To view the music videos of Nicki Minaj is to step into a beautiful landscape presided over by one of pop’s most complex creations. In just a few years a young black immigrant has thrust herself into the centre of the world’s biggest music industry and become the bestselling female rapper ever. Her career, despite mismanagement, has thrived due to her irreplaceable persona and voice which are by turns intense, coquettish, tender and tough. Like Eminem she uses an array of alter egos – and while hers are less organised than his their originality lies in their free and hyper-feminine embrace of individuality. Minaj had no illusions about how male-dominated hip hop is – her femininity is defiant and trailblazing, and songs like “I’m the Best” (with which her debut album opens) show a commitment to female empowerment stronger than any of her pop contemporaries (‘I’m fighting for the girls that never thought they could win’). The “Super Bass” video is a joyous expression of heterosexual female sexuality rarely seen in the format, and “Starships” continues her refreshing inclusion of the male form in titillating videos. By building on the colourful image of Cyndi Lauper, Minaj seems less derivative of Madonna than her more-lauded rival Lady Gaga, and hasn’t dated as badly as Gaga sonically. (She’s also more honest about Madonna’s influence, as in “Muny”.)
Her first two albums Pink Friday (2010-11) and Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded (2012-13) show a split between hip hop and pop which seems fitting for a woman whose early career anticipates and accelerated the convergence of the two. “Come on a Come” from Roman Reloaded is a pugilistic masterpiece and my favourite of her songs, while her verse on Kanye West’s “Monster” deserves every bit of its fame, and “Roman’s Revenge” further demonstrates the Dickinsonian playfulness, strangeness, dexterity and gender-fluidity of her lyricism. Her next album The Pinkprint (2014) shows hip hop and pop integrated – though I don’t think this necessarily makes it better. In fact, it seems somewhat sedate compared to the earlier records on which she exorcised so many demons. Ironically, as we enter an age of hip hop she may struggle more than the likes of Beyoncé and Rihanna to adjust – to unlearn all the pop habits which shaped her career, and then to redefine her image accordingly, is a tall order.
Even if she isn’t capable of reinvention she’ll surely be a milestone to which all future female rappers are compared. Her irrepressibility paved the way for Iggy Azalea (a once-promising rapper who lost all focus after the freak success of “Fancy”) and Cardi B, whose brash, menacing single “Bodak Yellow” topped the American charts last year – a feat Minaj, despite sixteen top tens, hasn’t yet accomplished. But B can’t rap with Minaj’s intensity or fluency, so won’t replace her. Perhaps the greatest threat to Minaj’s success is her own narcissistic complacency which has allowed so many potential hits to go to waste, but then if she’d found the same exposure as Gaga or Katy Perry she probably wouldn’t have flourished – her place to one side of pop’s upper echelons suits such a polarising and incandescent figure. And of course it’s entirely possible that her survival instinct and capacity to surprise will serve her as well in the future as they have done thus far.