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There's a great deal about the notion of celebrity that exists outside of flashing cameras, millions of followers, and universal acclaim. Often times, news headlines about stars tell a deeper story about who they are and how their actions reflect the culture that they represent. "2018 Lessons" is a two-part series that looks at some of hip hop culture's biggest names to understand more about their biggest headlines and the conflicts that exist beneath them. Hopefully, this will facilitate larger discussion about celebrity and hip hop culture, what we celebrate, and how to bring much needed change. Today's installment looks at Nicki Minaj and Drake, and how some of the biggest headlines of the year contributed to a new understanding about their levels of imperviousness.
Nicki Minaj: The Instability of the Female Presence in the Mainstream Music Industry
Cardi B's "Bodak Yellow" came out in 2017. But, it took until 2018 for the toxic conversation about women in rap to once again rear its head. There can be endless amounts of male rappers coexisting in the same space, talking about the same things, while women are delegated to one or two in the spotlight at the time. Sure, publications show love to rising women – Megan Thee Stallion, Asian Doll, and Molly Brazy are three currently in favor at many of rap's go-to publications. But, in terms of industry, it's usually a façade. These women stand adjacent to the climbable ladder that XXL's freshman list or other great PR moves place male artists in position to traverse. They typically wallow around the blogspace and acquire niche fanbases for a few years, only to be inevitably swallowed up by the next rising class.
Nicki Minaj's existence in this space was largely skirted around because prior to 2010, this internet yearly rinse cycle didn't exist. Of course, women in rap still struggled. But, she benefited from a cosign from Lil Wayne in an age before these kinds of alley-oops were given on social media left and right. By the time that her debut album, Pink Friday, dropped in 2010, she was well on her way to pop star fandom. Rap soon followed suit. She was propelled into a deity-like space where her achievements over the years continued to stack on each other.
Cardi B and Nicki Minaj were always destined to clash. The industry couldn't allow two women to thrive at the same level without some kind of controversy. Cardi elevated past the normal trajectory for female rappers by way of a starring role on "Love & Hip Hop New York" and viral social media success. Of course, she put in the work. But, that's not what people remember, right? "Bodak Yellow" was a perfect storm brought on by timing and sound. Afterward, Cardi B was the next big thing. Comparisons between the two became the normal. They both wear dresses and rap about sex on occasion. This meant that for this claustrophobic space in rap's space for women, only one could exist. Due to the fact that rap culture hates aging, Cardi B was designed to be the replacement. Nicki Minaj seemingly addressed the situation on 2017's "No Flags" ("Lil bitch I heard these labels tryna make another me/Everything you getting, lil hoe, is cause of me") before denying that there weren't any shots being thrown. But, the knives would sharpen and the tension would thicken in time, creating a new playing ground for both artists.
That tension was the ensuing controversy surrounding a changed lyric on Migos' 2017 single "MotorSport," which featured both Cardi and Nicki. Different stories showcased a growing split between the two once cordial parties. Interviews surrounding the controversy were focused on getting to the bottom of a meaningless situation that had no ultimate impact on either of their careers. Photographed at the Met Gala in May, Nicki's blood red dress contrasts with the elegant créme of Cardi's. Their expressions portray a smoldering anger barely contained by the public setting. But, the framing of the pictures and the difference in dresses foreshadowed a protagonist fallen to darkness, while her successor was preparing for battle. Soon after in August, Nicki released her fourth studio album, Queen, throwing unnecessary shots at Cardi. The public wasn't yet fully washed of her. The arguments over "MotorSport" placed both Nicki and Cardi as the bullying party, desperate to shame the other for notoriety. But, around the time that Queen released and the lyrics to "Ganja Burn" began to reek of Cardi, the narrative began to twist in Cardi's favor. Nicki's a bully, it read and still does. All she does is pick with anyone who's at jeopardy of replacing her.
Queen and the events that followed showed just how quick the industry can rinse its hands of artists no matter how tethered they once were, or still are, to its success. The two opposing forces met again at New York Fashion Week, this time a full-on battle erupted. Parties for both got involved, Cardi received a visible bruise on her head and the situation carried on over to social media. A swarm of media coverage and memes dictated that Cardi was the bolder presence here, strangely not a bully (as Nicki would have been in the situation), looking to get to the bottom of their simmering "beef." Cardi later posted a note on Instagram that called Nicki out for being "fake," afraid, and Nicki's actively hindering her career. It took Nicki two days to respond with a simple accusation: Payola, which is bribing someone to use their influence. Nicki alleged that this action is responsible for Cardi's success. This, combined with Nicki's anger at Travis Scott for his album ASTROWORLD selling more than Queen, was the evidence needed for Nicki to be pushed out of the picture that she managed to guard for nearly a decade. The following month, in October, she unleashed a lengthy monologue about Cardi on Queen Radio that caused Cardi B to fire back with even more accusations. After a brief truce, Nicki kicked off a new round of animosity by sneak dissing Cardi on "MAMA" from 6ix9ine's new album DUMMY BOY. Then, she released a music video featuring two women who plan on suing Cardi.
Their feud has evolved into a hash of back-and-forth arguing. But, it's important to remember that it began because of media coverage. Nicki was upset at something that happened in an interview. It was magnified because of coverage of could-be sneak disses and a need for clickbait from faux journalism sites focused on music. With two of the biggest women rappers feuding, there's a lot of money to be made in it. So, what better way than to keep them at each other's necks by keeping all news avenues packed with their coverage?
The most frightening thing about this mission to replace Nicki Minaj with Cardi B as rap's most dominate female presence is that it exposes just how instable the convention is. Men in rap establish themselves at the top of the pyramid and not even sexual assault allegations can knock them from their high horse. Women, on the other hand, have to worry about the mere existence of another similarly capable woman to replace them. From this year's events, it shows that Cardi isn't necessarily the foe that Nicki has to worry about. It's the music journalism and music industry at large, desperate to stay afloat in the sea of clicks that comes from women's confrontation and replacement. The damage is done now. But, how Nicki's career will be affected ultimately has yet to pan out. It's apparent now that the feud between Cardi B and Nicki is over no matter how long it continues. Neither Cardi B or Nicki won, yet Nicki lost.
Drake: The Loss of Invincibility and its Impact (or Lack Thereof) on Lasting Image
In rap, all you really have is your image. Somehow, Drake continues to exist in a positive space. He came into rap a cornball, fresh from his days as an actor on "Degrassi." Over the years, he became the culture's greatest paragon. He could rap with the elite, sing with R&B's greatest and unlike many of his peers, he can sell records. Drake isn't just a top-notch rapper anymore. He's a pillar of pop culture responsible for helping to steer hip hop's narrative through his own music and cosigns.
Throughout his lengthy tenure as one of rap's elite, Drake's been largely untested – save for two important times. Meek Mill tested him in 2015 after telling the world that Drake doesn't write his raps. The world found out the extent of Drake's pettiness when he released not one, but two diss records, the second one more hilariously disrespectful than the first. Meek took a loss and the measure of Drake's charisma elongated tremendously. Drake's beef was in good fun and he incorporated the music in shows, revealing that he really wasn't someone to pick on because he sings, as well.
Drake walked away with the belt and in the long run, that may have been the worst thing that could have happened to him. His dislike of Pusha T predated his disagreement with Meek and some subtle shots on the latter's Daytona track "Infrared" sent Drake back to a warrior's mindset. The same day that Pusha T dropped Daytona, Drake sprinted to the studio and recorded "Duppy Freestyle." The scathing track was more of the same kind of punchline-heavy insult machine that his Meek diss "Back To Back" was. But, Drake wouldn't be prepared for the blowback from his reaction.
Pusha released "Story of Adidon" four days after Drake's diss, taking the time to gather his explosive information about Drake's secret child. He figured out that the best way to attack Drake, a fan of battle rap whose punchlines were always going to be better than Pusha's, was to go after his ego. This approach effectively silenced Drake and made him supposedly change the rollout of his June album, Scorpion. Seeing Drake on the other end of the beef machine felt earned because, for many, his attack on Pusha felt like an over-the-top reaction. His lack of a response felt like we were seeing the end of Drake. Even if he had a response, Pusha let the world know that he was ready.
Instead of Drake being swallowed up by the death of some of his invincibility, he figured out that making the public happy erases some of that stinging feeling of loss. Meek hadn't done that. Instead, Meek sat back and stewed in the steaming L that he received. But, Drake had an album to release and relationships to work on. He's since mended relationships with both Chris Brown and Meek. When Scorpion released, Drake wisely traveled the routes of nostalgia and viral dances to make the public forget about his moment of vulnerability. Now, when people think about Drake, he's more invincible than ever.
Drake's situation shows that the right subsequent moves can make for a recovery from any situation. He managed to avoid being swallowed up in the shit storm that comes with being a bad public parent by giving the public what they want and moving right along as if nothing's happened. The world may never see his child, but I'm not too sure that it even matters anymore. Invincibility is a ruse. Negative actions won't have a lasting impact, if they're met with confidence for subsequent means to fix them.
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