“Rap is not pop/If you call it that then stop,” rhymed A Tribe Called Quest on 1991’s “Check the Rhyme,” and those words have been invoked as an inviolable mantra by hip-hop fans ever since. The accuracy of that statement was questionable 21 years ago, and it felt thoroughly discredited at the Nokia Theater on Wednesday night, as genre-hopping starlet Nicki Minaj did everything in her power to erase whatever hazy distinction might still remain between the two styles, delivering a show that embodied all the respective thrills — and failings — of both pop spectacle and rap recital.
Hip-hop may have dominated the charts for two decades, but the music’s attendant cultural baggage and inherent standoffishness has made it difficult to completely co-opt pop music as a whole, frustrating even that greatest of cultural chameleons, Madonna. Which makes the Trinidad-born, Queens-raised Minaj something of a transformational figure in her ability to pass back and forth between the two; though her early fans may bemoan her crossover tendencies, she’s less a rapper-turned-pop star than a pop star who happens to rank rapping at the top of her skill set.
In the midst of her first headlining tour in support of sophomore album “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded,” the pneumatically-figured Minaj — backed by a DJ, a hypeman, and some under-utilized backing dancers — never quite reconciled her split stylistic personalities, though she never forced the issue either. Her radio hits are seemingly geared toward an entirely different audience than her Lil Wayne-approved rap workouts, and her 90-minute setlist reflected this divide — opening with a head-knocking assault of hardcore hip-hop before segueing into dance-tinged club bangers and goopy torch songs, then closing strong with guest spots from Sean Kingston and Tyga and the all-conquering single “Super Bass.”
As a rapper, Minaj is a hit-or-miss lyricist but a phenomenally consistent verbal technician, and she hardly whiffed a word during the show, spitting her rhymes with power and accuracy without ever turning shouty. In order to do so, she was forced to ease up on the ersatz accents and personae she plays with on record, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing — her rapping voice is strong enough without the gimmicks. She effortlessly upstaged blog-approved opener 2 Chainz during a duet, and appeared at her most comfortable running through a medley of still-head-turning material from her early breakthrough mixtapes “Sucka Free” and “Beam Me Up Scotty.”
As a singer, however, she’s merely functional. Her balladeer turns on “Fire Burns” and “Save Me” midway through the show sapped all momentum from the set, which had been flying high on a string of pop-leaning material, in particular “Starships,” her highest-charting single. On record, the song is a compositional nightmare, desperately cramming bold-faced imitations of Rihanna, Ke$ha, Lady Gaga and LMFAO into a three-minute framework while still making time for nursery-rhyme interpolations and off-pitch EDM breakdowns. Live, it was still frantic, but it went down much smoother thanks to the hernia-inducing effort Minaj expended to keep all the proper plates spinning.
Much of this professionalism can clearly be credited to Minaj’s theatrical roots — she attended New York’s LaGuardia High School, of “Fame” fame. Fluttering her eyelashes and emphasizing her face’s alarming elasticity, Minaj nailed her choreography with seamless ease, rarely broke a sweat, and managed to lead the primarily female crowd in a sing-along of “put my dick in your face” with the same good-natured earnestness with which she might have once urged a younger crowd to clap for Tinkerbell.
Although frankly, those two audiences might not be so different. Though the Nokia crowd was notably diverse, it certainly skewed young, and it was particularly shocking to see scores of very young girls — including a preschool-aged tyke held aloft by her mother — screaming along loudly to the “bitches ain’t shit” refrain in “Beez in the Trap.” Yet while the scene may have been something out of Tipper Gore’s nightmares, it felt surprisingly innocent in context, providing a primal-scream moment of catharsis for the crowd in which the typically loaded word “bitches” took on all sorts of meanings — from bullies to bosses — which had little to do with denigrating women at large.
It certainly wasn’t elegant, but witnessing Minaj’s ability to flip Snoop Dogg’s noxiously misogynistic coinage into something vaguely empowering for her teen girl audience somehow felt like progress.