Yesterday, I dove into two different radio interviews, with Nicki Minaj on Power 105.1 and Azealia Banks on Hot 97, expecting little more than standard album promo and maybe some funny quotables. Instead, about halfway through each segment, both these hardened, guarded New Yorkers were cracked to tears in moments that felt too raw to be contrived. Nicki, when discussing the complicated state of a serious long-term relationship gone sour, tried to deflect explanation to her music: "A song is an argument frozen in time," she explained of emotional Pinkprint cuts like "Pills N Potions," "I Lied," and "All Things Go." But even skirting near the topic still proved too heavy: "I tell my girlfriends things, but sometimes I want to tell him…" she said before trailing off, and Angie paused the interview to let Minaj gain composure. On the other end of the dial, Hot 97's Ebro and Peter Rosenberg grilled Azealia Banks on her ongoing conflict with Iggy Azalea, and the young artist pulled the topic back to a macro level rarely discussed in mixed company. "When they give these Grammys out, all it says to white kids is 'You're amazing, you're great, you can do anything you put your mind to,' she said. "And all it says to Black kids is 'You don't have shit, you don't own shit, not even the shit you created for yourself.' And it makes me upset."
In 2014, Nicki Minaj was inescapable and Azealia Banks was largely invisible. I found myself more conflicted about Minaj than ever this year: after a well-earned run as a pop culture force and hip-hop heavyweight since breaking out in 2009, Minaj seemed to spend the year regressing into cartoonish, image-driven attention ploys that felt beneath her pedigree. The most impactful piece of media she released, more than any song or video, was an image of her ass. I wondered why an accomplished songwriter, who'd penned hooks as universal as "Your Love" and verses as hard as "Monster," would resort to "Baby Got Back" remakes. By contrast, Azealia Banks felt like a dream unrealized: the firecracker spitter reminded me of so many equally loud and brilliant girls that I knew from uptown, but seemed lost in a spiral of label drama and self-sabotage. Ultimately, she was released from her label, with permission to release her long-delayed debut album. And Broke With Expensive Taste proved her breakout single "212" wasn't a fluke: she'd expressed an exciting, singular vision that no one else had. We all knew her ideas were good. So why was her album's release so embattled, and why does Top 40 omnipresence still elude her?
Going into both interviews with these perspectives shed new light into the struggles both these young women grappled with throughout this year. Nicki and Azealia are both composites with similar cores: hood girls with performing arts educations, able to discuss broad culture as passionately as they can broken hearts. Unintentionally, the two interviews are in direct dialogue. Minaj seemed more plastic than ever this year, perhaps in reaction to the chaos and conflict of her personal life. She seemed to let her image speak loudest in order to keep her thoughts mute. "Nicki Minaj over the past two, three, four years, has done so much to create this social presence, and this hold on social consciousness," Banks told Hot 97 of Nicki's claw toward pop's center. Meanwhile, Minaj framed her role in the public eye against her personal decisions."This [relationship] can't be compared to the bullshit in tabloids, where people get together just because they want to be on paparazzi shit," she said. "This is not that. This is me dealing with it publicly and putting it on an album, because if I didn't, I'd be quiet."
What we heard of Minaj this year was that quiet, that muting of genuine emotion, replaced with more boobs, more ass, more pum pum patting, but delivered from a distracted, near-lifeless gaze. Maybe, in a rap landscape where Iggy Azalea was received with open arms largely on the merit of her image, Minaj (or those in her corner) doubled down on the image and assets that first got her through pop culture's heavy door, fighting fire with fire in a forest dense with brush. In her August FADER cover story, Minaj emphasized her desire to create visibility for young black women in white pop culture—even at the expense of her own image as a skilled rapper. "Every time I do a business venture or something that isn't the norm for a female rapper, I pat myself on the back," she said. "It's important that corporate America can see a young black woman being able to sell things outside of music."
Unlike Minaj, Azealia Banks does not have a giant ass or a Home Shopping Network contract. But she does have a big mouth, and it has been her survival tactic. At Hot 97, Banks said that label executives spent 2 million dollars on her album, but "were very specific about wanting something they could play in Top 40" as a return on that investment. But there is no clear slot for a petite, densely lyrical female from Harlem rapping over '90s deep house on today's Top 40, and Banks wasn't interested in becoming anything else. This is the classic binary that black artists face: you can make art that you know a primarily mainstream audience will be receptive to, regardless of what you actually feel or what your influences actually are, or you can rebel, hoping that listeners will come along to wherever you want to take them. It's telling, then, that Banks' tearful surge of emotions landed on these words: "At the very fucking least, you owe me the right to my fucking identity, and not to exploit that shit." She's voicing an insight that Nicki showed instead of spoke: the gripping conflict between appeasing an audience and getting to be yourself. This year, Nicki sold her image and Azealia screamed her identity. But for all their scathing bars, pointed acceptance speeches, and social media rants, they were still both reduced to tears by December.
Reckoning image, art and commerce is a challenge every celebrity faces, but it's a battle only magnified as a black celebrity, and extrapolated as a black female. My impulse, as a man, a black person, and lover of hip-hop, is protective: to listen more closely when these women speak, to guard more fiercely when they're challenged, and to subside my own opinions for their truths.