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Nicki Minaj: Beneath The Bravado

A few weeks ago, Morning Edition launched a new feature that explores popular music and the cultural phenomena surrounding it. After addressing Justin Bieber two weeks ago, the discussion turns to Nicki Minaj. Click the "Listen to the Story" link above to hear music writer Maura Johnston and Jay Smooth (of Illdoctrine.com) discuss the rapper's place in the hip-hop mainstream.

Rapper Nicki Minaj, born Onika Tanya Maraj, is the first woman in several years to penetrate hip-hop's hyper-masculine mainstream. As a member of Lil Wayne's Young Money collective, she broke that glass ceiling with playfully raunchy lyrics and a sassy, slippery persona that constantly shifts between personalities and accents, often in mid-verse. Like Lady Gaga, Minaj's variation on "girl power" attitude has brought her a legion of young female devotees, whom she's fondly dubbed "my Barbies." But with that cult following has come an equal share of non-believers who worry that her self-styled "Harajuku Barbie" image and reliance on sex appeal only reinforce the hip-hop patriarchy. And as the former acting student keeps creating new characters in each song, many wonder who the real Nicki Minaj even is.

Doubters may find some clues in her 2008 mixtape track "Autobiography." Over a mournful instrumental borrowed from Beanie Sigel's "I Can Feel It in the Air," Minaj raps with no trace of her usual bravado, as she remembers a childhood filled with trauma at the hands of her violent, drug-addicted father. Her voice simmers with anger and regret as she delivers one verse as a message to a long-lost lover and another to her unborn child. Though this particular life story may be a blend of fact and fiction -- her mother is alive and well, though the song indicates otherwise -- "Autobiography" hints at an untapped well of depth and gravitas underneath Minaj's hot-pink wigs.

Artist: Nicki Minaj

Song: "Autobiography"

CD: Sucka Free: The Mixtape

Genre: Hip-Hop

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Flip up and down your radio dial searching for the sound of a woman rapper, and you'll be doing that for some time.

(Soundbite of song, "My Chick Bad")

Ms. NICKI MINAJ (Rapper): (Rapping) It's going down, basement, Friday the 13th, guess who's playing Jason? Tuck yourself in, you better hold on to your teddy. It's "Nightmare on Elm Street," and guess who's playing Freddy? Oh...

MONTAGNE: That is Nicki Minaj. She's the lone female MC on the charts. Music commentators Maura Johnston and Jay Smooth are talking about Nicki Minaj and the drought of women in hip-hop.

(Soundbite of song, "My Chick Bad")

Ms. MINAJ: (Rapping) I'm in dat wam bam purple lam' damn bitch you been a fan. Been a fan...

Ms. MAURA JOHNSTON (Writer/Editor, IllDoctrine.com): Was that a woman rapping on the radio?

Mr. JAY SMOOTH (IllDoctrine.com): What? Was that an actual female voice rapping on the radio? I didn't know that that still happened. There hasn't been a female that was heard...

Ms. JOHNSTON: In a really long time.

Mr. SMOOTH: ...in quite a long time. What did you think it is about Nicki Minaj that's letting her break through the glass ceiling?

Ms. JOHNSTON: I think right now female pop stars with outsized personas are definitely taking the pole position in pop radio supremacy. And she definitely has a big persona around her, you know, with her Harajuku Barbie look and her crazy accents where she can go from, like, a Cockney accent to a Queen's accent, to a Valley Girl drawl.

(Soundbite of song, "Out My Face")

Ms. MINAJ: (Rapping) Might back up on 'em, Vroom-vroom, with the pickup truck. That blue and yellow, yeah that's the Carmelo Jag. I'm bout to leave him, hit him with that Mayweather. I get the thumbs up, like I'm hailing a yellow cab. My flow nuts like M&M's in a yellow bag.

Mr. SMOOTH: The Mariah Carey collaboration, "Up Out My Face," is interesting to me because if you listen to the lyrics of the song, as a whole, it's about a woman being independent and being able to kick a man to the curb if he's not treating her right, because she's successful on her own. But then, when you look at the video, you see Nicki and Mariah literally inside Barbie packaging, as Barbie dolls...

Ms. JOHNSTON: Right.

Mr. SMOOTH: ...rapping and singing from inside the Barbie box.

Ms. JOHNSTON: Yeah. Barbie is a really interesting choice, just because she has defined white female sexuality for so long. So this is sort of reclamatory, in a way.

Mr. SMOOTH: I think you could read it that way.

Ms. JOHNSTON: Yeah.

Mr. SMOOTH: But you could also read it as encouraging black women to try to conform to white standards of beauty.

Ms. JOHNSTON: Very true.

(Soundbite of song, "Shaking it for Daddy")

Mr. ROBIN THICKE (Singer): (Singing) Whoa, 'cause she's shaking it for daddy. 'Cause shaking it for me. She's shaking it for daddy. She's shaking it for me...

Ms. JOHNSTON: It's funny because, you know, she is operating in a very male-dominated genre right now. I've worked in a lot of male-dominated environments before, and, I mean, there is a currency that is bestowed on women who can keep up with really sexually-charged banter. It's almost like taking the power of leering out of the man's hands and putting it into their own.

(Soundbite of song, "Shaking it for Daddy")

Ms. MINAJ: (Rapping) Ting-a-Ling-a-ling, school bell a-ring-a-ling, shift stick the ding-a-ling. Ball, Ling Yao Ming-a-ling. 'Scuse me, what happened? I'm flyer than a robin. I'm flyer than an eagle. Yeah, Donovan McNabban.

Mr. SMOOTH: I think she can spit, as the kids like to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMOOTH: She's doing traditional New York rhyming with internal rhymes and a lot of structure and flow. Nicki just happens to be this voluptuous woman who sort of resembles a hip-hop Jessica Rabbit. But since hip-hop as a whole has been geared towards representing women a particular way, if she represents herself that way only 10 percent of the time, the public will perceive her as that and only that.

She's walking down a path that's hard to tread, because she's burdened with being the only woman out there trying to represent.

(Soundbite of song, "Shaking it for Daddy")

Ms. MINAJ: (Rapping) Oh, Papi. I need to dance.

MONTAGNE: That's Jay Smooth, who blogs at Illdoctrine.com, and music writer Maura Johnston, talking about rapper Nicki Minaj. To hear more music from Nicki Minaj, visit nprmusic.org.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(Soundbite of song, "Shaking it for Daddy")

Ms. MINAJ: (Rapping) I'm flyer than an eagle that's balding. I throw it back like hair lines that's balding. I say balling, I don't mean Spaldings. I never answer when the referees calling.

Mr. THICKE: (Singing) She got me jerkin in the back. Think I'm bout to fall in love, cause she make that booty roll when she cumin down the pole. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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