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To mark Nicki Minaj's first album in 5 years, a look at the Queen of Rap's legacy

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Rapper Nicki Minaj put out her first album in five years today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PINK FRIDAY GIRLS")

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NICKI MINAJ: (Rapping) I could tell he the one 'cause they hating on him. Used to be a high roller, but I skated on him. When he went away, then I just waited on him. Came back, then I got X-rated on him.

SHAPIRO: Her fan base, the Barbz, are thrilled to see her return with "Pink Friday 2." Minaj is the highest-selling female rapper of all time and widely considered the Queen of Rap. But Sidney Madden, co-host of NPR's hip-hop podcast, Louder Than a Riot, says it's not just her sales that earned her the title.

SIDNEY MADDEN, BYLINE: Rapping is a competitive art form. So Nicki - she's just a very sly, imaginative, highly skilled competitor as a rapper, and she doesn't do it halfway. When she does it, she attacks the beat, and she creates a memory out of it for you as the listener.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PINK FRIDAY GIRLS")

MINAJ: (Rapping) Looking for my lip gloss and my liner. Looking for him, tell him meet me at the diner. Got him smiling 'cause he know I outshine her. Had to pop her just to remind her.

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SHAPIRO: Well, in honor of the big day, It's Been A Minute host Brittany Luse sat down with Sidney to discuss the rapper's legacy. Sidney started with what might be Nicki Minaj's most iconic verse.

MADDEN: I think the one that really marked her ascension in rap was her guest verse on Kanye West's "Monster" in 2010.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONSTER")

MINAJ: (Rapping) Pull up in the monster, automobile gangsta (ph), with a bad b**** that came from Sri Lanka.

MADDEN: Nicki is very early in her career in 2010, and she's on a track with some heavyweights - not only Kanye, but Rick Ross and Jay-Z. And what makes this verse so singular is she accomplishes so much in a short amount of time. She gives you that New York, Southside Jamaica, Queens, girl. She silences all these haters who say she shouldn't be anywhere.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONSTER")

MINAJ: (Rapping) So let me get this straight, wait, I'm the rookie, but my features and my shows 10 times your pay? Fifty K for a verse, no album out.

MADDEN: She name-drops, you know, cultural staples. She cracks jokes. She shouts out her fan base.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONSTER")

MINAJ: (Rapping) My money's so tall that my Barbies got to climb it. Hotter than a Middle Eastern climate, violent.

MADDEN: She gives you bars and theatrics and everything that's going to become her calling card for decades to come. And, you know, within all the syllable bending and wild-eyed but very controlled growls, she anoints herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONSTER")

MINAJ: (Rapping) Yeah, I'm in that Tonka, color of Willy Wonka. You could be the king, but watch the Queen conquer.

MADDEN: She's just a tornado of energy on that track that blows everybody else away, and that's why I got to give it to "Monster."

BRITTANY LUSE, BYLINE: Honestly, I wholeheartedly agree.

MADDEN: (Laughter).

LUSE: That was just - oh, my gosh - it just felt like a true arrival.

MADDEN: Exactly. Yeah.

LUSE: A lot of her success, I think, is due to the shrewd way in which she packaged herself over the years. She is a theater kid. She went to the Fame high school - you know what I mean? - like, she's a total theater kid.

MADDEN: Yeah.

LUSE: But she very uniquely and, I think, really, like - it took a lot of foresight to come up with all of these different characters and alter egos and rapping personas for herself, like Roman Zolanski and the fictional family that she created for him, like, as one of her characters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROMAN HOLIDAY")

MADDEN: (Singing) Roman holiday, a Roman holiday.

(Rapping) You done? You tight? You suck at life? You don't want a round three? You done suffered twice.

MADDEN: Nicki the ninja, Nicki the Harajuku Barbie.

LUSE: Harajuku Barbie, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ITTY BITTY PIGGY")

MINAJ: (Rapping) I'm Nicki Minaj, Nicki Lewinski, Nicki the ninja, Nicki the boss, Nicki the Harajuku Barbie. Like, I mean, I don't even know why you girls bother at this point.

MADDEN: (Imitating Nicki Minaj) I don't even know why you girls bother.

LUSE: (Laughter).

MADDEN: Like, she literally has a whole community in her head that she can just pull out at any time...

LUSE: At any time.

MADDEN: ... And give you so much dexterity.

LUSE: It's almost like each of those personalities allows her to create more points of entry for her fans. But also, like, young kids were obsessed with her.

MADDEN: During her rise, she had this cross-generational appeal and accessibility that a lot of rappers couldn't have or refuse to have or refuse to reach because, you know, it wasn't hard, it wasn't cool to do. And she really broke the mold in so many ways.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOMENT 4 LIFE")

MINAJ: (Rapping) Don't worry about me and who I fire. I get what I desire. It's my empire. And yes, I call the shots. I am the umpire. I sprinkle holy water upon a vampire. In this very moment, I'm king.

LUSE: You know, as Nicki was coming up, rap was very much a genre that only let one woman win at a time. And, you know, she was the only female rapper on Young Money at the time of her ascent. Rap was very much steeped in this scarcity mindset.

MADDEN: Yeah. Resources are scarce. Studio time is scarce. Spots are scarce.

LUSE: Yeah. You know you're the only one let into the room, probably, and that the door has closed hard behind you. But still, she played into it. Why do you think she felt the need to do that in the beginning, when it seemed like she really was one of the only women in rap at that time?

MADDEN: A lot of this mindset about there can only be one was instilled in hip-hop very early on by management or by male rappers or by label execs because of the sexist belief that women can't work together or that they're catty or that they don't support each other. But Nicki's ascension - it had a lot to do with her being in an insular place in Young Money's crew. She even talked about how her own abilities were called into question early on, when she was on Young Money. She got impostor syndrome early on. She even got body dysmorphia from being in Young Money early on. And just being really in that cocooned space and knowing all the history that I just mentioned, she was working with what she had.

LUSE: Beef and controversy have become a part of her legacy - like any rapper of her caliber, right? I think about Miley Cyrus at the 2015 MTV Awards.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MINAJ: Back to this [expletive] that had a lot to say about me the other day in the press. Miley, what's good?

LUSE: I feel like the antics and the blowback from some of her beef and controversy has gotten more serious. Like, at one point, Nicki made some deeply unfounded claims, saying that the COVID-19 vaccines were causing impotence, which she attributed to her cousin's friend...

MADDEN: In Trinidad, right? Yeah (laughter).

LUSE: ...In Trinidad. And, like, actual public officials had to come out and be like, hey, this is not real. But also, like, I mean, there's Nicki's husband, and he was convicted of attempted rape back in 1995. Nicki has defended him and maybe did a little more. Like, in 2021, the alleged victim filed a lawsuit saying that Nicki indirectly threatened her and tried to get her to take the story back. And this behavior has drawn criticism from even her most dedicated Barbz. Like...

MADDEN: Yeah.

LUSE: ...How do we square this with both her own messaging around female empowerment and what's going on with rap today? I feel like that has kind of done a lot to change Nicki's legacy and her image in the past few years.

MADDEN: Yeah. The status of her legacy is in a very ambiguous place right now. The past few points in the timeline you just mentioned - I would venture to say none of it is truly out of the character that Nicki has shown us before. She's very much for women's empowerment, but she's not - I don't know, to her, if women's empowerment is synonymous with women's equality. I think it has a lot to do with being the top of your game, the top of your class, being the best you can be. And if that means smoking your adversaries in the process, so be it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED RUBY DA SLEEZE")

MINAJ: (Rapping) Don't die, die, die. Hundred rounds on that grrah-ta-ta (ph). Real one lick a shot-ta-ta (ph). She my little vibe, my little ah, ah, ah.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR Music's Sidney Madden and It's Been A Minute host Brittany Luse. To hear more of their conversation, check out the full It's Been A Minute podcast episode.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED RUBY DA SLEEZE")

MINAJ: (Singing) Do if he ever miss me. (Rapping) When the Queen leave, b****** want to come out like a cockroach until I'm cooking in the kitchen like a pot roast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Sidney Madden
Sidney Madden is a reporter and editor for NPR Music. As someone who always gravitated towards the artforms of music, prose and dance to communicate, Madden entered the world of music journalism as a means to authentically marry her passions and platform marginalized voices who do the same.
Brittany Luse
Brittany Luse is an award-winning journalist, on-air host, and cultural critic. She is the host of It's Been a Minute and For Colored Nerds. Previously Luse hosted The Nod and Sampler podcasts, and co-hosted and executive produced The Nod with Brittany and Eric, a daily streaming show. She's written for Vulture and Harper's Bazaar, among others, and edited for the podcasts Planet Money and Not Past It. Luse and her work have been profiled by publications like The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vulture, and Teen Vogue.