2010 In The Rearview, Part XI: Really Such A Lady
THE NEWEST ISSUE OF THE HIT SERIES! GUEST-STARRING … COULD IT BE ANYONE ELSE? OF COURSE NOT! SO SIT BACK, TRUE BELIEVERS, AND STRAP IN FOR THE WILDEST RIDE YET!
I’ve personally expended something in the region of 15,000 words on Ke$ha this calendar year, and much more ink has been spilled on Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Rihanna, all of whom had a year that seemed to cement their status as empresses of their various pop fiefdoms, but the single most exciting, fascinating, controversial, and even unsettling female voice to emerge in 2010 pop belonged to someone who hadn’t released her first single when the year began.
Her turns on “Bedrock,” “My Chick Bad,” “Lil Freak,” and, of course, the competition-destroying “Monster” (to name only her most popular guest spots) got her name out there; left-field r&b ballads like “Your Love” and “Right Thru Me” gave her credibility with the Music Is For Lovers set; and if she has yet to produce the killer full song we all assume she’s capable of, that may have more to do with the fast-forward nature of her success and the limitations it’s placed on what options she feels like she has than with the limitations of her talent, which is (at least theoretically, and this is a theory no one believes more than Nicki Minaj) to be as many women at once as possible.
Pop is, at least in my understanding, an essentially female activity; whenever someone says “pop” in the tone which means as opposed to this pure, beautiful, artistic music which I love (whether they mean hip-hop, or rock, or jazz, or art music generally), half of the reason pop is supposed to be bad is because teenage girls love it. This is as true of Doris Day as it is of Britney Spears; truer, perhaps, because dirty old men can still leer over Spears, but Doris merely explicated femininity to the young women of her era, and so was unimportant by art-dude lights.
Nicki Minaj is luckier than Doris Day was in the times she was born into; she’s able to stretch and warp the presentation of her femininity in ways that simply wouldn’t have been allowed in previous generations — though it’s also important to note that she’s far from being as radical as many of her predecessors and peers when it comes to gender fluidity. Her talent lies not in analysis but in performance, her quick-change voices and contrapuntal rhythm riding a perpetual cartoon delight even if her words are meaningless and her positions untenable.
Which brings us to this, my personal favorite of her guest spots and the only one (outside of “Bedrock,” which I thought about including here, but besides Gudda Gudda’s now-infamous “grocery bag” line there’s almost nothing of interest to the song apart from Nicki) to stay in regular rotation on the radio.
She’s the best thing about it, of course, but rather than forcing us to wait dully through the so-so song to get to her awesomeness, it’s an actual thrilling song, one which without her involvement I would still listen to just for its taut rhythmic drive, disguised Latinisms (there’s a synth replicating tango melodies in there, and if you count beats, it’s a Cuban, not an American, rhythm), and Trey’s abrupt, delirious shouts. It’s yet another r&b stomper about getting your drink on in the club, but it dresses more sharply, hits its marks more confidently, and packs its vocals in more tightly, than any other such song released this year. Compare it to Usher’s hits this year, or to — ugh — Chris Brown’s; in a way its lightfootedness seems almost old-fashioned compared to the slam-slam club bosh that’s ruled the year.
But that lightfooted rhythmic drive, of course, also gives Nicki her best canvas of the year: she does comedy drunkenness, comedy cokeheadedness, comedy violence, comedy girlishness, capping it with a startlingly precise Marilyn Monroe-via-Anna Nicole Smith impression, a different voice in every line and a different sentiment in every voice. If it’s not a complete picture, that’s because no one song could be; Youtube compilations of her “best verses” end up being half-hour affairs. But perhaps the schizophrenia of this single verse, in which she bats her eyelashes for drinks, arrays herself in bad-bitch sisterhood, threatens cartoon violence which goes unbleeped on the radio it happens so fast, and slips from strip-club parousia to saintly efflourescence within a single rhyme, does at least begin to hint at the breadth of her persona. If she doesn’t quite manage to be all women, it’s not for lack of trying.
Next: Freak Out, Already