A report recently published by the Girl Scout Research Institute found that, among girls ages eight to seventeen who feel emotionally unsafe, listening to music is the second-most-popular coping mechanism after crying. I’m a grown-ass woman, but in the first fraught months of 2015 — after the sudden and devastating death of my father, after near-daily harassment from an ex-turned-stalker, after trying to pin down what it means to be a self-employed, self-directed musician for the first time in my life — I did a whole lot of crying and a whole lot of Nicki Minaj-obsessing. I’ve described Nicki, gushingly, as a kind of 360° genius. She writes brilliantly with insuppressible range, often rapping vulnerable, scandalous, hilarious and breathtaking sentiments in the same track. She can spit rhymes at breakneck pace in a tried-on British accent and seconds later belt a pop chorus that lands her in the Top Forty. She’s a chameleonic marvel not only in her compositions, but also in her rainbow-brite costuming. And Nicki as entrepreneurial businesswoman is just as on fleek — fashion lines, a series of perfumes and a brand of wine are all ascribed to her empire.
All the while, she’s used her platform to encourage women to go to college, to get paid, to succeed beyond the expectations set upon them by a world dominated by white men. In Nicki’s case, she’s defying expectation within the music industry, which she constantly scrutinizes and of which she constantly demands more tolerance, more opportunities for women of color — and is unafraid to toss a “what’s good” at those ignorantly denying the realities of oppression. On 2014’s The Pinkprint, women occupied the highest-profile guest spots — Beyoncé and Ariana Grande, notably — showcasing active work to dismantle competition among successful women, fostering instead a community of mutual respect and support. Tinashe and Dej Loaf, two less-established artists in pop and rap, were among her support acts on The Pinkprint tour.
And Nicki’s made discussion of women’s issues paramount in her lyrics. She talks candidly about abortion, the wage gap, sizeism, demanding reciprocal sexual pleasure from men, and the frustrations of being a successful woman who intimidates her romantic partners. In the past few years, feminism has permeated the pop discourse in an unprecedented way, but often those discussions occur through press releases, through interviews, through social media, or through an implicit and potentially overhyped feminist assignation to the concept of a “girl squad.” But very few mainstream records — in pop, in rap, or in rock — attempt to parse these issues so explicitly in personal-is-political lyrics, much less in a way representative of intersectional feminism. The Pinkprint does this quite well.
So when I realized a Nicki Minaj tour date at Barclays Center in Brooklyn coincided with a short break from my own touring schedule, I snagged a ticket. By a landslide, this was the priciest ticket I’ve ever bought. I have a hard time dragging my butt to shows that take place outside of an all-ages venue with safe-space policies posted. At my dream show, there are, like, ten people in the crowd, maybe twenty. And admittedly, when my own band plays larger-capacity clubs with tickets over $15, it produces a lot of cognitive dissonance for me, since I’m wary of the exclusionary impact of high ticket prices. (N.B. The concert was taped for an upcoming BET special, which will help further democratize the full-on greatness of Nicki.)
So, seeing Nicki Minaj at an arena is outside of my comfort zone in a major way. Since I have zilch experience at mammoth pop concerts like this, I had no idea what to expect. I did see Britney Spears in 1999 and vaguely remember a live python and frightening pyrotechnics. Based on Youtube research, my other favorite pop star Charli XCX performs with huge, crazy props and plenty o’ costumes. A friend was kind enough to take me to a Drake/Lil Wayne show last year; their tour was sponsored by Capcom and therefore featured elaborate Street Fighter-inspired graphics of the entire Young Money roster. But none of these performers has the distinct aesthetic Nicki’s cultivated for herself. I mean, she’s made herself synonymous with a frickin’ color. I was expecting to be fully inundated with spectacle.
The Pinkprint, however, signaled an end to a lot of the spectacle that had previously defined Nicki’s career. She’s nixed the signature bubblegum beehives for her natural hair color. No longer does she perform as her alter ego, Roman Zolanski, the cocky Cockney queer kid she channeled on earlier tracks. A la Björk’s latest album, Vulnicura, The Pinkprint chronicles the dissolution of her relationship with Safaree “SB” Samuels (of “Ayo SB, what the fuck’s good?” fame), her professional and romantic partner of a dozen years. We hear her wade through the hurt and confusion at the loss of her younger cousin, who was murdered senselessly. She voices her insecurities at starting a new relationship. She drops a “fuck you” to “the skinny bitches in the club” — presumably the same skinny bitches she’s rightfully argued receive privileged favoritism in the mainstream media. She’s realer than ever on this album. And her stage show is an extension of that.
Her set last month at Barclays Center led with the first three songs from her latest album — all ballads, essentially — and exorcising her sensitive side seemed to be Nicki’s m.o. for the duration of the night. Aside from ballerinas at the start of the show, an upright piano during “Grand Piano” (really, y’all couldn’t spring for a proper grand piano?), and a slideshow of kissy-face selfies with boyfriend Meek Mill projected during her few duets with her significant other-cum-support act, it was a fairly bare-bones production. Most of the night featured no more than Nicki and a few dancers on the stage, with simple graphics on a screen behind them. During the set’s more energetic moments — “Feeling Myself,” “Anaconda,” Roman Reloaded-era hit “Beez in the Trap,” her verse from Big Sean’s “Dance (A$$) Remix” — she rapped and danced with vigor, tenacity, flawless sweat. Her several costumes were mostly elegant, apart from some metallic, seemingly C3PO-inspired bikini pieces she and her dancers wore during “Want Some More” and “Did It on ’Em.”
Frequent collaborator and label boss Lil Wayne showed up to do some songs towards the end of the concert, though vexingly, Weezy didn’t perform any of the songs on which he and Nicki both appear (not even personal fave “High School” — ???), so Nicki just sort of stood displaced to the side. Even during the highest moments of energy, the mood at Barclays was somewhat subdued. (Except for the dude rolling on E in the row in front of me, who danced hard through all the ballads and was eventually escorted out by security for falling down in the aisle too many times — shout-out to you, bro.)
I love stuttering, off-the-walls-energy Nicki. Few things have given me as much joy in life as singing along to “Stupid Hoe.” And I really hoped she’d play some more of the songs where her skills as a rapper take the forefront — “Four Door Aventador” or “Trini Dem Girls,” for example. At the same time, I really trust this person as an artist. Her album is full of drawn-out introspection, even moments of self-healing. It makes sense that her stage show should follow suit.
And, for what it’s worth, Nicki worked overtime on preaching those messages of self-healing. I can’t imagine Barclays has seen many more qualified motivational speakers. At some point, she told all the men to get on the floor and worship the women surrounding them, later giggling, “The men are like, why did I come here?” She lectured on the importance of going to college, of becoming financially self-reliant. She referred to herself as “a little girl from Queens,” emphasizing how crazy it was for her to play an arena in her home city. “Anything you can think in your mind, you can physically do,” she emphasized repeatedly, and while that’s a bit of a stretch, she was speaking to the importance of hard work, following your dreams and positivity. Duh, I lapped it all up, as did much of the audience — especially the two fans from the crowd she selected and dragged onstage to sing and dance with her, one of whom had his cropped hair dyed a distinctly Minaj brand of pink.
In her book All About Love: New Visions, bell hooks recalls an interview with Lil’ Kim. She says:
I found it fascinating that she had no interest in love. While she spoke articulately about the lack of love in her life, the topic that most galvanized her attention was making money. I came away from our discussion awed by the reality that a young black female from a broken home, with less than a high school education…could struggle against all manner of barriers and accumulate material riches yet be without hope that she could overcome the barriers blocking her from knowing how to give and receive love.
While Nicki Minaj is a 360° artist, I think she also offers her audience 360° hope. Hope for a future grounded in financial stability. Hope for a future in which women of color are received as humans, as viable breadwinners, bosses. And, based on the emphasis of her live show, hope for a future replete with love — “All I want is to love and be loved,” she sang on “The Crying Game,” dedicating a large portion of her stage banter to extolling love and positivity, to casting out drama. I don’t think she’s speaking exclusively about romantic love, either — though she did make a speech weighing the niceties of snuggling up cozy next to a partner against the productivity sap that accompanies amorous coupling. I think the love Nicki Minaj promotes extends to a love of family, love of community, love of friends, love of self.
If so many of her markers of success weren’t measured in capitalist terms, I might even say Nicki practices what bell hooks defines as an “ethic of love” — an ethic in which working to abolish systems of domination and oppression, and abstaining from self-interest, enriches the lives of all involved. But through her success as a mogul, she’s been able to inspire young women to believe they can transcend the expectations set for them by a perennially disappointing and still very patriarchal and white supremacist world. “I’m still the highest-selling female rapper, for the record,” she announces in “Truffle Butter.” If that fact alone encourages other women to pursue their aspirations, I can’t think of a better basis for an empire.