Matson on Music
Concert preview: Nicki Minaj's unassailable rapping ability
Nicki Minaj and Paramount concert opener 2 Chainz; image from the video for "Beez in the Trap"
Nicki Minaj — the 30-year-old cartoonlike pop star and arguably best rapper on the radio right now — is a misunderstood figure.
She is not, for instance, a prostitute, although she is treated that way in YouTube comments. Nor is she any great feminist, despite her outspokenness about "girl power," which you can read about in "Nicki Minaj's Retroactive Feminism" by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd for the website AlterNet.
Minaj's best and main quality, though, is utter dedication to the art of technical rapping — while catering to a mainstream that doesn't necessarily care about that.
Before attaining unassailable rapping ability, Minaj (real name Onika Maraj) was an actor. Born in Trinidad and Tobago and raised in Queens, New York, she attended LaGuardia High School in Manhattan, a performing arts school where she took drama classes. She seems like she's still on a theater track today, wearing crazy clothes and bright colors on stage, with a comedian's flair for following questionable ideas all the way through — like rapping in a bad English accent (which now seems like Minaj-ese, listeners have gotten so used to it).
She performed an elaborate exorcism on stage at this past Grammy Awards show. She always seems way off script but handles the spotlight like she knows what she's doing. Hollywood can't be far off. When she pops up on "Saturday Night Live" skits, she always kills.
Opening for Britney Spears at the Tacoma Dome last summer, Minaj was the one with a pulse, going hard on the microphone without vocal accompaniment. Her verse from "Monster" by Kanye West had thousands of people losing their minds. The rest of the event was rave-y, led by a dragging Spears. But "Monster" and a few other Minaj verses made it feel like real music was happening.
Her sold-out concert at the Paramount Theatre on Saturday ought to have some of that same flavor.
A natural rapper in the syllable-heavy, cadence-centric style indigenous to New York and the Midwest, she is somewhat out of place in hip-hop today, which is all about southern rap and European electronic music — where the beat rules all, and lyrics matter second.
You can tell beats rule over rhymes on the airwaves these days by Minaj's labelmate and collaborator Tyga, a rapper whose bare-bones hit "Rack City" could just as well feature a machine saying "rack city" over and over again. It's a big tune because of the hypnotizing beat.
Minaj can play that game, too: her international smash "Starships" is upbeat, irresistible, fairly brainless electronic music. But Minaj's other big song this year, the trash-talking, hardcore hip-hop track, "Beez in the Trap," is better. With an uncompromising griminess that doesn't often feature on mainstream radio anymore, the chorus is about hanging out at the drug-dealing house (the "trap house," in hip-hop parlance), where Minaj is, or "beez." It's a song about making dope product. (It's not about bees.) But that apparently goes over people's heads.
Sometimes more than her wordplay is lost in translation. Nobody cared that she wasn't using a backing track for her rhymes at the Tacoma Dome. That only matters at a real-deal hip-hop show. Her legion teeny-bop fans, whom she calls Barbies, do not care about this. They are the ones buying her albums, loving "Starships" and dressing like Minaj. So she spoils them, in a way, schooling them on hip-hop professionalism without them knowing it.
Minaj can do choreography and sing well enough to hang with Britney and Katy Perry. But that is just one facet of who she is. At this musically fluid and back-story-driven time in hip-hop, she's showing other artists how to have integrity — by sticking to her guns in the rap department.
And that's why she matters most, not because of her sexy body, or foul mouth, or name hinting at a threesome ("menage a trois"). She is a good example for kids, if you think about it the right way. She does what she wants and what she's good at, and in her complexities remains true to herself.