Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Barbies and Monsters: Nicki Minaj & Lady Gaga vs. the Sophomore Slump

By Kurt Bitter, Vertigo Shtick contributor

In 2012 Nicki Minaj finds herself in a similar position to Lady Gaga in 2011. She’s nearing the release of her sophomore album and is well poised to establish herself as one of hip hop’s heavy hitters, not to mention one of the most innovative, shrewd and successful acts in the industry. But she’s also transforming many hip hop stereotypes that have existed for decades: that hip hop artists can only become “crossover” artists when featured on a pop remix for an obligatory rap verse or that hip hop itself is innately masculine and hetero-normative. The changes that Minaj is effecting in the hip hop industry are similar in scope (and in some ways nature) to those that Lady Gaga has attempted for pop, but certain qualities of Minaj’s persona and various emphases she’s placed on her career have been ensuring her success in ways that have hindered or escaped Gaga entirely. 2012 will be for Minaj what 2011 wasn’t for Gaga.

Minaj’s journey into the mainstream parallels the path many rappers have trodden before her. After releasing a series of mixtapes between 2007 and 2009, Minaj was signed to Lil Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment and was featured in a solo verse on “BedRock,” a monster of a collaboration which peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. To continue building a name for herself, Minaj was featured on a whopping eight singles before the first single off her debut album Pink Friday was released. The album yielded eight of its own singles, yet Minaj was also featured in an additional sixteen tracks since that time. While collaboration is much more common in hip hop than it is in pop, I’m unable to come up with an artist that has been as heavily utilized as Minaj has been in recent years. Even more noteworthy are her crossovers into the pop realm with her collaborations with Britney Spears, Rihanna, Willow Smith, Christina Aguilera and Madonna.

Minaj’s propensity for collaboration was perhaps a detriment to her early career as it fueled the notion that she was unable to stand alone as a solo act. Granted that very well may have been true at the time; few artists have enough personality, stage presence and confidence to captivate audiences within their first year of mainstream exposure. However, Minaj has worked this collaboration to her advantage in several ways. Being afforded the opportunity to tour in support of Young Money prepared her well enough to deliver a huge 17-song set as the opening act for Spears’s Femme Fatale Tour, and these experiences will undoubtedly benefit her performance when she tours solo later this year. Collaborating with hip-hop-heavyweights like Ludacris, Kanye West and Jay Z have cemented her credibility in a scene that largely depends on it, while her forays into pop have broadened her fan base even further.

Gaga, on the other hand, made a name for herself as a solo act from the start. Since her debut she has only been featured on a handful of tracks by other artists, with the most successful being “Video Phone” with Beyonce which peaked at 65(!!) on the Hot 100. The biggest detriment to Gaga regarding her lack of collaboration isn’t the lack of exposure it provided her, but rather the polarizing effect it has on her potential fans. Minaj’s work with Spears converted many of Spears’s fans into Barbies; meanwhile, Gaga’s only significant work with another pop artist was with Beyonce, and their two fanbases don’t overlap enough to even cause much conflict amonst fans. The effect is that many fans feel they can either be a Spears OR a Gaga fan, a Rihanna OR a Gaga fan, or a Katy Perry OR a Gaga fan. Meanwhile anyone can be a Barbie, and this is especially significant considering the drastic divides that exist in hip hop already.

Another of Minaj’s noteworthy qualities is her ability to produce epic work without a sense of pretension. Minaj’s recordings are never single-toned; often they’re some combination of angry or flirty or witty or hyper-active, and her vocal delivery is always razor-sharp. In many ways she’s challenging the manner in which artists have traditionally rapped, and for all intents and purposes it’s worked for her. The mode in which she introduces her work is similar to Spears, often with little introduction and rarely a judgment on its quality – “this is my single and I very much hope you enjoy it,” she may as well be tweeting. Chances are that her listeners will like it, but if they don’t at least the complaint is never that it was “over-hyped.”

Gaga, on the other hand, is known for immense aggrandizement of her work. She lauded Born This Way as the “anthem for our generation,” and it seemed as though each subsequent single or video release after the title track was the “greatest work of her career.” She constantly tweets about how much effort she puts into her craft, and makes sure that every intent, theme, and reference she creates is understood by her audience. How could anything live up to this monstrous amount of hype? Fans undoubtedly appreciate the work that Gaga puts into her craft, but with the countless tweets and TV appearances and magazine interviews in which Gaga talks about how she works so hard to out-do herself, the music eventually seems to feel just like that: like work. Gaga certainly enjoys this work, but it doesn’t seem to come to her as effortlessly as it does for Minaj, and at least in the opinion of this writer good pop music should seem effortless for the artist -- producers, on the other hand, should almost always work overtime!

The last trait that Minaj has on her side is that, in many ways, she’s a natural evolution from her predecessors. Female rappers who reigned supreme before her, such as Missy Elliott, Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Eve, and Queen Latifah, were all flirty, rowdy, inappropriate and eccentric; Minaj merely takes these traits to the next level while adding her own personal spin on things. This way she’s able to remain her own individual while also allowing the small group of successful female rappers to evolve, and because nothing about her is alarmingly different or shocking her image and music is relatively easy for audiences to digest.

The differences between Minaj and Gaga are blindingly apparent in this regard: Gaga tried desperately from the start to distinguish herself from her contemporaries (as well as predecessors, but ask Madonna how well that one’s going). It’s already been mentioned how this has had a polarizing effect on her potential fans, but the risk she also took (which ultimately didn’t pay off) was in evolving her music too quickly. Musical trends in Top 40 over the past decade have shifted more and more towards dance-centered records, and while Gaga’s most recent album certainly fits the bill in terms of the speed (BPM) of its tracks, it’s simply very difficult for most listeners to dance to a large number of tracks off Born This Way. Most of what made The Fame Monster hugely successful as a dance pop album is lacking on Born This Way, such as danceable song production and lyrical content that listeners can either relate to or have no difficulty understanding. Apart from distancing herself so far from other pop artists, Gaga effectively distanced herself abnormally far from her own self that she introduced to the world in The Fame Monster. It’s not difficult to envision Born This Way being successful had Gaga released several albums beforehand, easing herself into her radically different sound. Because of this it likely wouldn’t surprise many if her next album were more along the lines of her first.

Given all that has been explained above, every sign point towards Nicki Minaj enjoying a wildly successful year. Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded’s handful of promo singles and lead single "Starships" showcase a wide variety of sounds and attitudes that seamlessly expand upon what Minaj introduced in Pink Friday while still remaining true to the artist that her Barbz have grown to love. The only thing that could possibly make this pop enthusiast more excited would be an appearance by Miss Britney Spears, which rumors say will occur on Dr. Luke-produced bonus track “Masquerade.” But either way, come April 3, Minaj is sure to slay the world.

Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded is released April 3, 2011.

More on Nicki Minaj on Vertigo Shtick:

Reductive: How Dr. Luke & RedOne Gave Katy Perry, Jessie J, Flo Rida & Nicki Minaj the Same Old Song

Nicki Minaj and Big Sean Do a Little 'Dance (A$$)' [Remix]

Femme Fatale Nicki Minaj: Five Great Featured Raps (with Lyrics!)

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