On Monday night, Kendrick Lamar delivered what is already a career-defining guest verse on Big Sean’s Hall of Fame leftover, “Control.” Late in the verse, Kendrick raps a list of 11 peers whom he respects, but wants to make irrelevant. It’s earned him a lot of headlines in the past 24 hours. But there's a serious omission: he never mentions Nicki Minaj.
There are a lot of ways you can read into this. Before calling out rappers like Drake and J. Cole, Kendrick lists other MCs he believes are on his level: Jay Z, Nas, Eminem, and Andre 3000. He doesn’t mention both Lil Wayne and Kanye West, two names we know he respects. I’d like to believe the same of Nicki, though it might have been a little harder to convince the general public she belonged: out of any accomplished, working MC, Nicki Minaj has her credibility tested and questioned the most.
Just last week, TMZ framed a lyric from struggling underground rapper Ransom to make it seem like he’d claimed he used to write lyrics (or ghostwrite) for Nicki Minaj. Ransom says the lyric in question (“Before Nicki was wearing those crazy wigs/ I was doing verses for her, just hoping she made it big”) is simply about working with Nicki before she blew up, and that’s probably true. Still, Nicki was ambushed with a deliberately inflammatory question: “What do you think about Ransom saying that he ghostwrote some of your songs?”
Responding to the paparazzi is part of Nicki’s job, and while usually she goes silly—“I am a gay rapper!” she yelled at Los Angeles photogs back in 2011—last Tuesday’s run-in was different. Nicki snapped upon hearing the accusation that a man used to write lyrics for her. She defended herself on the spot:
What? I rap better than him. Who the fuck is he? Crazy? Yo, I'm not even a man and niggas got my dick in they mouth. Get the fuck outta here. Are you fucking serious? I'm undisputed because I'm the only female rapper that day one... I don't need no motherfucking ghostwriter. So if you're telling that lie then you must be real fucking desperate. And you still ain't gonna pop. How about that? How a wack nigga gonna write my shit? What are you talking—I haven't even heard about that in the last five years. I'll slaughter these niggas. Period.
Ransom wasn’t really dissing Nicki, though, which she eventually realized. She wrote on Twitter:
The line CAN be & WAS taken out of context! PERIOD! Shlda been reworded. Ima protect my credibility @ ALL costs! #WishUDaBest XO
That’s no apology, though, and good thing it isn’t. TMZ cornered Nicki in that perfect gossip rag way, and Ransom was the unfortunate sacrifice, but her reaction (exaggerations aside) was justified. Like she said, she has to “protect [her] credibility at all costs,” including at length and in front of a sea of cameras. Her response reminds us just how seriously rappers—and especially female rappers—take ghostwriting claims. Nicki was the victim of a stereotype (and it was nowhere near the first time she’d dealt with the accusation, either) that’s made more complicated by the fact that a lot of famous female rappers didn’t write all of their own music.
Biggie wrote rhymes, and recorded reference tracks, for Lil’ Kim. Jay Z penned lyrics for Foxy Brown. Just two years ago, Speak wrote “Gucci Gucci” for Kreayshawn. It’s no minor issue in rap: there’s already a stigma attached to anyone who’s employed ghostwriters. The pressure on Nicki, given the genre’s history, is twofold. She’s had to work twice as hard to earn respect. So of course she lost it when that cameraman asked her that question, and she had every right to. And that any question about her writing would arise again right now, in the twilight of Summer 2013, is particularly tragic.
Nicki Minaj is on a roll right now. She’s been turning out a stream of guest verses this year that has her winning back the rap literati who criticized her for pandering to pop audiences on her last record. More often than not, Nicki’s (mostly male) collaborators are the casualties of the warpath she’s on in her effort to prove herself as a rapper.
Back in May, Nicki went on Hot 97 to talk about the fallout she’d had with the station after on-air personality Peter Rosenberg dissed her pop smash, “Starships,” during a pre-show set before she was supposed to headline the station’s annual Summer Jam concert in 2012. She ended up pulling out from the show at the last minute, and the specific, touchy nature of Rosenberg’s statement led to a lot of drawn-out conversations about what constitutes “real hip-hop.” I wrote an article defending Nicki Minaj’s decision to go pop on her sophomore album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, arguing that expanding her sound only heightened her influence and credibility.
Nicki responded to the story on Twitter, clarifying that one statement I picked at—her saying “I did too much"—was not her admitting fault in experimenting with pop, but her explaining that side projects and obligations took away from some of the time she wanted to focus on the album. One thing I didn’t misinterpret was this statement, from the same interview:
If I really wanted to, right now, I could go back in and make another pop song like that to sell, and I’m choosing not to do it. I’m choosing to get back to my essence and just feed the core hip-hop fan.
The raps Nicki Minaj has been putting out all year—and really, since that interview—prove that she’s keeping her word, feeding the core hip-hop fan at every turn. Yes, the woman who upstaged Jay Z, Kanye West, and Rick Ross on “Monster” during her rookie year is back. And if you sense a vengeance in her rhymes, it might have to do with the post-“Starships” redemption tour she was forced to do.
In the past few months alone, Nicki has had star turns on everything from French Montana's "Freaks" to Chris Brown's "Love More." On Rich Gang’s “Tapout,” she steals the show with a rap about how her pussy is shaved and worth a million dollars. She makes Busta Rhymes’ “Twerk It” and Ciara’s “I’m Out” listenable. On Nelly’s “Get Like Me,” she raps about how she doesn’t have to suck dick to ride in a nice car. It’s the hottest line on the song. All of the conversation surrounding DJ Khaled’s “I Wanna Be With You” was about her verse. In 2013, we can admit that Nicki is a great rapper again.
Sonically, her voice alone makes her a welcome addition to most tracks, but more importantly, it’s the narrative that grabs us. With all of the machismo of hip-hop, hearing a woman unabashedly rap about how well she fucks dudes is simply entertaining. It's refreshing. What separates her from women who’ve done this in the past is the cheeky self-awareness (“High School”’s “I let him play with my pussy, then lick it off of his fingers” doesn’t even feel vulgar), an arguably tighter grasp on flow and delivery (coming up under Lil Wayne will do that), and a penchant for flashy non sequiturs that remind us she’s getting to money just as well as any of the boys (“Only rap bitch on the Forbes list”).
Nicki, of course, rapped her ass off employing those same tactics for half of Roman Reloaded, a fact that might have gotten glossed over in the “what-about-the-pop” reaction cycle to the album. But now she’s consistently hopping on more traditional rap songs with everyone’s favorite rappers, and she’s also consistently outshining them. It’s been awesome to watch: she’s taking back her rap credits by lyrical force.
Back in April, in response to a question about whether she feels pressure in the lead-up to her third album, rumored to be titled The Pinkprint, Nicki told MTV, “I care less about the acceptance and more about me being the lyrical, ill bitch that I am, knowing that I am lyrically better than most of the male rappers out there—yes, I’m gonna say it. I don’t get the credit that I deserve... I’ve put in my work lyrically, and people act like it doesn’t exist.” Kendrick should've heard her. She’s adamant, and very vocal, about the fact that the requirement to prove herself has to do with her gender. She’s right, and it’s a grim reality—but the better Nicki gets, the closer she gets to inverting it.
Nicki knows that, and that’s why you can tell that she goes out of her way to shine on guest verses. Three years ago, she ranted about her infamous behavior at photo shoots, explaining that, “You have to be a beast; that’s the only way they respect you." She brings the same attitude to her music, which is a blessing for us as listeners. Nicki offers a really exciting perspective on what can be a lot of dull, trite material. Her talent would be remarkable coming from anyone, but there’s an additional allure that has a lot to do with her being a woman. After years of doubt, it's starting to work to her advantage.
It’s the same realization Eminem came to when he said, "My skin, is it starting to work to my benefit now?" on "White America." It’s the reason Kanye West is still screaming about “pink ass Polos with a fucking backpack” on his new album: he knows that being the anti-gangster was both the main obstacle in, and the saving grace of, his rap career. There’s a simple advantage in fan curiosity when one is able to switch things up. The combination of skill and a unique point of view is always going to win people over, but Nicki Minaj, Eminem, and Kanye’s talents and personas are all amplified because they function in such great contrast to the status quo.
“Monster” is the most famous example of Nicki knowing what’s at stake with a star guest performance. Her features on Trey Songz’s “Bottoms Up,” Ludacris’ “My Chick Bad,” Drake’s “Make Me Proud,” Big Sean’s “Dance (Ass),” and Birdman's "Y.U. Mad" show the same awareness. Her repeated dalliances with the pop formula seek to diminish the impact of Nicki’s accomplishments in the eyes of rap purists, but then she gets on tracks with her contemporaries, embarrasses them, and breaks down any conspiracy that her relevance is only attributable to records like “Super Bass.”
Nicki having the standout verse on a record is a multi-faceted win. It’s a victory for her credibility as an MC in the generally competitive world of hip-hop, but it’s also a victory for her as a woman operating within a genre that by nature wants to disqualify her. She knows that there’s a respect greater than record sales and YouTube views to be gained every time she lays a guest verse—especially on a song with a man—and that’s why she hasn’t slacked on one in a long time, and probably never will.
Even if everything in the world was politically just, Nicki would still be rapping well out of respect for her craft, but going off the way things are now, we can’t ignore that there’s a larger social framework with which to view her raps against. Nicki’s work will always have this additional context to it, and it’s a responsibility that she doesn’t avoid. Her next album will benefit from that tenacity, but until then, we’ll have to look to her guest appearances. Good luck to anyone who has to get on a track with her.
Ernest Baker is a writer living in Los Angeles. He's the rare case of a sensitive thug who doesn't need hugs.