On August 19, Nicki Minaj released the music video for her single “Anaconda.” It spread like wildfire to every blog on the internet and racked up a record-breaking 19.6 million views in its first 24 hours. (It’s since climbed to 153 million and counting).
Why? Because, as Minaj knows, we’re basic. She takes all of our cultural stereotypes and hands them back to us in their most unadulterated form. Just think back to when rap’s obsession with thick buns was mainstreaming (as evinced by Vogue‘s article finally acknowledging the trend). Minaj did “Dance (A$$)” with Big Sean, featuring a chorus that consisted of the word “ass”—22 times.
Or recall “Monster” with Kanye and “Bottoms Up” with Trey Songz, which featured stereotypes of women from both ends of the spectrum: the sexually aggressive dominatrix and the superficial Barbie. Minaj switches back and forth between both, growling, “If a bitch try to get cute Ima stomp her, throw alotta money at her then yell fuck her, fuck her, fuck her, then yell fuck her, then I’m go and get my Louisville slugger,” before turning coy, apologizing, “Excuse me, I’m sorry, I’m really such a lady…we give a lot of money to the babies out in Haiti” (Minaj has in fact donated to disaster relief, although not in Haiti).
Some of these antics have led to charges that Minaj enforces stereotypes and sexism. Such criticisms miss the point. The way that Minaj exaggerates our fetishes and serves them back to us straight-faced holds up a mirror to society’s twisted reality and finds a way to exploit it. She’s able to step into a rapper’s “boss’d up” role, evoking spitfire braggadocio that would give any male rapper, including her mentor, Lil Wayne, a run for his money. Then, on a dime, she turns from bad bitch to saccharine sweet, making her persona and sexuality palatable again for the masses. Her deft maneuvering of sexist double standards—by caricaturizing both—is part of her success. Nicki is the only female rapper to ever make Forbes’s Hip Hop Cash Kings list. And she has made it not once, but three times—in 2011, 2012, and 2013.
The British magazine Dazed reports Minaj saying, “I feel like when I reach my 500-million-dollar goal, then no other woman in rap will ever feel like they can’t do what these men have done.”
Off stage, Minaj speaks more plainly about double standards. “When you’re a girl, you have to be everything. You have to be dope at what you do, but you have to be super sweet. You have to be sexy, and you have to be this, you have to be that, you have to be crazy, you have to be—it’s like, I can’t be all of those things at once. I’m a human being.”
Many of her antics, both on and off stage, draw attention to the contradictions within our unachievable female standard.
For example, after the album art for “Anaconda” was released, some people thought that an ode to one’s buns while wearing a pink thong was inappropriate. Nicki responded by posting an Instagram that showed similarly clad, white models on the cover of Sports Illustrated:
She completed her retort backstage at the Alexander Wang show, where she taught four runway models the dance from her “Anaconda” music video. The result of attempting to combine the fashion industry’s compulsorily rail-thin bodies and sexualized dance moves came off as awkward and comedic.
And I’m sure you heard that Ellen Degeneres jumped on the train, in response to which Minaj laughed and asked, “What did you just do? You are hilarious!”
Or take Minaj’s double cover for Dazed. One was titled “twisted reality,” while the other featured a “twisted fantasy.” What did they have in common? Both featured the rapper as an impossibly manicured housewife. They were simply two variations of the artificial, decorative woman—not too different after all.
So when someone calls her fake for her Barbie impersonations, she smiles. In an interview with Out, she said, “Once I figure something is irritating people, I’m going to do it more because I like to get on your nerves until you realize how fucking stupid you are.”