In anticipation of her new album Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, rapper Nicki Minaj recently released “Starships,” a RedOne-produced slice of radio pop music that’s far removed from hip-hop in any traditional sense. In fact, all stomping Ibiza house beats, Katy Perry-esque strummed guitars, fructose lyrical content and a simple pop chorus, “Starships” seems more akin to the work of Perry, Britney Spears and their pop star ilk. While Minaj has proven herself to be a more than capable rapper on numerous occasions (see: Kanye West’s “Monster,” her own “Did it on ‘Em”), with “Starships,” she has shown that unlike many of her male contemporaries in Hip Hop, she sees no problem bucking hip-hop credibility in the pursuit of a radio hit. Moreover, it is safe to say that Minaj — all colorful wigs, eccentric outfits, and her nagging insistence on singing into auto tune — seems to be modeling her career more closely after largely white, female pop stars rather than any female hip-hop artists that preceded her.
For a hip-hop fan, this is disappointing, as it seems more pertinent for Minaj to be showcasing her ample rhyming ability than regurgitating yet another shaded rendition of “California Tik Tok on Last Friday Night’s Domino.” On the other hand, who can really blame her? Indeed, when taking stock of the current landscape of music, Nicki really has no established female hip-hop role models on whom she can base her career. One look at the now-dormant solo pursuits of Lil Kim, Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill and it is easier to see why Nicki may be apt to follow the more sustainable careers of pop stars as her paradigm: each of these female MCs of yore, not yet 40 years old, hasn’t released new material for the better part of a decade.
While this lack of contribution by mature women in hip-hop could once be chalked up to a genre-wide focus on youth, male Hip Hop artists like Jay-Z, 42, have proven that rappers can maintain artistic relevance and commercial viability well into their 40s. As a result, a new generation of male rappers continue to actively look to Jay for his continued artistic contributions, his benchmark career trajectory, and his ongoing status as a trendsetter and tastemaker. Said up and comer Big Sean, 23, of Jay in a recent interview, “I just soak up knowledge from him… from an OG’s standpoint, [Jay] lets you know if you made a mistake so you don’t make another.” Almost 20 years into his career and Jay-Z not only continues to be a trailblazer in hip-hop music, but his career stands as the cornerstone for an entire new generation of artists.
Jay is not alone either. The sustained success of his peers like Snoop Dogg, 40, Nas, 38, and even Wu Tang Clan’s Raekwon, 42, have proven that rap is no longer solely child’s play. This fact only makes Kim, Elliott and Hill’s absence from this new council of Hip Hop “OGs” even more notable. If it was once hard to imagine what a male rapper would sound like at 40, these ladies’ respective silences have made it nearly impossible for us to know what a female hip-hop star would look like or say past the age of 30.
So what gives? Why have none of the female legends of hip-hop parlayed their initial success into sustained super-stardom like their male counterparts? More importantly, why aren’t they trying? It’s certainly not for lack of success, as Kim, Elliott and Hill have no fewer than 11 multiplatinum albums, countless hit singles, and Grammys to fill even the most extensive of award cases. When asked why she ceased to make music over the past decade in a recent NPR interview, Ms. Hill stated simply, “The support system that I needed was not… in place.” Could it be that despite their accomplishments, the music industry did not support these female MCs to continue releasing music? Was the male-centric hip-hop community uncomfortable with the notion of a female hip-hop titan?
Regardless, the bottom line is the lack of noise from the older female voices in hip-hop is, at best, sad for music lovers who crave new sounds from their lifelong idols, and at worst detrimental to the genre which they each helped to establish and sustain. The damage of their silence is no more evident than in “Starships,” a song that finds Nicki Minaj, the loudest female voice in hip-hop today, seemingly inclined to sound more like a pop automaton and less like the genre-busting hip-hop pioneer that she is capable of being. In addition, anyone who grew up with these females can agree that there is a giant void in the hip-hop landscape without new music from these ladies. Most important, however, is the lack of a solid, long-term female career trajectory, something to which a new generation of female hip-hoppers, like Minaj, Azealia Banks and Kreayshawn, can look to as proof that there is a sustainable and enduring place for women at the top of the hip-hop food chain.