In a recent, somewhat controversial cover story for Elle, Nicki Minaj bemoaned the fact that contemporary rap had become, as she put it, “kumbaya and goody-goody.” Her complaints weren’t new: Social media has reduced all of human interaction into a lifelong series of benign “likes”; the slightest hint of discord among celebrities is obsessively screenshotted, analyzed, and mass-reported as “beef.” “That’s not the kind of rap I grew up on,” the 35-year-old Minaj reflected. “But rap is different now. You gotta pretend you like people and stuff.”
This goes some way to explaining “Barbie Dreams,” the throwback-themed lightning rod protruding from her fourth album, Queen, like a sky-high middle finger. At the very least, “Barbie Dreams” is a history lesson for rap’s young upstarts: The track cribs the beat and the James Brown sample from Biggie’s notorious 1994 track “Just Playing (Dreams)”—a.k.a. “Dreams of Fucking an R&B Bitch”—an unapologetically crude rundown of, as he put it, “the sexy singers that I wanna sex.” (Among the dozens of lines that have aged like unrefrigerated milk and were ill-advised from the start: “Make Raven-Symoné call date rape.” When the beloved Brooklyn patriarch recorded that song, Raven-Symoné was 8.) On her classic 1996 debut, Hard Core, Lil’ Kim memorably flipped the script and rapped about her own “dreams of fucking an R&B dick,” a wickedly fun gesture with somewhat flimsy feminist credentials given that most people assumed that Biggie wrote her rhymes anyway. Into this storied tradition came, in 2007, a rising Queens emcee, born Onika Maraj, who hopped on the “Dreams” beat to shoot off a nimbly rhymed list of “up-and-comers that could probably get it.” Nicki Minaj’s attention-grabbing early mixtapes were her own kind of Iliad; call “Dreams” her Catalog of Dicks.
A world-conquering decade later, the Nicki Minaj of “Barbie Dreams” has become far too powerful to be caught dead lusting after C-list emcees. Instead, Queen’s most talked-about track is a vicious (and likely at least slightly fictionalized) rundown of very famous men whose sexual advances she has rejected. Almost no one is exempt from the emasculating glare of “Barbie Dreams”: not her former collaborators like Young Thug and Drake (“Drake worth a hundred milli, always buying me shit / But I don’t know if the pussy wet or if he crying and shit”), not her music video costar Odell Beckham Jr., not even her embattled ex Meek Mill. Much like the rhymes Biggie and Kim once spit over the same beat, some of these jabs are low, cruel, and borderline offensive—kumbaya is not spoken here. But Queen Minaj has never been interested in kindness, solidarity, or democratic rule: Hers is a vision of power. And like so much of the relentless braggadocio of Queen, “Barbie Dreams” is a meditation on a female version of power that is no less exacting and dehumanizing to its minions than its masculine counterpart. Minaj spells out the counter-logic to Biggie’s “Just Playing”: If a male artist can assert power over famous women by reducing them to their sexuality and “fuckability” (“I’d probably go to jail for fucking Patti LaBelle”), she reasons, maybe the only equivalent power a female artist has is to assert how much she doesn’t want to fuck famous men, especially the kind the culture holds up as inherently desirable.
On “Barbie Dreams,” Minaj ably makes her point. Whether it was the most pressing thing anyone needed her to prove is another story.
Queen is Nicki Minaj’s most nostalgic record. Like The Pinkprint, it’s an ambitious attempt at self-coronation, but this time she’s reaching for references even further back than Jay-Z’s late-millennium commercial peak and aligning herself with the gangsta rap heroes of the mid-’90s: Biggie, Foxy Brown, and yes, even her sparring partner Kim. Not unlike Pusha-T’s Daytona, Queen yearns for the values of a pre-millennial era when rappers’ careers could be destroyed by accusations that they hadn’t written their own rhymes, when grinding for years on the mixtape circuit was a greater virtue than internet-fueled overnight success, when rap not only sounded regional but sparred openly with opposing area codes. Here’s another controversial bon mot Minaj issued in that Elle profile: “The truth of the matter is, trap has taken over so much that even our New York rappers are doing nothing but trap songs because they feel that that’s the way to make it. … They’re rapping like people from down south.” She’s not wrong. But she says it with such conviction that you’d be forgiven for momentarily forgetting that she’s still on the New Orleans–based label Young Money or that one of her best singles helped spawn that frenzy for minimalist trap beats and is literally called “Beez in the Trap.”
Nicki Minaj has always been a walking contradiction; it’s her blessing and her curse. Her rhymes are ruptured by the schisms of split personalities—in the first Rolling Stone profile of her, pegged to her debut, Pink Friday, the writer Brian Hiatt noted that it’s “as if she’s determined to make up for the lack of female voices in hip-hop by providing five or six of them herself.” And wasn’t the thrill of those vocal costume changes the revelation of her verse on Kanye West’s “Monster”—that implicit assertion that most women adaptively learn how to be performance artists because the culture demands that they be so many things at once while men can get by being just one? Of course it’s more work having to be everything to everyone; Minaj was already sighing in 2009, before anyone really knew her name. But as she showed when she upstaged the boys on “Monster,” it can also be a hell of a lot more fun.
That crazed joy of performance comes through every so often on Queen—a bloated and somewhat unfocused record that nevertheless has tantalizing moments of greatness. An obvious standout is the island-tinged final track, “Coco Chanel,” a duet with Foxy Brown that finds both rappers leaning into their Trinidadian roots. It’s a potent tag team: Foxy’s husky flow goes harder than any other guest on Queen, egging Nicki to bring her A-game. Minaj works herself into a ratatat frenzy on “Good Form” and holds her own against Eminem (once again) on the head-spinning “Majesty.” But what makes Queen’s backward-glancing ’90s thirst especially puzzling is how good she sounds alongside Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee, how much more sense she makes in the nihilistic-cartoony Rae Sremmurd extended universe than most rappers a decade or more younger. (Post Malone wishes.)
A counterpoint to her decent-if-unremarkable Street Fighter anthem “Chun-Li,” “Chun Swae” is more enjoyable than all of Queen’s pre-release singles combined. As tepid offerings like “Rich Sex” and her Ariana Grande collaboration “Bed” reminded us this summer, Minaj has a track record for picking the wrong singles (see also: The Pinkprint’s “Pills N Potions” and “Anaconda”) and an unfortunate tendency to overstuff her albums with mood-killing filler. Half of the songs on Queen are quite good, but at 19 tracks it loses the plot and feels confused in a way that these same songs might not had they been streamlined onto a more selective track list. The pop pabulum like “Bed,” “Come See About Me,” and the Weeknd-featuring “Thought I Knew You” make no sense on a record where Nicki elsewhere sounds brutally relentless and laser-focused on reclaiming her crown. It’s been a problem since Pink Friday: Minaj too often feels like she must show every side of herself on an album, when really just one sharply articulated persona would more than suffice.
In a recent piece linking the latest albums by rap “elders” Jay-Z, Kanye West, J. Cole, and Drake (aged 48, 41, 33, and 31, respectively), the New York Times critic Jon Caramanica observed that hip-hop is experiencing some interesting and unprecedented growing pains. “The superstars of earlier hip-hop generations typically lived their post-peak careers just out of the limelight,” he wrote. “But then hip-hop started growing exponentially: It minted more durable, truly multigenerational stars with greater staying power at the same time it was revving up the engine on the lower end, welcoming more and more young artists into the fold. That meant that while the market expanded, more artists were competing for prime share, forcing those on top to learn how to navigate new territory—as still popular, almost dominant performers who are staring down their role as elders.”
At 35, Minaj is nearly the median age of those aforementioned rappers. Both on Queen and in her public comments, she seems torn about how to go about that transition into maturity. On the one hand, Queen definitely talks tough about the work ethic of the rappers coming up from behind, the kind of trappers-come-lately she shades in that interview. “One rough ride, now you DMX and Swizzy? / One hot video, you Hype? Nah, you just giddy,” Minaj spits on the opening track, “Ganja Burns.” “You gotta have real skill, gotta work for that / If it’s really your passion, would you give the world for that?”
And yet at other times, Minaj has had a troublingly negative reaction to suggestions that she take up a kind of elder position. Infamously, Minaj had strong words for the writer Wanna Thompson, who earlier this summer wondered aloud on Twitter, “You know how dope it would be if Nicki put out mature content? No silly shit. Just reflecting on past relationships, being a boss, hardships, etc. She’s touching 40 soon, a new direction is needed.” Not only did Minaj not stop her fans from viciously harassing Thompson for such benign constructive criticism, but Minaj herself direct-messaged Thompson and went in: “When ya ugly ass was 24 u were pushing 30? I’m 34. I’m touching 40? Lol. And what does that have to do with my music? Eat a dick u hating ass hoe.” Seven minutes later and quite possibly after Googling herself (who among us?), Minaj added, “My bad I’m 35.”
It is notable that Caramanica’s Times article about rap’s new “elders” spanned such a wide swath of birth years and also that all the emcees mentioned were male. That it is difficult for female rappers to break through to the mainstream is by now widely documented; that it is just as difficult for them to age in public is perhaps too obvious to mention. (It does not feel accidental that Lil’ Kim’s exact birth year is in dispute.) Quite unfairly in our society, men and women do not age by the same rules. Age almost always means something at once more precise and precarious to women—especially if those women are interested in having children, as Minaj has professed to be in plenty of her songs and interviews. (“As long as seven years from now I’m taking my daughter to preschool,” she rapped on “All Things Go,” a song she put out four years ago.) Minaj has no excuse to attack a fan on Twitter the way she did Thompson—the power imbalance is far too great. But I see something else in that exchange that makes it more revealing than simply an unhinged rant against a Twitter user. I see an all-too-relatable anxiety about aging-while-female, more honest, uncomfortable, and raw than almost anything that made the cut on Queen.
Minaj is loquacious and articulate about her skills on the mic and in the bedroom, and yet there are deeper and more nuanced topics that I too would love to hear her spit about in the future: the legal ordeal she witnessed Meek go through and the strain that must have put on their relationship. (I refuse to believe that the only line she can get out of that experience is the jab in “Barbie Dreams.”) Whatever is going on with her brother. Why one of the only young rappers she supports is Tekashi 6ix9ine, and how she can square that with her feminism. Watching Nicki Minaj’s rise to becoming one of her generation’s most skilled rappers has been at times exhilarating, frustrating, and occasionally puzzling. Over that decade, and particularly the past four years, her life has been full of much richer, more complicated material than ends up on Queen. In the future, I would love to see her continue to push her talent further and dig into some of that dirt. That—the searching work of a mature-minded female emcee—is ground yet to be broken.
All weekend, my timeline was full of articles about “Barbie Dreams”: “Nicki Minaj’s ‘Barbie Dreams’ Starts Beef With All of Rap.” “Drake, Lil Wayne & More: All the Rappers Nicki Minaj Pokes Fun at on ‘Barbie Dreams.’” “Every Rapper Nicki Minaj Dissed on ‘Barbie Dreams.’” I thought, as I would more often rather try not to, of the record-breaking 2014 video for “Anaconda.” Minaj may claim on Queen that her heart is in the ’90s, but she’s also got the kind of digital-era savvy of someone who knows exactly how to stay trending in the age of clickbait. There’s that walking contradiction once again. Maybe she’ll finally enter her mature phase when—or if—she starts picking sides.