority on the line
  8. Five questions about Nazi Germany and how it relates to Australian politics today
  9. Turnbull dumps emissions legislation to stop rebels crossing the floor
  10. What happened in the Bawa-Garba case and why was reinstating her the right decision?
  11. This is what policymakers can and can't do about low wage growth
  12. VIDEO: Michelle Grattan on the NEG showdown and a ray of parliamentary unity after Fraser Anning's racist speech
  13. Drought, wind and heat: when fire seasons start earlier and last longer
  14. Aretha Franklin and her community opened their doors and their hearts to me
  15. The majority of people who see poaching in marine parks say nothing
  16. Friday essay: where is the Great Australian Opera?
  17. Ten habits of people who lose weight and keep it off
  18. How to get away with fraud: the successful techniques of scamming
  19. Tokyo's heatwave suggests risky temperatures for the 2020 Olympics. Here's what the city can do
  20. Vital Signs: Turkey shows the economic pain of global democratic backsliding

Just in from around the World



True Hut Village won the AusMumpreneur Digital Innovation Award

It takes a village. A Melbourne Mumpreneur has grown a village for parents both online and offline. ...

Weatherproof Wonder - How to Stay Active While Avoiding the Elements

Winter is here and it’s a cold one, that’s for sure. It can be really tempting to fill up the hot ...

Getting Started in the Increasingly Popular World of Online Gambling

It is hard to remember a time when we did not have access to the internet. The World Wide Web has ...