Popping Off: Nicki Minaj and the Problem of “Pop”

In the first installment of his new biweekly column, Alex Frank responds to the “Pink Friday” star’s dismissal of pop.

April 25, 2014

Why it's okay to like "Starships" and "Looking Ass" at the same damn time

We pride ourselves at The FADER on scouring the globe to introduce you to some of the most left-field music around. But in his monthly column Popping Off, Alex Frank will be taking the temperature of mainstream pop music.

In 2012, when Hot 97 host Peter Rosenberg infamously knocked the Nicki Minaj fans who came to his radio station's iconic hip-hop festival, Summer Jam, as "some chicks here waiting to sing ‘Starships’ later," he was, in many ways, talking about me. Not that I was even at 2012's Summer Jam, nor am I a chick, but l do love "Starships," and would've been singing along with it. His argument seemed to miss the point about Nicki. In his attempt to defend Summer Jam's authenticity as the ultimate temple to "real hip-hop," Rosenberg seemed to be forgetting what makes Nicki such a powerful a star to begin with (and surely a ticket-seller for the event): she's an iconoclastic shapeshifter, a chameleon who glows pink one minute and braggadocious gold the next. Nicki is more than the marshmallow fluff of "Starships" and "Super Bass," and she's proved her rapping bonafides a zillion other times. It's okay to not like "Starships," but that doesn't make it bad, just a different kind of good. The fact that she can hold her own with the best performers in rap only makes her ability to switch lanes into pop that much more impressive. She's the one, after all, who used to talk up her multiple personalities as a form of artistic expression. After the Rosenberg brouhaha, Nicki canceled her performance at the festival and, during a heated, on-air reconciliation with him year later, subsequently defended her pop and rap choices as expressions of a "multi-faceted" artist, an inspiring sign that she was confident enough in herself not to pay the haters much mind.

So I was surprised, this week, when Nicki turned her back on pop. A reporter asked whether the world could also expect more songs like "Super Bass" and "Starships" on her new album, and Nicki responded with a resounding "Hell no." Don't get me wrong: I've been thrilled by Nicki's harder output as she gears up to release Pink Print, and her good taste and initiative to jump on two of the rawest and most important hip-hop songs of the year—YG's "My Nigga” and Young Thug's "Danny Glover”—has made her relevant in all sorts of new ways. As Lady Gaga's career flames out into irrelevance, I'm relieved that Nicki has replaced her pink wings and Harujuku outfit with simple Alexander McQueen dresses, having the good mind to give up the wacky, cartoonish style of divadom that was so marketable three years ago but feels boring now. And I understand why she wants people to remember her Queens street creed: her more recent verses are perfect reminders that this woman is not just one of the most popular rappers of all time, but one of the best. There's no problem with her reasserting that no one is more clever and no one has more charisma. On "Danny Glover," when she references age-old rumors of her own bisexuality by saying that she's not gay but will, given the chance, definitely be stealing Jessica Biel from Justin Timberlake, she sounds like Lil Wayne and Joan Rivers rolled into one. Who else can we say that about?

But why does a return to her roots mean she also has to say "Hell no" to pop entirely? As she pivots away, I can't help but wonder what else she's saying "Hell no" too. Earlier this week, Peter Rosenberg told me Nicki should "not worry" about the fans she's leaving behind by leaving pop music. But aren't those the fans that have made her millions by buying her fragrances and selling out her concerts in matching pink wigs? Are pop fans not "real" fans? Ultimately, the question of pop isn't about Nicki, it's about the Barbz, the coalition of Minaj mega-fans that run the gamut from, yes, "real" hip-hop heads, to toddlers who love pink, to gay teens inspired by her empowerment messages, to grown women who are just happy to have an ally in a music world that, at times, really isn't so friendly to women. There's nothing wrong with being a 5-year-old who knows "Super Bass" and not "Beez in the Trap." Certainly Nicki remembers Sophia Grace and Rosie, the little girls in tutus who, in 2011, helped make her a household name with their viral YouTube sing-along to "Super Bass." I remember watching Nicki join Sophia Grace and Rosie on Ellen to perform the song with them (minus the swear words and sexual references, of course). As she bent down to hug those little toddlers from Essex, England, in a moment where "real hip-hop" fans might've seen the watered-down commercialization of a once-proud genre, I saw hip-hop embracing the 21st century as a place for new communities and new musics yet unseen.

People love to debate back and forth whether or not Nicki is the greatest female MC of all time, but that's always seemed shortsighted to me. Even at Lil Kim and Foxy's heights, they never penetrated middle America in quite the same way that Nicki has. America has never seen a female rapper perform at the Superbowl, as Nicki did, or guest host on American Idol, as Nicki did, or co-star in a Cameron Diaz movie, as Nicki is doing right now. So why should anyone limit Nicki? Worse, why should she limit herself? This is bigger than rap—the real question is, what's she going to be the greatest at next?

From The Collection:

Popping Off
Popping Off: Nicki Minaj and the Problem of “Pop”