‘‘Why would a grown-ass woman thrive off drama?’’
That’s the question Nicki Minaj posed to the writer Vanessa Grigoriadis shortly before she threw her out of the hotel room where they’d been chatting for a New York Times Magazine profile. Grigoriadis had asked about public feuds between Minaj’s boyfriend Meek Mill and her labelmate Drake, and between her mentor Lil Wayne and their label boss Birdman—and proposed, tentatively, that Minaj might enjoy the squabbling between the guys around her.
“What do the four men you just named have to do with me thriving off drama?” Minaj continued. “Why would you even say that? That’s so peculiar. Four grown-ass men are having issues between themselves, and you’re asking me do I thrive off drama?”
In the article where this is all documented, Grigoriadis writes that her mistake had been one of terminology: “In pop-culture idiom, ‘drama’ is the province of Real Housewives with nothing better to do than stick their noses where they don’t belong. I was more interested in a different kind of drama—the kind worthy of an HBO series, in which your labelmate is releasing endless dis tracks against your boyfriend and your mentor is suing your label president for a king’s ransom.”
But reading Minaj’s words, it certainly sounds as though the rapper understood the kind of drama Grigoriadis was referring to. She simply thought the suggestion that she thrived off of it was a condescending one, one that fed into the tropes of a woman sowing discord in men or cleaning up their messes, and one that implied that her whole personality was silly, fake, a Hollywood caricature. “You know that’s not just a stupid question,” Minaj told Grigoriadis. “That’s a premeditated thing you just did.’’
The entire article, the cover of this week’s Times magazine, uses the same kind of language that Grigoriadis suggests was responsible for the confrontation—“the pop-culture idiom.” The story’s first sentence establishes that Minaj shall be evaluated for the next few-thousand words as part of the archetype of “the female star—Beyoncé, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga and, as always, Madonna” who feature in a “national telenovela ... feeding the public information about her paramours, ex-paramours, peccadilloes, and beefs, all of it delivered in social media’s short, sharp bursts.”
This is a traditional way of thinking about female performers: mainly in the context of other female performers. Swift, Perry, Minaj, et al. are, supposedly, calculated climbers who smile together for the cameras but secretly hunger to be the uncontested Queen of Pop. The warring-women stereotype has also often been called out as limiting and sexist, but it’s undeniable that stars themselves often play into it—talking in interviews about how there’s no rivalry at all while trumpeting their album sales and making comments that seem to dis the rest of their field. (This phenomenon, of course, is just a result of human self expression and competitive drive—not limited to women, or even to famous people.)
One of the many things that make Nicki Minaj fascinating is how she defies this paradigm. When she “throws shade”—at males or females or, more often, at culture more broadly—it’s not through innuendo in the style of Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” (maybe about Katy Perry). It’s through bracing and hilarious call-outs, whether on the VMAs stage or in a song with the self-explanatory title “Stupid Hoe.” When she addresses rumors, it’s not through coy song titles like (to use another Swift example) “Dear John” (maybe about John Mayer). It’s by literally rapping a line like “I never fucked Wayne, I never fucked Drake.” This bluntness is not, as some people would suggest, artless or unthinking. It’s a trait of an art form that at its best is pointed and hyperreal and very memorable—hip-hop, not pop.
Oh, right: Minaj is a rapper. Grigoriadis’s article, to its credit, aptly traces how Minaj achieved stardom after working her way up in the hip-hop world. (An important part of the Minaj legend, and many legends in the field, is the selling-CDs-out-of-the-back-of-a-car phase, though Minaj apparently does not indulge questions about the specifics of that period in her life.) Her status as a rapper is not just a matter of biographical trivia, or even of how she delivers her lyrics. It’s a matter of her outlook. Hip-hop, which rose from and reflects a social condition characterized by constant peril, doesn’t fetishize go-along get-along niceness to settle disputes. The best rappers, from Ice Cube to Jay Z, have often proven themselves through straightforward but brutally clever verbal confrontation. Not many women have thrived in this space before, a fact that—as Grigoriadis’s profile attests—forced Minaj to be tougher than she would otherwise have to be:
… her manager at the time, Debra Antney, who was born in Jamaica, Queens, before becoming an Atlanta hip-hop matriarch (and also the rapper Waka Flocka Flame’s mother), says, “Nicki was the timidest little girl you’d ever want to see in your life—she was so broken up, but she was so determined, all in one breath.” Timid? “I used to have to scream at her: ‘You’re not going to sit here and cry, you’re not going to let nobody shut you down, that’s what you’re not going to do.’”
Of course, by a lot of measures, Minaj is a star in the same realm as Madonna’s descendants. Her music has certainly annoyed hip-hop purists for indulging in trends that please the pop charts. But the author John Seabrook, quoted in the Times article, sounds as though he’s never heard one of Minaj’s gloriously dissonant, sui generis albums in full when he says she’s “a vocal actor not asked to say something that’s profound but rather play a role in a song that someone else has written.” A few choruses per CD aside, very few people are making music that quite sounds like Minaj’s. And no one else is cutting a public figure like her, with the same political concerns—also outlined in the Times piece—regarding body types, financial independence for women, and race.
So when Miley Cyrus laments that Minaj is “not too kind,” when Taylor Swift raises alarm about her appearing to “pit women against each other,” and when Grigoriadis wonders if she loves drama, they’re making category errors, assuming that Minaj seeks to operate by the rules of pop stardom. Ditto for when Grigoriadis says it’s surprising that Minaj would want to turn her difficult childhood into an ABC Family show—the struggle, the process of toughening up, are essential parts of her art. And again for when Grigoriadis writes that “This was not the game Minaj was here to play—interviews in the social-media era are about being adored, not interrogated.” Minaj is worried about a lot of things, but adoration might be the least of them.