However marginalized they may have been in hip-hop’s billion-dollar boys club, female MCs have nonetheless held an important place in the firmament, from Roxanne Shante to MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Lil’ Kim and Missy Elliott. For most of the last decade, however, the female rapper seemed to have gone the way of the high-top-fade as yet another relic of the genre’s recent-yet-distant past.
Which makes Nicki Minaj’s entry into the rap’s top rungs over the past year all the more remarkable. But the 28-year-old Trinidad native is more than just an anomaly in the hip-hop world.
Scoring a platinum debut album, a tour slot opening for Britney Spears and even entering the record books as the first artist to notch seven singles on the Billboard Top 100 simultaneously, Minaj has clearly been taking notes from Lady Gaga’s identity play (Minaj records via a number of personae, from an angry West Indian to a bubble-headed Valley Girl) and Katy Perry’s colorful, cartoonish sexuality. Minaj’s November Universal release “Pink Friday” was hardly a traditionalist rap record, leaning just as heavily on pop singles as Eminem collaborations.
On the surface, Minaj rode a rather well-trodden contemporary path to stardom. A graduate of New York’s LaGuardia High School (of “Fame” fame), she was discovered via her Myspace page, instantly attracting the attention of Lil Wayne, who signed her to his Young Money roster. Her rep was bolstered by a flurry of mixtapes, 2009’s “Beam Me Up Scotty” in particular, and high-profile guest spots alongside the likes of T.I. and her dreadlocked patron.
Though it has mellowed considerably in its middle age, hip-hop still prizes one-upsmanship as a cardinal virtue, and Minaj’s vintage performance on Kanye West’s “Monster” — in which she effortlessly bested West, Jay-Z and Rick Ross, with website HipHopDX naming her contribution the “verse of the year” — should keep her in the genre’s good graces for some time to come.
Whether she can maintain her position as a top dog in the equally fickle, often opposing worlds of pop and rap for the long run remains to be seen, but Minaj’s chameleonic instincts haven’t failed her yet.
Role model: Cyndi Lauper
Philanthropic passion: Breast cancer org Susan G. Komen for the Cure