Nicki Minaj is championed by Lil Wayne; works with Mariah Carey, Kanye West, Christina Aguilera, Rihanna and Eminem; and is the first woman to be included on MTV's "Hottest MC" list.
Nicki Minaj is changing the hip-hop landscape
In the world of hip-hop, there's one MC's name on everyone's lips at the moment: Nicki Minaj. Although the cartoonish rapper - who sports giant pink wings and outfits that would make Lady Gaga jealous - released her debut album, Pink Friday, only a couple of months ago, she's made a name for herself fast. She is championed by Lil Wayne; works with Mariah Carey, Kanye West, Christina Aguilera, Rihanna and Eminem; and is the first woman to be included on MTV's "Hottest MC" list.
Minaj's style is brash, playful and tough at the same time. She channels a series of alter egos, including "Harajuku Barbie" and "Roman Zolanksi", but there's more to her than cutesy schtick. She's not afraid to ruffle feathers: in a song called Roman's Revenge she mocks older rappers and their bids for respect, saying "now I'm a wrap your coffin with a bow".
She may not back out of a scrap with another MC, but Minaj is happy about the fact that her rocketing profile is throwing open the doors to a new generation of women. "I realise that when this album does well there are doors that will be kicked open for female rappers immediately," she said in an interview with the Guardian at the time of Pink Friday's launch. "I always wanted to be someone who spearheaded a movement, not just did something that worked for me. I want to get girls excited about being female rappers again." And it seems to be happening. The New York Times called Minaj "the most important new female voice in hip-hop since Missy Elliott". She is also touring with Lil Wayne this spring.
Although a glance through the charts shows that male rappers are still outnumbering their female counterparts by far, there are plenty of other women around showing that you don't need a Y chromosome to work a mike. In the UK, the Londoner Lady Sovereign was the big success story a few years ago (who said that she, in turn, was inspired by Ms Dynamite, the first female MC she'd heard), alongside Speech DeBelle, who won the prestigious Mercury prize in 2009. Over in the US, the Nashville-raised starlet Ke$ha, who raps more than she sings on her latest EP, Cannibal, will continue to make headlines this year as she embarks on her first world tour.
Ke$ha's music is much chirpier and more accessible than Minaj's - it's pop, not hip-hop - but it can be seen as a sign that female rappers have been embraced by the mainstream. And although, like a lot of women who MC, she plays up to a male audience with pouts and photo shoots, a couple of her songs provide a challenge to stereotypical male rapper behaviour.
With more minimal beats and lo-fi production, the Baltimore rapper Rye Rye isn't going for the same market as self-described party girl Ke$ha, but she's got the potential to blow up too. Championed by MIA, who's become a household name for mashing up indie, hip-hop, world music and electro, Rye Rye's sound is similarly DIY-sounding, but it's got a more conventional, fast-talking swagger to the vocals. Although the release of her first album, Go! Pop! Bang!, has been pushed back a couple of times (it's slated to come out this spring), she's got a mixtape, RYEot PowRR, coming out soon, and you can watch a video for her song Sunshine, featuring MIA, online.
Chris Bowman, who runs a website called femalerappers.net from his home in Louisville because, in his words: "I feel like the media doesn't give the same opportunity to female rappers as they do male rappers," is a fan of Rye Rye and will be interviewing her later this year. He also rates Patwa, a rapper born in the Bronx to Jamaican parents, who released a mixtape called One Gyal Army in December. On What Can I Say, the single now out on Higher Heights music, she raps over reggae-inflected beats, with plenty of hip-hop attitude, but without playing the gender card. "I don't see her slowing down anytime soon", Bowman told me in an e-mail exchange.
"The success that Nicki Minaj has had this past year has had an astounding impact for femcees," he added, and pointed to her two million Twitter followers as an example of how women are expanding their fan base online. Labels and recording studios may be male-dominated, but anyone can put out a mixtape on blogs, make a MySpace page, put together a video for YouTube and spread the word on Twitter and Facebook. "Now women can be taken more seriously from within the [hip-hop] community," Bowman said, "because they mean business and they have the fan base to back it up."
It's also a good time for fans of more established "femcees". Philadelphia rapper Eve, who's been taking some time out to star in the films xXx, Whip It and the television series Glee, is back with a new album, Lip Lock, this May. It will feature contributions by Pharrell Williams, Timbaland, Dr Dre and Shakira and is reported to be more upbeat than her previous work. As for the trailblazer Lil' Kim, who hit the big time a decade and a half ago with the help of The Notorious BIG, she is releasing a mixtape called Black Friday on Valentine's Day this year, while she continues to work on a new album with Dr Dre and 50 Cent.
It's easy to see Lil' Kim as a forerunner of Minaj, and the two tried to work together last year, but they fell out during the process and the lyrics on Minaj's Roman's Revenge are thought to be targeted at Kim. Kim retaliated at a live show on New Year's Eve, in a rant that included the phrase "you ain't taking nothing from me!"
Beef like this, of course, only fuels publicity and record sales, and when it's with an artist as high profile as Lil' Kim, it can only be seen as flattering.
Minaj and her generation have an exciting future ahead of them, so keep your eye on the blogs, on YouTube and on Twitter to see who's going to make the next leap out of the underground.