Friday, February 5, 2010

Memories of my Melancholy Ho's

Nicki Minaj used to rap like a bored phone sex operator. Now she spits wildly, a flow filled with affectations, groans and rumbles not so far from the excesses her label CEO practices. I have yet to come across an opinion I respect on the internet or amongst friends who doesn’t universally revile her. That’s not to say she’s without her fans, at the moment Minaj is the Pop cameo du jour, she’s a part of 3 certified hits(Young Money’s “Bedrock”, Usher’s “Little Freak” and her own “I Get Crazy”) garnering regular rotation and has a fanatical cult of young fans. For what it’s worth I haven’t made my mind up. We're here today because what struck me, almost from the first verse I heard from her in her new incarnation, is how much Minaj reminds me of vintage Lil Kim. In her flow, in her style, in the controversy she spurs.

Biggie- Queen Bitch Reference Track

There was a time when first Biggie then Jay-Z were enemies of the Hip Hop state. Highbrow critics and Jeru Da Damaja didn’t like them for the too easy critiques of content and message, Raekwon didn’t like the lack of originality, everyone hated Puff. Jay-Z was reviled for his insistence on relentlessly working name brands into his rhymes, if Biggie’s crack rap wasn’t bad enough, you have to take what little substance the music has and infuse it with advertisements and the endorsement of hollow materialism? These critiques were largely alarmist, ignoring the true popular pulse of the moment and faded pretty quickly. But the point is that even though now it seems logical for Biggie and Jay to promote artists and have said artists received with universal acceptance by an adoring public, there was a large audience ready to hate their side projects, Hard Core (Biggie) and Foxy Brown's Ill Na Na (Jay-Z). And a large audience did.

Before Kim and Fox, the tradition of the female MC had been wildly different, and it would never be the same again. Traditionalists point to the Roxannes, the Lytes, the Latifahs as an old guard, a sacrament which these two scandalous bitches had violated. For all intents and purposes, these MCs rapped like men, they wore their influences on their sleeves and even as they discussed women’s issues, delivered in hard boom bap spit. Salt-N-Pepa provided something like a bridge, introducing sexuality to the conversation and rapping in a style that wasn't trying to ape a dude. Still, you get something very different from the flows of Kim and Fox, both of whom had men writing their rhymes and guiding them through their verses. In the casual lisp, the way words are dragged or even moaned, the women push the envelope further, flaunt sexuality and embrace a less (or more?) empowered sense of femininity.

I’m not going to get into the heady stuff of what this all meant, whether they were whores or feminists, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith because I don’t have the patience, framework or particular interest in the question. What I can say with conviction is Hardcore and Ill Na Na are great albums. My favorite Hip Hop records ever made by women, and two of my favorites made in the late 90s period. Hardcore is the masterpiece. It came first, it’s the lost Biggie record sitting in broad daylight, and like Ill Na Na it features great, exemplary production from the period front to back. Biggie and Jay challenged our sense of decency, writing rhymes in which girls proudly displayed their cunts and bragged at sexual proficiency in ways men were once only allowed to. It sparked debate over whether or not these chicks were actually good. If they were good, is this good for Hip Hop?

Another question I won’t go near with a ten foot pole. What I can tell you is what happened. The female MC has remained a disparaged minority in the Hip Hop community. The girls who have gained small measures of brief success have been more heiresses of Kim and Fox than Latifah and Lyte. I’m thinking Remy Ma, Trina or Shawnna with all respect due to Rah Digga (who borrowed from both traditions) and Jean Grae (Who does not). But Minaj, if she can capitalize on her buzz, is poised to become the biggest female MC since Fox and Kim. She's part of a team that's currently making taste in Hip Hop and already has achieved a level of success comparable to if not exceeding any of the femCs I just listed. Drake is probably writing her rhymes and coaching her through her verses. The verses themselves are pretty elementary punchlines and gags with vocal fireworks, she raps about bisexuality and like a hypersexualized 12 year old having an occasional temper tantrum. She refers to herself as Barbie and encourages her young female fans to show their tits. Is this a good thing? You decide. But it’s certainly not the end of the world, nor is it without precedent.

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