The Tightrope of Pop-Rap: Nicki Minaj’s Next Move

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Last summer when Kendrick dropped the lyrical bombshell that was his “Control” verse, he specifically called out a whole gang of rappers who could be considered in the same weight class as him. Young rappers who were either inked to major label deals (Meek Mill, J. Cole, Wale, Big Sean) or moved enough units independently to make noise at the same level (Tyler, Mac Miller). Some pundits were upset over the list, based on who was unfairly included or who was left off. But after all the dust settled, and “Control” turned into a stepping stone into a bigger rivalry between Kendrick and Drake, it was clear that one very important person was left of the list. Nicki Minaj is arguably the most popular rapper on the planet, let alone the young crowd that Kendrick called out. Her crossover appeal rivals the Kanye’s, Jay-Z’s, and Drake’s of the world and she’s perhaps most responsible for the pop-rap monogenre that’s dominating the radio. So she took some umbrage at being left off Kendrick’s list. And now she’s released a stretch of rappity rap singles that are apparently leading up to her newest album.

Nicki played nice about being left off the list (Kendrick was probably “one of those respectful gentlemen that probably felt like ‘I don’t want to say a female’s name'”), but the real reason she wasn’t mentioned is more likely due to her tenuous relationship with the genre. Her two albums, 2010’s Pink Friday and 2012’s Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded are huge platinum successes but mainly pop albums. Mega hits “Superbass” and “Starships” have more in common with Britney than the Bronx. On the other side she’s released a string of incredible rap verses, featured on hip hop, R&B, and pop records alike, that have made her one of the most talented and unpredictable rappers in the game. Since her star making moment on Kanye West’s “Monster” four years ago, Nicki has consistently stolen the show on every song she’s been invited on. She’s the rap game Charizard, an all powerful beast who only tries when there’s a worthy opponent.

After a year of hosting American Idol and becoming an entertainment mogul, it looks like Nicki is actually granting everyone’s (and by everyone I mean a tiny quadrant of the internet) wish and releasing an actual rap album. Usually backed by neon pop production or blitzing EDM, her new songs place her in sparse snapping West Coast production. On her remix to P.T.A.F.’s “Boss Ass Bitch,” she inverses the usual tough guy player talk in classic Nicki fashion, laying down all the rules for how to be a boss ass bitch and creating a new holiday specifically for her vagina before saying she’s just tossing off a random freestyle before the style gets old. Even better is the official remix to YG’s Dj Mustard produced hit “My Niggas,” where Nicki demolishes Lil Wayne and Meek Mill and says things like “like an injured Chris Paul you ain’t got no point.”

Her latest remix, this time to Young Thug’s viral hit “Danny Glover,” continues the same shit talking rap rapping vein as the previous two. It’s a good enough song with some good lines, but it’s something that Nicki has never been for the past four years: boring. She seems tame compared to Young Thug and in emulating his autotuned delivery she loses the manic energy that’s defined her. She does the Drake thing where she mimics Migos‘ now-patented flow and it’s cute for a minute and then it gets boring fast. The rap world is now filled with a weirdness that owes a debt to Nicki, but here she misses the connection by staying on her “lyrical” tip. This may be a complete overreaction (after all these are only remixes), but I don’t want to hear the rap classic Nicki has if it’s just going to be her rapping. Because the same qualities that made her a pop star are what made her a rap star as well. The schizophrenic personality, the abrupt voice changes, the barbie swagger, it all makes her a compelling personality to hear on record. The shit-talking battle rap Nicki is a great part of her persona, but it isn’t the only part. The line between pop success and rap credibility is a thin tightrope to walk on. Jay-Z learned how to balance on it perfectly. Drake did gymnastics and made sweet love to it. Kendrick is moving slowly, making sure every next step is on proper footing. Guys like Lupe Fiasco and B.o.B. treated it like Tarzan to swing into the pop world and are now drowning in the waters. And even though Nicki has been called out on her poppy characteristics, she’s always seemed to float above it. Her last album was primarily a pop record, but the first six songs were some of the most inventive rap records that came out on a major label that year.  So here’s hoping that she can continue to stay above the line and eventually make the great album we all know she can produce, and not be swayed by either side of the rope.

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