“Did you guys eat?” Nicki Minaj asked an audience of about 200 Barbz who yelled, in return, a resounding “No!”
With concern, she demanded, “We need to get them some food.,” and an hour later, boxes of Domino’s pizza were ushered in.
Among the room full of her legion of fans was a handful of media professionals, and a sprinkling of her VIP guests, all gathered for a live interview between Minaj and rapper and journalist Rob Markman Wednesday night. The Genius event, “Lyrical Queen” honoring and exploring Minaj’s career as a lyricist, set out to have the artist break down her songwriting process, culminating in a case being made for how she’s earned her place in the pantheon of greatest rappers alive.
“I know it’s late, and I’m sorry to keep you waiting,” she said after coming in from a video shoot.
“My bitch is working!” one Barb yelled, with not one ounce of annoyance in their voice, after their Queen arrived four hours late.
The event, which was set to start at 9 p.m., was derailed, as Minaj didn’t end up entering the building until about 1 a.m.
At 1 p.m., an email blast was sent out advising everyone arrive early as to guarantee a good seat, even press.
At 5:30 p.m., another email update read, “We will not be able to permit cell phones, mobile devices, or any form of photography and recording equipment inside. Nicki would like the event to be something special just for the people in the room. You will be asked to place your cell phones and devices in a locked bag before entering the venue.”
The event was initially supposed to be live-streamed, but then— perhaps a foreshadowing for the unpredictability of the rest of the evening— there was a change of plans.
It’s 10 p.m. Our phones are locked away, and we’re filing into the Genius Headquarters.
Inside, there’s no apparent delineation for press and fans, so mingling creates for a confusing space.
“I need you to play that ‘Good Form’,” Markman shouts to the sound engineers at the back of the room. The barbs queue by the stage and start twerking in unison to the rapper’s premiere bop off the album.
The sound people start running through the rest of the 19-track album, as fans sing along emphatically to every lyric, dance, and chatter, to kill time. Still, no Nicki. Then they go through the rest of her discography, playing banger and bop and sleeper after banger and bop and sleeper.
Still, no Nicki.
The energy that surged through the room at the beginning of the night began to wane.
I fall asleep, and a Barb wakes me up to ask, “You think she’s coming?”
Rashida Ali, a friend of Minaj, walks in, and an air of relief rises. “If Rah’s here, then Nicki has to be here,” one Barb says.
It’s about 11 p.m. Seeing the crowd grow antsy, Markman appears at the back of the room and puts his phone screen on the projector. He FaceTimes Minaj to confirm that she’s indeed on her way. He projected his phone screen on the big screen and Nicki Minaj’s phone number is displayed to the entire room. Fans squealed and shouted the number out loud, attempting to remember and jot it down. Some people finessed their phones in and typed what they could get. It was an uncomfortable sight.
Nicki picks up the call and apologies, but promises “we’ll have a good time.” She ends the call after a minute or two of reassuring her Barbs, and her phone number flashes across the screen a second time.
“Don’t tell Nicki,” Markman laughed. “It was an accident.”
It’s midnight. Still, no Nicki. The event would have been over at this time, but it hadn’t even started. We were served nothing but still water and La Croix. Genius staff then brings out a small box of the office’s chips and throws them on the back table. The crowd, vocally hungry, runs to the back table and snatches up whatever they can. Maybe 20 minutes pass, and they bring out another box of chips and small candies— milk duds and single sour patches— and dump them on the table. The snacks are gone within seconds, and fans linger by the table a bit longer, scavenging.
It’s close to 1 a.m. A woman on the production team faces security, raising her index fingers and swirling them around. More security emerges.
Nicki is finally here.
Fans greet her by screaming her lyrics to “Chun-Li” as it plays in the background.
Her eyes gleam as she smiles, surprised to still see a packed room that, by this time, was back to being full of energy.
Minaj’s relationship with her fans has always been strong. Nicki built a following on social media first. Back before the advent of Instagram, she was engaging with fans on MySpace and a newly emergent Twitter over 10 years ago. Then she started selling out clubs nationally, as Funk Flex attested to in a recent Hot 97 interview.
These recent happenings with the Queen rollout, and witnessing her relationship with her stans face-to-face, showed how much of an insulator fandom is for Minaj. They function as a cloak of comfortability for her. Anything outside of praise is deflected. When an opponent strikes, she says, she aims to knock them out and although rap is a sport, and Nicki Minaj is a more than worthy contender, it’s warranted to want to question what happens when an innocent bystander— an unsatisfied fan or a skeptical critic— faces the blow instead?
Interviews with Nicki have been more congratulatory than critical. And that’s mostly by her design, as she uses her fan base as insulation. But it’s also a result of a music media community that too often appeases artists rather than remaining fair and critical.
This one was no different, but more warranted since it was solely focusing on her skill as a rapper. That night, Markman called her a genius— and it struck me as the first time, if not on of the few times realized, I’d heard Nicki Minaj get that title. A sadly rare title for a woman in music, a black woman in music, and a woman in rap, at that.
Focusing on Minaj’s rap skills does make reckoning with her persona easier. After all, her recent comments and behavior have spawned criticism and doubt all around. But the one thing that remains inarguable is her skill.
In the interview, she noted Slick Rick as the first rapper who inspired her to rhyme. She begins to tell an anecdotal tale about rapping along to his 1988 song “Mona Lisa.” “I don’t know why my mother was letting me say that, but she would let me say the whole entire rap,” she recalls.
At another point, she says, “You have to have some sort of brain power to be a great rapper. All of our favorite rappers are intelligent. Jay, Em, Wayne… You can hear they are intelligent people by the way they rap,” subtly yet loudly affirming her status amongst them as a brilliant mind.
During the interview, she was contagiously charismatic and animated even when contentious.
One of the stand-out moments was her harkening back to the advent of her signature “sons” lines, which was revealed to have been inspired by Diddy.
While Diddy was managing her for a short spell earlier in her career, she said he once told her that all of the executives she was planned to meet with were “his sons.” She said at the time, she followed Lil Wayne’s method and felt she needed a signature line similar to “Weezy F Baby” and all the variations of that line that he spit. That’s when the “sons” line, an extension of New York slang eventually became hers. Since then, Markman noted, Nicki’s used it at a reported 51 times minimum in her music.
She was more transparent about past and present beefs— or relationships that have been perceived as beef by the public, rather. She took a more diplomatic approach at one point, adding context to the idea that the business end of the music industry thrives off these types of conflicts. She charged that labels, fans, and media have tried to prop up other women entering rap to counter her or to be the new version of her, simply for profit. She claimed this occurrence is a continuous one, but year after year, she managed to still stand.
On “Sir,” off her fourth studio album, Queen, she raps, “Miss Aretha; I think I just passed her,” referring to her beating the late, great Aretha Franklin’s record for the most Billboard Hot 100 hits of any women in music history.
Most have written off Minaj’s constant enumeration of her accolades— her song rankings, views, streams, chart entries, sales, and awards— as annoying (understandably so). But what isn’t noted is how this essentially functions as her own method of documenting her success and ultimately, her legacy. Because after all, when time passes, culture shifts and views change, what remains the same, to her at least, is numbers.
On Thursday, she introduced her latest episode of Queen Radio honoring the music luminary that is Aretha Franklin, calling her “the one and only queen,” and adding, “I don’t know anyone who she hasn’t inspired.”
She continued, “We gave Aretha her flowers while she was around to smell them… Her legacy is so insane.”
Franklin’s passing yesterday, coupled with Minaj’s honoring of Lauryn Hill during her Genius interview prompted me to think about legacy as it pertains to black women in music.
That night, one of Minaj’s most simple yet striking statements was, “I care about my legacy.”
On “Hard White” off Queen, she raps, “My legacy could never be undone.”
The tricky thing about legacies is that they’re written in real-time. But they can be undone. They can be rewritten, erased, and even revived. It often takes an extreme moment to actualize that when it comes to famous figures— whether that be through a heinous transgression, a disappearance from the spotlight, or through death.
Legacies can be conditional, and Minaj seemed aware of this. At one point during the interview, she said that after this album rollout, she’ll no longer be explaining herself in order to make sure people understand how she’s leaving her imprint in the game.
Will Nicki Minaj be remembered as the lyrical genius she was hailed as that night? Will she be remembered as a feminist icon, or a contradictory entertainer whose women empowerment politics were either feigned or just not empowering enough? Will she be remembered as a pop icon or as one of the greatest rappers to ever live? Or solely as one of the greatest women to ever rap?
Whatever the answers may be, time will tell. But what remains clear is her adamance to hold on to the manuscript of her narrative long enough for it to not be rewritten, whether accurately or inaccurately, once she drops the pen.