In this week's Pop is Not a Dirty Word, columnist Douglas Greenwood unpacks the controversy-shrouded Nicki Minaj show at the O2, and why her killer abilities as a rap lyricist mean she should retire the poppy era tracks that made her a household name.
Nicki Minaj might struggle to fill an arena in 2019, but she sure knows how to work a crowd.
Minaj put on a wild performance on the first UK date of her NickiWRLD tour at The O2 on Monday night, but in the lead-up to this run of European shows with emo rap wunderkind JuiceWRLD, Minaj’s longstanding influence as the queen of rap had fallen into question.
Having first been billed as a collaboration tour with fellow rapper Future with a then-not-incarcerated 6ix9ine as support, Future eventually dropped out and the latter encountered legal issues. Then, dozens of dates were rescheduled in order to ensure Nicki could wrap her last record ‘Queen‘. Outwardly, the whole thing seemed to be a spiralling mess. Refunds were issued to Future fans (as well as Nicki’s who weren’t feeling her new era) and tickets weren’t selling as well as they ought to. In fact, it took a last minute 2-for-1 deal for top tier seats to help the show at the O2 sell out.
After a year in which she made a bizarre shout-out to Margaret Thatcher, aligned with music’s most controversial figures, and chose to follow her own path instead of the one pre-set for most mainstream artists, she had, apparently, started to pay the price. In a profoundly woke pop cultural era, being loyal to questionable people can kill your career. It’s a very un-pop star thing to do. And here’s the rub: maybe Nicki Minaj doesn’t want to be a pop star anymore.
It was seven years ago now that Minaj made that first step towards a new musical vision with the release of ‘Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded’, a critic-dividing record that saw Minaj work with pop heavyweights of the time such as Redone to create a noisy record stuffed with party anthems that has aged quickly. Tracks like ‘Starships’ and ‘Pound the Alarm’, the epitome of bangers at the time, have rusted. Listening to them on stage on Tuesday, nearly a decade after they dropped, Minaj throwing her mic to the crowd to shout the words back to her, you realise they probably weren’t imbued with the kind of love artists should have for their work.
Back-to-their-roots hip hop has always been an refuge for rappers who’ve rejected the idea of assimilating into the mainstream, and so for Nicki Minaj to return to that sphere in the years since ‘Roman Reloaded’ was a wise and admirable move. Let it be known that Minaj isn’t desperately yearning for a quick money grab anymore (the fact she stayed over half an hour after her curfew time at her London show, thus incurring a £300,000 fine, is testament to that). Instead, she’s trying her best to retain that level of international fame – the kind that can sell out arenas with young audiences who turn up to hear electropop bangers – while remaining true to her craft.
The deep dives into her back catalogue of exemplary verses that she did at Monday’s show took the setlist up to a cool 36 songs, and it was a reminder of why so many fell in love with her in the first place. She also brought out Stylo G, Lisa Mercedez and Ms Banks in an attempt to give these younger, lesser known urban artists a wider platform. It’s a move that works for Drake, who pulled Fredo out at his most recent Manchester show to play a rendition of Funky Friday, but only because his demographic are more dedicated hip hop fans. The peaks and troughs of Minaj’s career mean she’s cast a much wider net with her fanbase, and so moments like that ended up sagging her show. She’s a rapper playing arena shows to primarily pop fans, and that dichotomy between the artist and audience’s preferred tastes was palpable on the night.
Still, it was great to see a woman who rightfully deserves her self appointed royal status as the Queen of rap do her best to put on as much of a glitzy show as possible. In future, it would be great to see her fade out the era that put a spanner in the works in her ascent to rap royalty; even if it means playing a slightly smaller venue, it would give her the space to explore the stuff true hip hop fans of hers want to hear, and focus on it instead of churning out those creaky electro-pop tracks that have got sort of grating over the past decade.
I don’t side with Nicki Minaj for the way she co-signs abusers without thinking of the repercussions, and the way those co-signs impact her majority queer fanbase. But for a woman to make use of her power, and move forward as a musician making hip-hop on her own terms (whether said music is good or not) is admirable. The framing of Nicki Minaj as a pop star doesn’t fit her; she is, for better or worse, still the rapper she was before the world caught on.