*The first installment of PITNB‘S NEW popCULTURE CLUB: theoretically putting the “culture” back in “pop culture,” one post at a time…
This is hella weird. If you’d told me two years ago that I’d one day be coming to the defense of Nicki Minaj I would have laughed, then cried, then laughed again. Nicki Minaj, I would have said, will never need me to defend her. She’s doing just fine; even if I never buy any of her albums, even if I think she is an abomination, she’ll still be doing quite well for herself. In other words, the rich and famous never need to be defended by the non-rich, non-famous people of the world.
But today I think Nicki Minaj does need defending. And not because of Summer Jam. She’s on her own with that one.
Like Ann Powers at NPR Music (who wrote this amazing piece on Nicki Minaj, Madonna and Female Pop Icons), I see something in Nicki that is worth thinking or theorizing about, something worth defending to the people who are offended by her, annoyed, or relatively indifferent (I’ve felt all three, sometimes simultaneously). And I don’t defend her for her sake (again, I’m sure she’ll be fine with or without this blog post); but, for the sake of her audience. And whether we like it or not we are all apart of her audience. At some point today, and for many days to come, we will probably hear or see the name “Nicki Minaj” and we will either smile, giggle, frown, rejoice, or—if we are the women of my mother’s generation—probably roll over in our graves.
Knowing all of this—and knowing that I have had all of these reactions to her persona or her music (minus the rolling over in the grave one… but whatever the land-of-the-living version of that is), I admit again that this is weird. But I feel like some things should be said.
I’m on the neutral side when it comes to Nicki. I’ve never been a huge die-hard fan, nor one of her Barbs. And I’ve never loathed her music entirely, or felt like she marked the end of a civilization, or the downfall of women, or black women, or mankind entirely. I always felt like she was entertaining, and that she could on occasion even spit hot fire… and sometimes, spit the worst crap ever. I’ll admit to being wishy-washy about her, which might even be what “neutral” really means. However, one thing I always disliked about her was how closely she sometimes resembled Lil’ Kim in performance, persona, and delivery. We, as artists and as people, all “steal” from each other. It’s called “learning,” or “creating.” But I believe in giving props where props are due, and as a huge Kim fan, I wanted Kim to get her props for being one of the many influences on the one we call Nicki Minaj, which is why I thought Kim was right to make the diss record, Black Friday. We saw a similar issue with Madonna and Lady Gaga over Born This Way/Express Yourself, where one artist’s refusal to acknowledge his/her relativity to another artist can be annoying and hella disrespectful. Nicki (like Gaga) stands on the shoulders of giants, and I know that the Queen Bee is one of those giants. Other than that, I didn’t really have major beef with Nicki. But I also never loved any of her songs or videos… that is, until I saw Beez In The Trap.
Um, why did I just like that video? I asked myself, as I watched the final scene of Beez In The Trap, with 2Chainz dancing around Nicki like a totally adorable idiot. And then I remembered, Oh yeah. This is how I like my rap music. Of course I love lyrical and so-called “conscious” rap too, but not always. A lot of the time I like this music to sound like rap (like what I think of when I think of rap); not like Barbies trying to rap, not like poets trying to rap, but like rappers trying to rap. And I like my rap videos to look like rap videos, for the most part. I don’t want to see princesses and spaceships and a whole lotta pink in my rap videos. Ballerinas, yes (if you’re Kanye), but otherwise, no to that whole movement aka all the other Nicki Minaj videos I did not like. But Beez In The Trap: yes, please. Well, no, to her third verse, and—obviously—the song is not a lyrical track. But it is very much a rap song, and it serves its purpose (for those of us who legitimately like rap music); it entertains without too many over-the-top distractions. [Insert Nicki Minaj booty joke here].
Also, this was a different video for Nicki Minaj. It may seem like a typical rap video, but it’s not typical for her, and I liked that. I liked that she looked sexy, instead of weird (it was a nice break). And I liked watching her and those other two girls dance. Why? Because I’m into chicks? Maybe. But more likely, because they didn’t look like video girls to me, they just looked like girls. Ok, severely under-dressed girls, but still. They reminded me of girls at the club everywhere; girls who shake their asses, show off their bodies, but dance together and for themselves, without any guys around them, really. My friend Michelle took one look at the video and said, Oh! She’s her own video ho. Great! And I explained that I thought that too, at first. But then saw something different. I said, Michelle, if you put a little more clothing on those girls, you’re lookin at you, me, and Nimone (our other friend) at Webster’s Hall (big NYC club) like 5 years ago. She knew I was right. There we were, in Nicki‘s Beez In The Trap video. I went on to say that 2Chainz was that guy who comes up to you and you kinda let him dance “with” you because he’s not really bothering you or touching you, and he knows it’s still your world and your party. I mean, Nicki looks like such a Boss [Bitch] in the final scene!
This is something no video girl can ever pull off! In fact, I remember watching Jay-Z and Beyonce in the Crazy In Love video, and that scene with Jay’s verse always bothered the mother-loving hell out of me because B just looked like the prettiest video vixen in the world, like Jay‘s hot little prostitute… cute though they were. Do you remember that scene? That moment felt disempowering as a woman. And I’ve never been into them (as a couple) since. Plus I’m terribly jealous of Beyonce. I friggen love Jay. (sidenote, love every second of the rest of Crazy In Love, especially the fire hydrant bit…)
But I digress; the bottom line is, based on this video, Beez In The Trap alone, I do not find Nicki Minaj to be disempowering, or totally wack as a rapper. And it has a lot to do with the dancing; how she dances and with whom she dances tells me everything I need to know. Sounds cray, but it’s true. Her dancing is sexy, the video is sexy; not sexual. This is because Nicki is sexy, but she’s rarely sexual. Which is why you see little girls take pics with her, and it’s not creepy. Or at least, it’s not that creepy. It kinda makes sense.
Now Lil’ Kim, that is a sexual rapper, the sexual rapper. I haven’t heard all of Nicki’s songs, but I know she does not do what Lil’ Kim (and Foxy Brown, and Trina) did on wax; they did very bad, naughty, glorious things. None of her lyrical content in Beez In The Trap has to do with sex; it’s cocky and playful. Like the dancing, this tells me that Nicki is not really being sexual. And I think there’s an important distinction between the two. My children, for example, are sexy. But unless we’re in a psych class talking Freud, they are not sexual. Big difference.
What most interests me about Nicki is that I know she made a conscious decision to do this; to be sexy without being sexual. Because when I first saw Nicki she looked like this (see the very obvi Lil’ Kim resemblance):
And the love of my life, the mixtape King (as in, the authority) was like, She’s actually good. She can rap! And I was like, Right, of course you think that; her vagina’s in your face making you talk all crazy. I went on to point out that every major video vixen always says she really “raps” or “sings” and is just using video ho-ing as a starting point. Like strippers “saving up” for “school.” C’mon now. I told him that nobody who looked like that could ever be taken very seriously (or achieve success), for very long as a rapper. And I’d like to think that somewhere, Nicki was agreeing with me, and decided to take a different route. I’m proud of her for going this route, for being weird and ridiculous (or at least for playing that up), and I’m proud of her for shaking her ass in the Beez In The Trap video.
Why does that make me proud? Because, oddly enough, it reminds me of something my mother taught me. I will never forget being a kid and going to Boston’s West Indian Day Parade with her (sure, nothing like NYC’s parade, but still a big deal), and seeing the Trinidadian girls in the parade doing things in public my mother would have shot me for doing; they were dancing. But it also kind of looked like they were having sex (with each other, with the men, with the pavement), and I couldn’t believe my Mom (professor of African studies, and Women’s Studies, and everything smart and cultural and empowering for blacks and women) was happy to bring me here and to have me all up in these X-rated moves. When she saw the look on my face she said to me, It’s cultural, Shannon. It’s not sexual; that’s how they dance over there. This was also her way of saying, if you’re not Trini and you’re not in a parade, you have no business dancing like this. Nicki Minaj is, by the way, 100% Trinidadian and definitely, I think, in the middle of some kind of parade.
My final point in my defense of Nicki Minaj is gonna sound, well, bad. Here goes: I liked Nicki’s Beez In The Trap video performance because it made me think, Finally! She looks like a black girl. This is politically incorrect to say, especially considering what I can assume is my demographic on this blog. But eff it. I said it. She FINALLY looked like, what I think of as a black girl and I know that we are—like girls of all ethnicities—too varied and too different to be put in a box. But let’s be real. When I say “white girl” an image pops into your head. And it’s the girl at the beginning of A$AP Rocky’s Purple Swag video, minus the grill. Or better yet, it’s Britney Spears circa 2000. And when I say “black girl” an image pops into your head, unless I say artsy black girl or awkward black girl or punk rock black girl. See what I mean? It’s ok, we’re all friends here. I hope.
I liked seeing Nicki Minaj up in the club—looking very Nicki—but also looking like she was glad to have succeeded as a pop icon, so that she could FINALLY be her Trini-Queens-black girl self (kind of like she is in the top video, featuring early Nicki).
That’s right. Black girls. After we leave our Black Lit class at Sarah Lawrence. We be up in the club. Big booties. Shakin them. To sub-par music our parents would be embarrassed to know we shake our butts to (just like their parents before them were embarrassed by their kids’ music). We throw shade. We make guys dance funny. Kind of like all girls, everywhere.
At least we do until we grow up, have kids, and/or go to grad school and/or join the ‘real world,’ and then we only relive those moments through videos like Beez In The Trap.
So for that flashback to my early twenties, I say, thank you Nicki Minaj. If nothing else, you are—on many levels— a cultural phenomenon. And that is no small feat for a Queens girl.
*Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this week’s popCulture Club post in the comments. Is Nicki Minaj an artist or an abomination?*