First: some context. I really love rap music. And I really love bushwalking.
My favourite way of bushwalking is listening to particular rap songs that I know really well and trying to get something new from the lyrics. I go bushwalking once a day to ensure I am a human being who doesn’t say mean things to people and who feels good about life. While walking, I like to have a really engaged brain and occasionally goosebumps of poignancy, so this is why I listen to rap music.
For example, Kanye’s song “Hey Mama”? It’s a sweet and simple tribute to his Mum raising him to be hard-working and ambitious. It’s a moment of sweetness and love. It’s a gorgeous song, and it’s set off with something of a vocal siren that sounds like the clearing of his throat in ascending pitch, followed by a “yow!” I remember seeing Kanye perform this live in Sydney fairly close to his mother’s death. The vocal siren was now a wail, the “yow” felt like a punch in the chest, a howl from a wounded creature. This song, a tribute to Donda West, probably written as a Mother’s Day gift for her, was now a new sort of tribute following her death. It’s always a goosebump moment as I look down at water bubbling over the stones that stack onto themselves in Merri Creek, the cold weaving between grooves, no part untouched.
Then there’s a lot about Drake’s new album that causes me to think, too. One of the tracks, Star 67, starts with the lyrics: “Brand new Beretta, can’t wait to let it go. Walk up in my label like: where the cheque tho?” And I think: has Drake ever done that? I don’t get that vibe from Drake. The vibe I get is an angry smart dude who overthinks things. If Drake did this, even just as a joke, did the record label think it was a joke? Or was it one of those Rich-People-Jokes where everyone less-rich is contractually obliged to laugh at the rich dude being a fuckwit but inside their heart is beating a little faster and they have a strain running through them of “he shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that, you know. It’s manipulative.”
Don’t even get me started on the emotional rollercoaster of Jay Z’s “My President is Black”. This song is goosebump magnificence – “Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk, Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run, Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly, now imma spread my wings, you can meet me in the sky.” But there is a bitter irony to images like that versus America in reality, especially with lines like “no more wars, no more Iraq, no more white lies, my President is black.” I guess this track makes me think about the universal fucked-uped-ness of having power. Everyone ends up doing bad things, even the good guys.
But we’re wasting time because today’s post is all about the main event: Nicki Minaj’s guest verse off the Kanye track Monster. I reckon this guest spot was a big part of my feminist awakening in my early 20s. Here’s a smart, potty-mouthed, unapologetic woman owning her achievements, her sexuality and her right to be confident. She strides into this song and flings Jay Z’s limp verse that preceded her onto its back. I don’t want to quote too much of it to you, I just want you to load up this song onto your phone and find a green spot with a river and listen to it in its entirety.
But let’s talk about Nicki’s vocal gymnastics. She can sing, she can growl, and she can do cutesy-voice. She plays with our conception of how women should speak and rap and she uses her voice as another character. For example, in baby voice: “so let me get this straight, right, I’m the rookie, but my features and my shows ten times your pay?” Something slow starts building. The baby voice starts fading and a growl comes in: “50k for a verse, no album out! Yeah my money’s so tall that my body’s gotta climb it.” For any woman who’s ever felt mansplained to or undermined by someone with less experience, this moment is transcendent.
I sometimes wonder at Nicki’s insistence on using her earning power as the justification for her success, but it makes sense too. Imagine how often she’s felt talked down to (“and if I’m fake I aint notice cos my money aint”) or like she’s just the sum of her physicality (“pink wig, big ass, give em whiplash. Think big, get cash, make em blink fast.”). Lyrics about her bank balance are a way of meeting the haters at face level, using an analogy base enough for them to understand. Fuck artistic integrity: I’ve got more money than you.
The end of the verse features her using this opportunity to ask Kanye and Amber Rose for a threesome at the end of the week, followed by a roar of “Now look at what you just saw, this is what you live for, ahhhhh, I’m a motherfucking monster”. In one short verse, she’s displaying unapologetic sexuality, taking credit for how good the song is (you came here for ME, not for Kanye or Jay Z) and she is soaring into the sky with a growl like a motherfucking plane on take-off. She is, all at once, loud, sexy and professional.
She is made of many parts. Barbie, boss bitch, and queen. I love you, Nicki.