At present, Nicki Minaj is on top of the world. Her first two albums both went platinum, her name is known across the globe, and she performs and takes home trophies at nearly every major award show, such as last week’s AMAs. Minaj recently signed on to be a judge on the upcoming season of American Idol, and last week, she rereleased her second album with a handful of new tracks in the form of Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded The Re-Up.
Even if you’re not interested in her music, you have to respect Minaj’s unparalleled, rapid rise to superstardom. In roughly half a decade, the 29-year-old Trinidad-born, Queens-raised artist went from an aspiring singer/actress to one of the most well-known musical brands in America.
But in the process, Minaj has made career moves that have jeopardized her artistic integrity. She still has her uniquely assertive and extremely appealing flow, but her apparent obsessions with fame and money have certified that — though she’ll likely go down in history as a great businesswoman and creator of popular music — she won’t be remembered as the hip-hop royalty that her talent merits.
Minaj emerged on the scene around 2008, after being featured in a volume of the DVD series The Come Up (which is how Lil Wayne discovered and eventually recruited her to join his Young Money label). In the video, in other videos from around the same time, and on her first three mixtapes from 2007, 2008 and 2009, Minaj comes off as hard and charmingly unpolished, spitting countless sassy brag-rhymes and pulling them off, despite her then-nobody status.
Though her verses could definitely be flirty and even erotic — like on “Slumber Party” off of her third mixtape Beam Me Up Scotty — Minaj as an artist didn’t scream “sex” when she first emerged, unlike predecessors such as Lil Kim. She acknowledged being inspired by artists such as Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott, and while her cockiness was evident and unavoidable, she still maintained some modesty. For instance, in November 2008, when an interviewer at XXL explained to Minaj that she wasn’t chosen to be featured as one the magazine’s top artists for 2009 because “[s]ome people just wanted to see more product and buzz from you,” she responded, “OK. I understand that. I can respect that.”
All of these factors compiled together made Minaj a hot ticket item for many record labels and prepared her to launch a strong, solo rap career. But after she signed to Young Money in 2010, she began to transform. Suddenly, she was hypersexual, not only with her lyrics, but also with her appearance, having morphed into a sometimes-sexy, sometimes-scary, unhumanly proportioned plastic doll. Minaj was able to maintain her hard edge despite her new appearance for months, releasing a string of killer guest verses on tracks such as Ludacris’ “My Chick Bad” and Kanye West’s “Monster.” But when her first album Pink Friday came out in November of 2010, her balance was broken.
“Your Love” was Minaj’s first single off of her debut album, and the release of it marked a significant turning point in her career. The song is designed to be a chart-topper, and though Minaj’s flow does come through on the verses, the overall product is too bubblegum to take as serious rap. The release of “Your Love” unfortunately set a trend for Minaj: Since then, she has released a number of pop songs as singles — such as “Super Bass” and “Starships” — and, despite their catchiness, they undoubtedly detract from Minaj’s integrity as a rapper.
Also, Minaj’s recent decision to join American Idol solidified her role in the publicity-hungry pop game. True members of hip-hop royalty, like Jay-Z, would never be judges on reality shows, especially not at the peaks of their careers.
All of this is not to say that Minaj hasn’t been making strong rap music over the years. In fact, a number of songs off of Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, such as “I Am Your Leader” and “Beez In The Trap,” showcase her previously mentioned, excellent flow. That being said, these songs have been masked by Minaj’s decision to go pop. This is more than a trend. This pop-focused trajectory seems to be a sign that this once-unparalleled female rapper is permanently stepping into a radio-friendly stage while younger names (say, Azealia Banks) are embracing into the role that was Nicki’s for the taking (i.e. a bizarre, innovative face in rap). It’s a shame, too, because she really could’ve been remembered as one of rap’s greats.