The Herbaliser, “Generals (ft. “Trap Clappa,” “Cheech Marina,” “Daddy Mills,” “A.K.,” “MacGuyver - Private E1” and Jean Grae)” (from Take London, 2005)
Not to detract from Nicki Minaj or anything, but that whole multiple-personality, she-can-really-spit-for-real buzz she’s developed? There’s a precedent for that.
Damn, I’d forgotten about this song. I was all about this back in 2005. Great track.
There are a lot of reasons Jean Grae never attracted the attention Minaj has, probably the biggest being that Nicki is pals with Wayne, while Grae was down with Talib Kweli. But a reason Minaj has done so much better than a whole host of other female rappers is that she’s worked out a way to wriggle free from the limited options of presentation constricting women in rap.
See, rap is a genre that assumes its generic performer and listener is an African American male. There’s a lot of good about that, because there aren’t a lot of parts of society where young black men are normative, but it does mean if you’re not young, or not black, or not a man, you’re going to have a tougher time fitting yourself into the genre.
As an illustration of how this works, most rappers can be roughly slotted into one of four archetypes: the gangster, the hustler, the trickster/pimp, or the scholar/intellectual. (I’ve stolen those categories from Imani Perry, FYI.) You don’t need to be a young black man to use one of these personae in hip-hop, but it’s easier if you are, and that’s a problem for women. If you try to feminize the pimp archetype, for instance, you end up with the woman rapper who uses sex as a way of establishing dominance. But while wielding your objectification for your own purposes is disruptive and means of asserting power, it’s still fundamentally limiting. That’s because sexual prowess isn’t seen as a symbol of social dominance for women the way it is for men, and a female rapper who bases her personality on sex will often find that the power she’s trying to claim will be turned against her through accusations of sluttiness. Her sexuality can’t be used as proof of her dominance over men — so what if she sleeps with a ton of guys, when guys are assumed to want sex anyway? — and it can’t be used as proof of her dominance over women because of the potential for slut-shaming.
It’s harder for women to use the gangster and hustler personae as well, because men, having physical strength women don’t, are better placed to make a claim for gangster superiority, and because hustling, for women, can too easily become conflated with whoring. That doesn’t mean women can’t occupy these categories, but because they’re designed for men, their hold on them is much more precarious. The only archetype a woman can uncomplicatedly adopt is that of the intellectual/scholar (see Lauryn Hill), which is all very well, but it can leave women trapped in the conscious ghetto. That’s what happened to Jean Grae, and this song is a good example; other than the absurd (and great!) novelty of MacGuyver, the twelve year old gangsta girl who leaves her teachers poisoned apples, Grae has to masculinize her voice to become the more roughneck characters.
And that’s why Nicki Minaj is so interesting and potentially revolutionary for women in rap. She has created a persona for herself that isn’t a female version of a male persona, but is actually organically feminine. In fact, she emphasises her femininity, and uses it to do things male rappers can’t. I disagree with Brandon Soderberg when he says ”[Your Love] and [Right Through Me] aren’t girly love songs, and people suggesting that to be the case are being straight sexist.” My take is that they embrace their girliness and as a result, and all the better for it. Minaj does things that would be difficult for a male rapper imitate because she doesn’t try to hide her femininity.
And unlike previous women rappers who either got caught in the trap of trying to adopt female versions of male personae, or were inimitable one shots (Missy Elliott, for instance), Minaj’s persona has the potential to be a blueprint for other women. (Can I get cute and call it a pinkprint?) With her career to date, Nicki has had to teach us how to listen to a female rapper rapping about female things, and having done so, there’s a good chance that other women can follow in her footsteps, knowing they can rap as women, and not women modifying a male presentation.