At this point the “Nicki Minaj went pop” criticisms are older than Nicki’s butt implants, especially coming from a white male. For the record, I have absolutely no problem with Nicki making pop records. First because they can be pretty good pop records. Second, because trying to please the Peter Rosenbergs of the world - in so much as Rosenberg represents highly critical, hip-hop obsessed rap heads, myself included - is a horrible way to build a career. Who would you rather have as a hardcore fan? A 17-year-old girl spending daddy’s money who’s going to cover her room in posters, or me? Even I wouldn’t pick me in that scenario.
And it’s not like Nicki signed a pact with the United Nations of Rap, pledging to never frolic on a beach while sweetly singing about love. She’s no more obligated to only rap than Justin Bieber is obligated to only sing…bad example...than Kid Cudi is obligated to only rap.
Still, there’s just no denying that there was a time when Nicki’s rapping was so dynamic that only the saltiest of rap purists (and, let’s be honest, probably sexists) could deny her. “Bottom’s Up” may not exactly go down as the 21st century version of Rakim, but that verse was absolutely perfect for the occasion, and of course there’s her work on “Monster”, a verse that found her out-rapping some very serious competition.
And then…not only were we hit with “Starships”, but even when Nicki was rapping, it was borderline unlistenable. (Fun fact, SWAT teams often play “Stupid Hoe” on repeat outside criminal’s homes to force them to surrender.) It appeared that Nicki had been swallowed whole by the character she had created, alternating between saccharine singing and impossibly over the top rapping. And even when she did keep her feet even somewhat planted in hip-hop, the results were less than inspiring. There was solid year-plus span where I can’t remember even guilty pleasure liking a Nicki Minaj rap.
And then the “My Nigga (Remix)” dropped…
...am I taking crazy pills or did Nicki kind of just kill that? It’s not easy to sound that aggressive while also making a Todd Bridges reference, but she did it. And while I at first thought that would be the exception to the rule, it’s become clear over the last few weeks that Nicki’s on a thoroughly planned and thought out No Crazy Costumes or Colored Hair, No Weird Voices, Just Hard Raps campaign.
“Chi-Raq”? Some absolute, outright aggression. “Senile”? You couldn’t pay me to listen to Tyga, but I’m more than happy to skip ahead to Nicki’s verse. I know most will toss “Yass Bitch” on an anti-Soulja Boy reflex alone, and the same goes for her work on Young Thug’s “Danny Glover”, but if you couldn’t bring yourself to actually listen, trust me, Nicki straight rapped on that shit.
And even though her last three outings - her own “Pills N’ Potions”, Trey Songz’ “Touchin, Lovin” and Usher’s new “She Came To Give It To You” - are all of the more R&B variety, she still doesn’t slip into a single weird character or voice. In fact, she opens “Pills N Potions” with an image of her smoking a cigarette, and in 2014 that’s about as gritty a move as a pop star can do.
Who knows how long it will last, Nicki’s changed so much it’d be insane to think she won’t morph again, but for now there’s no question that we’re in the stripped down, black and white, hip-hop focused Nicki Minaj, and for us serious rap heads, that’s welcome news. Go fuck ‘em up Nicki…
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. He also occasionally talks in podcast form and appears on RevoltTV. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]