Music

Nicki Minaj Is Hip-Hop’s Greatest Shape-Shifter

The chameleonic monster nimbly raps across age, sex, and race.

Minaj holds an elaborate gold masquerade mask up to her face.
Nicki Minaj in Bilboa, Spain, in 2018. Ander Gillenea/Getty Images

In the Minaj universe, mothering is mastery: a specifically female form of one-upmanship. By declaring herself the mother of all rappers, Nicki claims to be the originator of hip-hop vernacular, an expert speaker watching her sons stutter and mewl. Giving birth means she has ultimate bragging rights, demanding filial piety while threatening to withhold love, care, and even legitimacy (“So fuck a funny style, tryna act hard/ Uh, you my son, no daddy, you a bastard […] They talk slick and wondering why I be sonning them” in “Hands Up”). “Sonning” is a method of cutting down to size, in ways only a mother can: in “Give It All to Me (2013), Nicki is the icy, disapproving mom who can yank away privileges in an instant (“I’m like, ‘Who’s up?’/ Girls is used up/ These bitches is my sons, I tied my tubes up”). Boys who misbehave face abuse or disinheritance (“You my son, son prodigal/ And you adopted, not even biological”), although in Nicki’s take on gender, “sons” can also be female: in “The Boys” (2012), she sings, “Girls is my sons, carried them for eight months/ And yes, you’re premature” and “Or the razor, yeah the razor/ She my son, yeah, but I ain’t raise her.” Where most rappers trade insults about money, sex, and success, Nicki knows that maternal disappointment cuts deeper.

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While she embraces the power of mothering and conception, Nicki is not above whipping out a male body part from time to time (“If I had a dick, I would pull it out and piss on ’em,” from the polemical “Did It on ’Em”). Although female parts can be tossed around with considerable swagger (“Give me that damn bucket/ When I throw this pussy you better not start duckin’,” from “Knockout,” 2010), we hear quite a lot about Nicki’s dick, both in and out of her male “Roman Zolanski” persona. The singer, who refers to herself as both king and queen, is determined to have the full arsenal of weaponry. Male bodies and voices are used to express a coarser kind of anger—shitting and pissing on hecklers, or anyone who dares to fall out of her slipstream. Still, it is can be unclear whether Nicki is playing man or woman, parent or child, at any given time.

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Biology, chronology, sex, and race offer no resistance to this shape-shifting artist: No sooner does she mention a trait than she merges with it, creating a curious form of hybrid personality. Nicki does not merely reference Anna Nicole Smith and Monica Lewinsky, she fuses with them to become the superentities Anna Nicki and Nicki Lewinsky. Nicki Lewinsky, a character who appears in multiple songs, is an update from the Nineties model, this time with her sexuality weaponized. While Monica Lewinsky has been referenced in numerous rap songs including Eminem’s “XL Show Freestyle” (1998), Black Menace’s “Block Bleeder (1999), and Aaron Omar’s “It Has Been Said” (2012), mostly in a pejorative context, Minaj’s version is a wised-up woman who knows where real power lies. As played by Nicki, this Lewinsky is a world-toppler, in the line of Helen of Troy and Cleopatra; she will never be a punchline or a footnote. A modern Delilah, she makes full use of having the president in her thrall.

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This habit of creating personalities through birthing and naming seems to be chronic. In dreamily appropriating the identities of others, her taste is for the hyperspecific—note that her vision of the archetypal Brit is Jewish, Polish, gay, and gender-ambiguous. In the case of Roman Zolanski, Nicki takes on the name of a wildly notorious figure: apparently on phonetic grounds, although with Zolanski, controversy is never far off. Much has been made of the incongruity of a Trinidad-born, Queens-raised woman singing with an English accent, as if it were just a trendy aspect of marketing or being quirky. Not at all: Nicki’s Anglophilia runs deep, and Cockney is one of her truest voices, an ideal channel for her bawdy humor and campness. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Nicki on American Idol, flirting with a handsome contestant (“my baby daddy”), speaking American slang in a voice that is purest geezer.

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Over the years, Nicki’s magpie mind has seized on various bits of Englishness, from the voice of Oxford-educated Emma Watson to the Dick Van Dyke of Mary Poppins, by way of various chavs and Spice Girls, to come up with her Anglo ideal. She now has a glory box of characters, both broad and nuanced, which she continues to add to and evolve. The English voice has completely fused with her personality, and it is surprisingly flexible, not reliant on stock phrases or clichés. (Her take on Cockney certainly ranks above Kate Bush’s.)

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Who’s to say that this English Nicki isn’t as fully lived and authentic as her American self? Or even her Afro-Caribbean self? Although she was born in Saint James and raised by a Trinidadian mother in New York, Nicki has often been criticized for using slang from Jamaica rather than Trinidad, and for not being “Trini enough.” For those who regard cultural fusion as an irritating tic, note that Nicki makes a much more convincing Englishwoman than she does a Caribbean; to Trinidadian critics, her “roots” seems manufactured. She moves freely between regional tones, received English, and patois, with an authorial assurance that reminds one of Salman Rushdie.

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It is the natural way of the magpie, the bowerbird, the imitative lyrebird, to pick up glittery fragments of language and possess them fully. Growing up in Queens must have been a feast for the ear, with its range of regional and mixed-island accents, but there’s no evidence that Nicki was more attracted to these voices than the ones from trans-Atlantic pop culture. As we have seen earlier, she has the ability to inhabit and become whatever she describes. With her sci-fi-like division and multiplication of selves, Minaj might be the only actor who could replace Tatiana Maslany if the series Orphan Black were to be rejigged as a comedy.

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In her lyrics, Nicki gravitates toward shiny, exciting words, whatever tastes fresh in the mouth. On their track “Mercy” (2012), Lil Wayne is content with name-checking Lamborghinis and Mercedes, but Nicki’s version of luxury is to conjure a paradise of exotic phrases: “Diablo, Alejandro, dimelo, Gandhi!” In the interests of rhyme, “dashiki” will be paired with “Waikiki,” added to the storehouse of melodic words, along with Harajuku, Svengali, and even Mandingo! Despite its title, “Coco Chanel (2018) is less about designer threads than talking in tongues, with a Spanish-language chorus that somehow segues into Japanese and Chinese names, before a Gurkha pops up out of nowhere. Even when describing her “own” U.S. culture, her voice pops across the Atlantic to sample it as an outsider (“You know, I really got a thing for American guys” in “Super Bass,” 2011).

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It might be said that, like the British-Swedish-American Neneh Cherry, Nicki has more reasons to contain multiple voices than most: that she has her background to thank for the grab of her imagination, the way she eats up and digests other personalities. But the extent to which those voices are fused is a model for modern identity, in which one naturally inhabits a cluster of styles, periods, and languages. Despite their breadth, her references are densely woven together, no mere mashup; her characters are linked by a delirious run of associations, both sonic and verbal.

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Nicki’s multivocal identity highlights the unpredictability of what the ear retains, or shuts out—whether it be an overheard snippet of TV, or the sound of one’s immediate environment. There is no telling what the artist, the listener, will be drawn into. Magazines will often publish a musician’s list of impeccably curated influences, featuring a token mix of respectable and diverse names. But an artist may have only the faintest awareness of what their influences really are. It may only be a single syllable that has triggered imaginative investment: a crisp voice heard on the radio, an accent absorbed from a book.

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There is no word, no milieu, no status that Nicki cannot make her own. In her music, and in her resplendent photo shoots, she has shown us, time and again, that there is no novelty in Black aristocracy; she creates a new classicism, no longer tied to pallor or restraint. We are never sure where her voice is “coming from,” geographically or emotionally—whether a tremor signals a move into vibrato Englishness, or the return of her gothic “Monster” voice. All of history is available for Nicki to use. She does not accept the view that she is marginalized, excluded, or anything less than a privileged sampler of the world’s cultures.

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