Not long after Nicki Minaj signed with Young Money Entertainment in 2009, she made a mistake that could have changed the course of her career: She skipped a recording session with a group of the label’s artists in order to perform at a solo show that she’d almost forgotten about . Lil Wayne, the Young Money founder and one of her earliest boosters, was upset. The single was meant to highlight Wayne’s new collaborators, but maybe she wasn’t fit for the responsibility. He decided to kick her off the song, but in an attempt to redeem herself, she presented four verse options to him. He was so happy with the lyrics — which directly addressed him — that he let her back on. Of the seven artists featured on the hit track “Bedrock,” Wayne, Drake, and Minaj are the only ones who have remained relevant.
Almost 10 years have passed since then, and Minaj has remained a constant presence on the charts and in the news. On August 17th, she’ll released Queen, her fourth album and first since 2014’s The Pinkprint. But the run-up to Queen has not been easy. In a July cover story interview, Minaj told Elle about her obsession with getting it right, even when the easy path is in sight. “I’m such a perfectionist that when something is too easy to me, I actually feel guilty,” she said. “It would’ve been so easy to listen to all the trap music out there right now and say, ‘Let me just copy this,’ but I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself.”
That may explain the rash of recent public events evoking confusion over why someone so successful would find themselves bogged down in controversies so avoidable. In early July, Minaj jumped into the DMs of a music critic (who also called herself a fan of her work) on Twitter, and attacked her for questioning the emotional depth of her music.
Nicki Minaj exhibited #Queen behaviour when she hopped in my DMs and insulted me numerous times over an innocent music opinion while her fans continue to harass me and DM me death threats. This is NOT okay. pic.twitter.com/bJI9TVvJV7— Wanna (@WannasWorld) July 1, 2018
The critic not only received endless messages and emails of hate from Minaj stans, but she lost her internship with gossip website Karen Civil (a noted Minaj booster) in the wake of the media drama. Why Minaj felt so strongly about this particular complaint in the deep void of Twitter is unclear, but she has yet to explain herself. A few weeks later, she hopped on “FEFE,” a new song by up-and-coming (and very controversial) rapper 6ix9ine. Minaj is significantly more famous than him, but he is a buzzy artist, and the benefits of writing a new hit song were apparently enough to outweigh the many reasons to stay away.
“FEFE” became 6ix9ine’s first top 5 hit, and the highest charting song Minaj has released in 2018. The imagery for the song is disconcerting; the music video infantilizes the pair, as she shares an ice cream cone with the rapper. The color scheme is juvenile and bright, and the album art is cartoonish. It even references the children’s rhyme eenie meenie miney moe — a seemingly knowing wink at the critics of 6ix9ine, who continue to reference the child sex complaint he wishes we’d all stop talking about.
A Minaj guest verse has traditionally been a lightning rod, attention-grabbing thing. In the past, her constant features — starting small with Big Sean on “Dance (Ass)” and Ludacris on “Bottoms Up”, landing a spot on Kanye’s “Monster,” and working her way up to stars like Madonna and Beyoncé and Britney — helped her reach the top with ease, granting her permanent status as the most celebrated female rapper of the century. Her previous albums all charted high, and produced singles that managed to win over pop and rap fans all at once.
Her position was rarely threatened, until Cardi B’s grandiose and very sudden entrance. This prompted the fruitless, sexist conversation: Were we wrong about Minaj the entire time? Was Cardi the messiah we had actually been waiting for? This past spring, Minaj and Cardi B were entangled in a web of rumors involving their song “Motorsport” with Migos. Was it a diss? Was it not? Minaj claimed Cardi did not respect the path she paved for female rappers. This was ironic, considering Minaj fought back in the past against critics who said the same about her relationship with Lil Kim. It’s still unclear whether she and Cardi are really on good terms or not, though it’s not up for debate that Cardi’s ascent in the rap game has been meteoric, much like Minaj’s.
The pressure of amplified expectations for Minaj in the wake of Cardi’s success is unfair, but highlighted by the diminished reaction to her non-6ix9ine singles. Her promotional singles, “Barbie Tingz” and “Chun-Li,” peaked at No. 25 and No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 respectively, but fell soon after. “Rich Sex” with Lil Wayne did not fare well, either. “Bed” with Ariana Grande did not even break the Top 40, despite radio play and significant online anticipation for the song. This week, she claimed she’d just learned that a track on the album samples Tracy Chapman, and needs her clearance. Letting go of the song would be the only way to keep the date; otherwise, she will have to push back the album release again.
This seems like a decision most artists would make themselves, but Minaj polled her fans to decide what to do. The poll completely split in half, though leaning toward the decision to delay — which Minaj lauded, calling Queen “a perfect body of work.” Ultimately, the album will be delayed a week, though there’s no word on whether the Chapman song made it.
Since I may have asked it wrong. 🤭🦄 vote. You guys can only imagine how much this means to me. It’s such a perfect body of work 🎈love you. Long time.— Chun-Li (@NICKIMINAJ) August 1, 2018
Minaj entered the public sphere of influence just as rap was becoming as popular, if not more so, than pop music. But her industry is, and was structured for men to have the right of way. Anything less than a perfect product would be subject to criticisms that no man of equal caliber would face at all. Aside from the ingrained sexism, she has also been received differently for unapologetically merging pop and rap. Her desire to control the terms of her reception is understandable, even when the process is uncomfortable to witness.