Who's That Girl?
Is rapper Nicki Minaj really a gun-toting, bisexual, British madam—or just a theater enthusiast from Queens?
In Minaj's music, hers isn't the only identity in play—her recent rhymes are stocked with people who dissemble, mutate, and live lies. On "Out My Face," a Mariah Carey song in which Minaj makes a lively cameo, she tells us her boyfriend has cheated on her … with a man! … of the cloth! "He was creepin': all up in the church, he was sneakin' with the deacon," she dishes, too tickled by the juiciness of the gossip to pretend she's that upset. On "Little Freak," she and Usher are about to go to bed, but first they want to find a third wheel. Minaj plays a bisexual vixen with her guard up against mere dabblers: "I really like your kitty-cat, and if you let me touch her, I'll know you're not a bluffer, I'll take you to see Usher," she purrs at a candidate. And on "Saxon," one of her best and most bizarre songs, Minaj takes on the voice of the Barbados-born pop star Rihanna: She calls herself Ri-Ri and sings in a vaguely West Indian lilt about envious "copycats" who mimic her every move. If this wasn't twisty enough—Minaj pretending to be Rihanna complaining about people who pretend to be her—Minaj toggles between first-person and third-person in the refrain: "Switch my hair, they gon' copy her/ Switch my gear, they gon' copy her," she sings. "Saxon" was most likely a demo prepared for Rihanna's consideration, with words and concept courtesy of Minaj (who's said she's done contract work for other acts), but it leaked online under Minaj's name and without any definitive explanation. The song is a puppet show staged in a hall of mirrors.
What should we make of Minaj's identity shuffle? In her music, we get the sense we're watching an artist figure out who she is in full public view: doodling various versions of herself and letting us watch. Mercurial types are common in pop music, but rarer in hip-hop, where the presiding promise—albeit a wobbly one—is that MCs are who they say they are. If a rapper changes—as artists like Andre 3000 or Jay-Z have over time—this is typically figured as an evolution, not a snap transformation. Minaj's music emphasizes, with delirious glee, that the autobiographies we encounter in rap are, to some degree, performed, contingent, or even arbitrary.
This may have something to do with the fact that Nicki Minaj, unlike the vast majority of mainstream rappers, is a woman. The history of female MCs who have made a dent on the culture is woefully thin, but Minaj turns this seeming disadvantage into an asset: She treats the relative absence in hip-hop of strong (and strongly defined) female voices as though it were an inviting blank canvas, not an oppressive void, and she hops from persona to persona with a license we can hardly imagine a mainstream male rapper enjoying. It's possible that some more stable version of Minaj will harden into place by the time her debut album comes out later this year (mix tapes are an easier place to experiment than big-money, major-label bows), but perhaps she'll keep herself in some constant state of flux—stay plastic.
Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.
Photograph of Nicki Minaj by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images.