Nicki Minaj is hip-hop’s new leading lady. It’s been said many times in the past year, most recently in the subheadline of a reverential Paper magazine profile. The reason this has become something of a cliché is because it’s as true as generalized statements get. Really, who else could plausibly lay claim to that title in September 2010? Go ahead. Name another female rapper as exciting and relevant as Nicki Minaj is right now.
I’m waiting. Did you think of one? The fact is, Nicki Minaj is today’s most important female rapper by default. There are plenty of other very talented women with hip-hop fanbases of various sizes—Trina, Lil Kim, Jean Grae, Rah Digga, and Remy Ma are a few names that come to mind. But none of them are currently on the level of stardom that Minaj has reached so rapidly through a series of attention-getting guest appearances and one hit single of her own. If we’re talking artistic merit or overall historical significance, sure, those are much tougher questions to settle. In terms of contemporary pop stature as a female rapper, though, Nicki Minaj simply doesn’t have much competition.
In fact, at this point it’s reductive to call Nicki Minaj hip-hop’s number one woman. She’s more than that. She’s one of the most fascinating personalities in rap, period. How many artists of any gender could upstage Kanye West and Jay-Z on their own song the way she did last weekend? Who else is parsing Shakespeare and giving shout-outs to gay fans like she does in that Paper profile? Some people find Minaj’s fondness for silly voices annoying, or think her lyrics lack depth, and those are fair opinions even if I don’t particularly share them. I am a fan, and I acknowledge that she has a long way to go before she’s the world’s best rapper. (On a related note, the Village Voice’s Zach Baron recently made a dispiritingly reasonable case for why all Minaj’s talent and charisma still might not necessarily yield a great debut album.) But Minaj is certainly well past the point where any serious hip-hop fan can ignore her.