Friday, February 17, 2012

Come Back Nicki, Come Back

About a week ago, I had an argument with some friends about Nicki Minaj and her relative quality as a musician. Most of them thought little of Ms. Minaj's work, particularly the type of self-consciously vacuous pop music she currently seems most interested in purveying, in the manner of 2010's Pink Friday and its upcoming sequel Roman Reloaded. I maintained that, despite Pink Friday's rather feeble attempts at inoffensive pop-rap ("pap") crossovers, Nicki Minaj was once a rapper of great promise. Scratch that: at one point a few years ago she was a rapper of insane promise, poised to become listed among the best emcees on popular radio. Of course much has already been said about Nicki's chameleonic rapping style, how it encompasses a range of different personality and sexuality types, what it says about gender in hip-hop, etc. I wasn't particularly interested in rehashing any of that material, but I did want to make the point that Ms. Minaj once possessed devastating rhyming skill, even if her MO had been compromised ever since she started releasing albums proper. A few days later, one of my friends emailed me, asking to recommend a specific Minaj mixtape, since I had evangelized her early mixtape appearances so stridently. I replied and sent: check out Beam Me Up Scotty. My friend, never predisposed toward liking Nicki before, loved it, and immediately asked for further suggestions. He had no idea, from what he had seen on TV and heard on the radio, that Nicki Minaj could actually rap.

Of course, there are legions of Nicki fans, hip-hop heads and music critics (especially those who self-describe as "poptimist") who disagree. Maura Johnston maintains that Pink Friday holds up better than Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The platinum success of Friday and its attendant "controversial" Grammy performance and multiple nominations prove that there are obviously a lot of people who love the modern Nicki of "Super Bass" and "Right Thru Me." In this year's Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll, "Super Bass" was voted the third best single of 2011. Pink Friday was culturally significant to the point where non-music writers got on the Minaj train: check out this piece from The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf, where he calls Pink Friday "catchy" and expresses his love of the song's "poppy hook, the pleasing cadence of the rap."* Of course there are things to admire about Nicki's persona, her relatively lucid (for hip-hop) stance against gay-bashing, her forthrightness in calling out her abusive father, etc. I wouldn't deny any of that. But this still doesn't change anything about her music post-Friday, which is the sound of compelling artistry and wordplay being focus-grouped to oblivion.

The love for "Super Bass" particularly rankles me. As someone with a deep, abiding love for awesome bass tones, "Super" fails to measure up. The song's chintzy synth claps and pretuned chorus register with no impact, like the opposite of bass. The song is pure air syrup, and has about as much content as that implies--to me, its sonic architecture is the opposite of what hip-hop is supposed to be about. Pink Friday is rife with tracks like that, though--some where Nicki opts to sing autotuned pop hooks, others where she opts to rap, but poorly, and always about the same vacuous nonsense in that stunted, self-conscious style that Kanye made very popular. Call me an old man, but I just wasn't onboard with all the artistics concessions major label Nicki seemed willing, even eager to make, and Roman Reloaded looks to be more of the same:

"Stupid Hoe" is getting the usual good-to-great reviews from pop critics, which puzzles me: how can anyone look at this and say that Nicki has grown at all, as an artist or a rapper? There are the bottom-feeding lyrics--celebrity-baiting fluff about how "I'm Angelina, you Jennifer," rhyming "Roman Zolanski" with "Roman Polanski," etc. The beat, meanwhile, is more or less a slight variation on "Itty Bitty Piggy"from Beam Me Up Scotty, except with extra bloops and more goofy voices. Everything in this song has been done a hundred times by better artists, including Nicki herself.

When Nicki Minaj first came on the scene, she sounded smart and vital. I likely first heard her on "Can't Stop Won't Stop," a track from Lil Wayne's 2007 mixtape-opus Da Drought 3. Her rapping is serviceable on that track--she must have been really, really young at that point--but I didn't pay much attention then. I hate to admit this, but she didn't seem like anything worth paying attention to, other than as one of Young Money's token female rappers (the other one at the time was Shanell). It wasn't until Wayne's 2009 mixtape No Ceilings that I was really taken with one of her verses, via Weezy's take on Beyonce's "Sweet Dreams." Everyone speaks highly of Minaj's mammoth verse in "Monster," a strong example of how her voice sort of mutates from a hard bark to coy, youthful innocence and back in a manner of seconds. But Nicki was already doing that sort of thing very well in 2009:

Nicki's verse in "Sweet Dreams" is arguably superior to "Monster." Or at least it is longer, heavier on actual content, more dense and allusive in its wordplay, etc. The "balloon boy" line might elicit a groan now but back then it seemed insanely well-placed--No Ceilings came out literally a week at most after that "balloon boy" incident happened.

The Nicki Minaj of No Ceilings and Beam Me Up Scotty was thoughtful, inventive and quick-witted. She wasn't concerned with pandering to a global audience or prettying up her message with autotune pop hooks. No, she wasn't a perfect rapper: even then, she fell in the unfortunate trap that is constant beefing with female emcees (as if there can only be one, like Highlander), and like David Bowie she falsely claimed to be bisexual as a way of generating attention. And some of her other mixtapes, like Playtime Is Over, are obviously highly-influenced by the likes of Biggie, but of course that is a path many great rappers start on. The point is, or was rather, that Nicki's personality was once incidental to her skill as a performer. Nowadays, things are quite different. Nicki has less in common with Weezy and more in common with Lady Gaga, who pioneered her own brand of innocuously familiar goo-goo synth music that merely backgrounds the main parts of her show, which are, in descending order of importance, the absurd outfits and creepy, slightly refracted takes on celebrity diva behavior. By that same token, Nicki Minaj is now enough of a marquee player to merit her own brightly-colored Hype Williams videos with absurd costumes, and the focus is now Nicki's mugging for the camera, all those bleeps and bloops, and the epic amounts of cash that are generated thereof. Call this as un-poptimist as you want, but that's not hip-hop to me, and it doesn't yield interesting music, only focused-group commodity bundles disguised under the banner of a "musical experience." The whole enterprise stinks of a business culture superimposed on our own that cares nothing for music qua music.

Unfortunately, this issue is larger than Nicki Minaj, and it speaks to larger trends in sanitized pop radio. Nicki's Young Money-mate Drake is another example of an artist who shows promise at first, puts out a few pretty-good mixtapes, then becomes simultaneously famous, signed to a major label, and no longer interesting musically. Drake's rapping gets a bad rep in some places, but I find it hard to deny a mixtape like So Far Gone, which has a really dynamic, warm sound courtesy his collaborator Boi-1da. But his two major label releases, Thank Me Later and Take Care, are somehow two of the most boring hip-hop albums ever released. Something happened when he made the switch. All over the pop radio board, rappers are choosing to go in this direction. These type of sonic concessions to a broad, unnecessary standard of pablum extend all the way to, if you will, the top--count me as among those perplexed and disheartened by Watch the Throne's unchallenged success.

This is why, as is often the case, the best hip-hop being made these days seems to be coming from everywhere except the pop radio spectrum, broad as that is. There isn't anything wrong with making music that sounds big and universal and popular, but this is music made without the courage of its convictions--it hopes to be popular through bland familiarity, through repetition of the same dumb phrases. People rag on the likes of Odd Future for violating basic decency and proper rap decorum, in part of course because there's no subjects music critics like rehashing every few years more than the propriety of certain hip-hop (and always hip-hop) lyrics. But I would honestly listen to Odd Future at their worst (Goblin, say) than sit through the large majority of Watch the Throne, which is an album that seems possessed by little more than the empty moneymaking qua moneymaking ambitions of its two kingmakers. At least I will be liable to hear something new, a snatch of unexpected gnarly noise, maybe, or a motif that weaves in unexpected directions. A skillful flow means nothing when it is wedded to the same tired words and an overfamiliar beat. There are a lot of rappers right now on the fringes of stardom who are making music in their bedrooms that sounds nothing like what came before. The question is, when they in turn become popular celebrities, will they be subordinated into the system as well? I'd rather have a heinous, rape-n-murder obsessed Tyler, the Creator than a Tyler, the Creator motivated by radio dictates. No matter how unkind it might sometimes sound to our ears, it's better than not noticing we are listening at all.

I worry about the insurgent rappers and their impending success, and wonder if yet another possibly transformative moment in popular music will be co-opted by MTV and robbed of its capacity for political change, like punk and grunge. I wonder, for instance, about A$AP Rocky, whose mixtape was on my Top 10 last year, and who has lately been the subject of an insane $3 million bidding war, which landed him at Sony/RCA. Hopefully his major label debut won't sound like Pink Friday, a repurposed set of already overfamiliar autotuned dross, but like a continuation of the expansive cosmic beats and laconic delivery that made LiveLoveA$AP so enjoyable. Honestly, though, the odds aren't looking amazingly good. Is there any way for alternative rap cultures to make their way into the mainstream without sacrificing at least part of what made their music interesting in the first place? In theory, they should be able to do this easily. So what, or who, is stopping them? And what must we do in turn to stop them?

*Usually I am an admirer of Conor's lucid, rational reporting, but he lost me at that point.

UPDATE: This recently unearthed early video is a good example of how different (and better) Nicki Minaj used to be, pre-fame and goofy voices:


  1. I don't mind "Super Bass" at all...and I'd note that the title refers to the pounding of the narrator's heart, rather than a wicked bassline (which obviously the song lacks). But yeah, "Stupid Hoe" is really annoying.

    It's been pointed out elsewhere (although I can't remember where specifically), but the picture of hip-hop that you paint resembles where rock was at in the 80s. Not only are both contemporary rap and 80's rock 30+ years from their inception, but their mainstream, popular incarnations had ossified into this boring, predictable posturing. The exciting stuff was regional, non-major label aligned music that kids were making.

    The internet era is a bit different than the 80's indie era, and lots of these rappers are snapped up after a mixtape or two. But the effect of the machine is largely the same. I know you like "Don't Tell A Soul," but surely you'd agree that it represents a huge concession to commercial dictates in the same way that "Pink Friday" does.

  2. Some other diressions: It’s interesting you say you worry about these rappers. I was kind of feeling that for Big K.R.I.T. His persona and music are so unsuited to the Rick Ross/J Cole moment. Hard to know what the Def Jam K.R.I.T. album will sound like.

    I’m tired of people bashing “Watch The Throne” for being so obsessed with wealth. Juxtaposing it with Odd Future is interesting. Is exaggerated extravagance worse than exaggerated misogyny/homophobia? WTT has more verses about social problems than exist in the whole OFWGKTA canon.

  3. "Is exaggerated extravagance worse than exaggerated misogyny/homophobia?"

    Absolutely not--all of these things must be considered apart from the music in question, and it's not like there's a reliable metric that standardizes the right amount of homophobia in hip-hop or whatever. In the case of Odd Future and WTT I was just trying to make the point that music made with the courage of its convictions, no matter how misguided their method of delivery, is superior to even the most righteous boring music. As for OFWGKTA and message rap, they're kids right now who grew up in semi-suburban conditions and I would bet those days are ahead of them.

    Lots of Odd Future songs seem to suggest bad, noxious behavior when in fact they are among the more progressive and open-minded groups out there (among other things, they have in Syd the Kyd the first out rapper in hip-hop history). So much of what they do is a pose--for instance, that latest Odd Future video has Tyler, the Creator snorting mountains of cocaine when in actuality he is straight-edge. I attribute their excesses to the fact they are kids and imagine Odd Future ten years from now, the respected Grammy-winning family institution--would bet my future life savings that this will happen.