Tuesday, Jul 16th

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The Mirage of Nicki Minaj: Dismantling the Black Barbie

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“You don’t know who Nicki Minaj is?” Dumbfounded and almost horrified, this was the response I received from my 17-year-old cousin about a year ago when she raved about the female rap phenomenon. In truth, I’m not a huge hip-hop head, so I hadn’t the slightest notion of whom she spoke. And even though I’m only ten years older, her words were tinged with pity, as if to say, “Oh, you poor old maid.”

I didn’t remain oblivious to Minaj mania for much longer though. I soon learned the basics: Her image? She was the latest pretty-faced, big-bootied MC to represent New York City. Her gimmick? She rapped using cartoonish cadences while contorting her face in animated expressions and gesturing her body in gawky positions.

Minaj, 26, spoke about her seemingly paradoxical portrayal in an interview with The Fader magazine: “I make the goofiest faces [because] I don’t want people to think I’m up here trying to be cute. I’m trying to entertain, and entertaining is more than exuding sex appeal. … I don’t find it fun watching someone trying to be sexy. It’s wack.”

Still, it’s hard to believe a woman as intelligent and attractive as Minaj really thinks campy voices and faces distract from her blatant beauty and sex appeal. I don’t buy it. And even though her music doesn’t speak to me in any particular way, nor am I convinced of her “Harajuku Barbie” brand–“an imaginative, fun, coquettish, girly girl fashionista who adores all things pink”–I understand her allure. 

In August 2009 Minaj signed with Young Money Entertainment, a label founded by the infamous and highly-acclaimed rapper Lil Wayne, who often refers to himself in songs as an alien in barely comprehensible drug and alcohol-induced ramblings. (Weezy fans, before you start a lynch mob, I urge you to read his February 2009 interview in GQ.) Hence, her eccentric personality meshed perfectly with that of her mentor.

On the other side of the tracks, out-spoken, avant-garde artists like Ke$ha are topping the Billboard charts. Minaj emerged at the ideal time, combining all the pop culture elements of the zeitgeist: Kim Kardashian’s killer curves, the ambiguous sexual orientation of Katy Perry, the theatrical and unpredictable antics of Lady Gaga, and the street credibility and rap skills of the Queen Bee Lil’ Kim, a vacancy hip-hop fans have longed to fill.

With her debut album “Pink Friday” quickly certified platinum after its November 2010 release and legions of loyal fans (whom the star refers to as “Barbz” and “Ken Barbz”), Minaj may be music’s new fangled royalty. But who exactly is this self-proclaimed weirdo and what’s behind the caricature, if anything?

Minaj was born Onika Tanya Maraj in Saint James, Trinidad. She spent her early childhood years there until she moved to Queens, N.Y., at age five. She describes a tumultuous home life where her parents fought constantly and her father abused drugs and alcohol. In the song, “Autobiography” from her 2008 mixtape “Sucka Free” she gives a grim glimpse into her youth: “Daddy was a crack fiend. Two in the morning had us running down the street like a track team. When he burnt the house down and my mother was in it. How could I forget it, the pain infinite.”

As a result, she developed alter egos as a coping mechanism. “To get away from all the fighting, I would imagine being a new person. … Fantasy was my reality,” she told New York magazine. These characters included “Cookie,” “Harajuku Barbie,” and “Nicki Minaj,” which she ultimately adopted as her stage name.

While studying drama at Manhattan’s prestigious visual and performing arts institute, LaGuardia High School, Minaj was musically influenced by the female rappers of the mid and late ’90s. She went on to make a name for herself as an underground artist with a series of mixtapes in the late ’00s. And whether deliberate or not, her early rap style and image emulated that of the female MCs she grew up listening to.

I started high school in 1996, the same year both Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown dropped their respective debut albums “Hard Core” and “Ill Na Na,” so I can attest to their influence and popularity. I played my “Ill Na Na” cassette tape until about five years ago when I finally replaced it with the CD version. I was even nicknamed “Foxy” by some of my male classmates. And although they rapped about anal and oral sex, selling drugs and murder, luxury cars and brand name designers–all things I hadn’t the slightest inkling of, as an impressionable 13-year-old, I too vehemently admired both artists.

In the June/July 2010 issue of Vibe, Minaj discussed how these industry sexpots influenced her professional persona: “The female rappers of my day spoke about sex a lot … and I thought that to have the same success they got, I would have to represent the same thing. When in fact I didn’t.” 

However, the idea that Minaj represents anything less than sex on a platter with a side of quirkiness as an unsuccessful distraction is almost audacious. Her name alone is highly suggestive, if not blatantly obvious. It’s said that by “Minaj” she means that she eats her female competition…lyrically. But the obvious connotation is ménage à trios i.e., threesome.

Furthermore, the ambiguity surrounding Minaj’s sexual orientation makes her a favorite among male and female fans and the tabloids. Though not necessarily based on fact, her lyrics in several songs make clear references to lesbian tendencies. For example, in Usher’s sexy hit “Lil Freak,” a song about his efforts to convince a woman to partake in a threesome, Minaj says: “I’m lookin’ for a cutie. A real big ol’ ghetto booty. I really like your kitty cat and if you let me touch her … I’m plotting on how I can take Cassie away from Diddy.”

Similarly, in the remix to last summer’s chart-topping track, “Hold Yuh” by reggae artist Gyptian, Minaj borrows a line from the 1996 Beenie Man song “Nuff Gal”: “Mi have nuff gal in a bungle,” which means she has a lot of women in Jamaican patois. This is particularly bold and ironic because reggae music and Jamaican culture at large is notoriously and unapologetically discriminatory against gays, lesbians, and bisexuals.

If in fact the rapstress is gay or bisexual remains unclear because she refuses to speak directly on the issue, but instead opts for evasive responses like: “I feel like people always wanna define me and I don’t wanna be defined.” It is this ambiguity that leaves the media and her fans forever famished, wanting more of whatever she dishes out.

A beatnik or bullshitter, Minaj is a woman calling the shots in her career and she continues to break new ground in a misogynistic, male-dominated industry. For example, last year she became the first artist ever to have seven songs on the Billboard Hot 100 simultaneously. She was also the first female ever to rank on MTV’s annual Hottest MCs In The Game list. Most impressively, in her deal with Young Money Entertainment she retains and owns her 360 rights, including merchandising, sponsorships, endorsements, touring, and publishing. This means her label can only profit from her record sales and she gets the total earnings from any other endeavors. “Even though my team is mostly made up of guys … everything I do has been approved by me personally,” says Minaj.

So it seems underneath the superfluous breasts and booty, muddled with the self-indulgent and neurotic shenanigans, there is substance to Nicki Minaj. Unfortunately, you may have to go through “Roman Zolanski,” her gay male twin sister and the latest addition to her barrage of personalities to get to it. Call me an old maid, but I’ll leave that drudgery to the Barbz, Ken Barbz, and my high school alter ego, “Foxy.”

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