Monday, November 1, 2010

Post-Kanye: Nicki Minaj

Following up on Sole's question about whether or not "post-Kanye" is a genre (and bracketing, for the moment, my initial reaction).

Instead of Drake, I'm going to propose as the seminal text of this speculative genre the first verse of Nicki Minaj's "Still I Rise."

This verse, in which Minaj appropriates the voice of the "hater" and turns it into a sort of negative mythologizer, completes the turn that Kanye's music's central implicit critique had begun.

To sketch out what I mean roughly: my central claim is that Kanye's important contribution to hip hop has been as an internal node which reconfigures the popular conception of the hater. Before Kanye, the hater was hip hop's way of figuring a sort of antagonistic ignorance. This comes in a number of flavors, from an ignorance of the emcee's work ethic or biographical hardship, to a willful disavowal of the emcee's inarguable talent. Likewise, the reactions vary from bemused indifference to conversion attempts.

With the rise of Kanye came the rise of the "I <3 Haters" meme. Kanye lets us see what we've been blind to all along - the haters vocal ignorance is not to be disdained, but to be capitalized upon! Ignorance is no longer even a relevant category, as the critic* is transformed into a commodity. So you can love them, because they are no longer castrated figures of potential negativity, but instead are simply assets.

This, of course, leaves hip hop's structural narrative at an impasse. The hater as commodity proposition is something that only works so long it is positively avowed - if people stop making the argument, it stops being true. Like a real commodity, this new concept is a sort of organized negativity, an absence that structures presence. Thus Kanye's revolution within hip hop is to basically remove the possibility of a structural antagonist.

In this analysis, the problem with calling Drake post-Kanye is, basically, that he is more like an acolyte of Kanye's. He is one of the ones most vocally preaching that one must love thy hater, as it does wonders for the authenticity of the Degrassi kid rapping about his rags to riches story.

What "Still I Rise" does differently, though, is to take Kanye's critique and reintegrate it into the larger narrative. This song in particular, with all its transcendent kitsch, gives to the hater the necessary negative force to constitute a real threat that must be struggled with while also keeping the lovable commodity intact. What this results in is basically a hater who has an uncanny ability to see the important themes that underlie an emcee, but only negatively.

The mythology that Nicki Minaj attempts to sell is never more perfectly stated than in the first verse of this song. She is post-geographical (a Queens native signed to Young Money; "and what's her nationality she Chinese right?") and post-heterosexual ("you know her last name Minaj she a lesbian! / and she ain't never comin' out") and situated within a (really very weird) female pantheon ("she tryna be like Lil' Kim her picture looks the same" "she ain't the next bitch"). The only theme that's missing, and this is crucial, is exactly her ongoing thematic self-commodification - for one verse, Nicki Minaj is not a Harajuku Barbie. And it is, I would argue, exactly because this structural movement takes precedence.

Which starts to point in the direction of why Nicki Minaj is so fucking great, but then I'll have to write that some other day

*Critic, in this sense, is something that the rap lexicon would recognize but is not the same as the category born through hip hop. The gap between the "hater" and the "critic" is, basically, that critics actually exist - haters are just extrapolations of rhetoric. This is why Jay-Z can say "I'm like fuck critics, you can kiss my whole asshole / if you don't like my lyrics you can press fast forward." Here though, I just mean by critic something like "negative assessor."

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