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Pop For Skeptics #2: Nicki Minaj and Hip-Hop in Pop

Let’s get one thing straight: Nicki Minaj is pop, not hip-hop. This has nothing to do with her being a woman and everything to do with the fact that when you get right down to it, she makes songs that are structurally more like pop songs. As an artist, she’s preoccupied with the trappings of pop: costumes, art direction, stunt collaborations set up to ship more units, and so on. Which is why when The New York Times crowned Nicki Minaj the “singular voice” in hip-hop, a 21st-century trailblazer, my stomach began churning.

I don’t dislike Nicki Minaj. On the contrary, I was one of her earliest stans, recognizing her contributions to Mariah Carey’s “Up Out My Face”:

But Minaj isn’t reinventing hip-hop as we all know it; she’s just finding a way to make pop music quirkier by appropriating hip-hop. And she does this with staggering success. For her, a marriage of pop and hip-hop is kismet — especially on Roman Reloaded. But championing Minaj as the prime innovator of this trend is to suffer from some serious tunnel vision.

Throughout the years, hip-hop has been appropriated into pop to give the latter genre some serious teeth. Pop is about having fun; hip-hop, on the other hand, is a mix of social commentary, diss tunes, throwing shade, and serving up soul-crushing realness. This Manichean mash-up of musical styles shouldn’t work, but it does.

Last year, Nicola Roberts, one-fifth of UK girlband Girls Aloud, juxtaposed hip-hop with operatic yodeling to create a monster of a pop song. Robbie Williams created a fair bit of campy hip-hop on his 2006 album Rudebox (“Dickhead,” anyone?), and four years earlier, Madonna had attempted something similar with “American Life.” Digging back further, to 1996, we find each of the Spice Girls taking turns rapping in the “Humpty Dance”-sampling “If U Can’t Dance.”

Of course we can’t dismiss TLC either; their socially conscious mega-hit “Waterfalls,” popularized this genre-blending way back in 1994.

Smash-cut to 2012. Minaj is hardly alone in mixing hip-hop and pop. She is, however, at the forefront of a resurgence. Listeners are eating up pop that’s served with a heavy helping of hip-hop, and that may be in part because individually, pop is innocuous and hip-hop is feisty. Combine the former’s sweet melodies with the latter’s rapid-fire recitation and you have pop that verges on being confrontational.

That kind of attitude is beautifully demonstrated in the Scissor Sisters-Azaelia Banks collaboration “Shady Love,” already a contender for the year’s most inspired club track:

The track’s insistence on role-reversal delights: Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears raps while Banks, who stunned newfound fans with her ability to spit, tease, and tame words at breakneck speed on “212”, simply provides vocal assistance throughout the chorus. Although its Shears’ ability to croon that makes us swoon, his rapping is slick; he delivers lines like “She gon’ vote for Obama / She likes to dance with Madonna / Chopstick, back Benihana’s / So mmm huh, mmm huh,” and we continue listening despite — or maybe even because of — the silliness. He’s having fun. We’re having fun. We want more. There is a lot of consideration here for the words.

What makes Minaj a bitter pill to swallow for many hip-hop fans is that she she tackles lyricism like an SEO hack tackles journalism. Words and the way they combine are not necessarily important. What really matters is rhythm and a sonic framework conducive to getting people singing along with you.

An artist who’s minted out a cult following on the back of this approach is Nadia Oh. Oh is a curiosity in the pop world. Little is known about her. What you have to know is this: She’s responsible for one of the most deft critiques of the Kate Middleton/Royal Wedding hype, “Taking Over the Dancefloor.” Little more than a mash-up of only a few lines over a shit-ton of noise, the song’s an aural translation of Royal Wedding media. But her ability to fuse hip-hop and pop is best showcased through “I Like It Loud”:

Lyrically, the song flails somewhere between banal and revolutionary “I like techno / I like Moombahton /I like boys with guitars and nothing on.” Oh may take even less care with the meaning of her lyrics than Minaj. For both of them, words are just the things in between the beats. But it works — sloppy Auto-Tune and all.

More classically steeped in hip-hop, but curiously coasting off a Vengaboys sample from the late 1990s is M.I.A. protége Rye Rye, with “Boom Boom”:

Hip-hop songs have been sampling pop songs since time immemorial, but “Boom Boom” reverses that dynamic. Here, hip-hop is servicing the bubbly dance beat and that undeniable “Boom Boom Boom Boom / I want you in my room” refrain. It’s not a deep song. It doesn’t have to be: It’s pop! Rye Rye’s obvious hip-hop origins are playing second fiddle to the fact that she has clearly decided she wants to conquer the world. And pop is international.

Hip-hop and pop seem especially star-crossed on Oh My!’s “Dirty Dancer,” with the line “I want to Patrick Swayze with a dirty dancer” illustrating why sometimes the grit of hip-hop must be undercut with the fluff of pop:

While all of these songs use hip-hop as a magnificent means to an excellent end, they also demonstrate a flaw in how this cross-genre style scales when a bunch of artists try to utilize it. All of the above are examples of feel-good romps about clubbing and/or sex. That’s nice. Clubbing and/or sex is/are fun! But there’s so much more that can be accomplished with this kind of sonic synthesis, considering how diverse hip-hop can be.

As a pop complement, the genre is so versatile that when executed meticulously, the result can be spectacular — as in Anjulie’s “Stand Behind the Music,” her fist-pumping ode to self-preservation:

In fact, it’s a fairly universal fist-pumping ode to self-preservation. This becomes evident during her rap breakdown:

New York
When I was a teenager
Lookin’ for a label and a little clean danger
Had an appetite for (new adventure)
Open every “do not enter”

Yeah, I was tryin’ hard to be somebody
Be the cool kid at the party
Lookin’ at me la-di-da-di, hottie hottie, hot tamale
Stranger feelin’ up my body
Told me I could be somebody
Wait,
Somebody sat me, went home and I called my mommy

Hell no, I’m not that girl
I still wanna be the leader of the fucking free world
Yeah, I’m a big dreamer
I’m a believer
Just try to tell me no, I’ma go full steam but it

No, can’t slow me down
I built this house from the inside out
Block by block from the bottom to the top
I know just who I is
And I know just who I’m not

How many of us desperately trying to make it — whether moving to a big city from elsewhere or trying to succeed in the place where we already are — flirt with the idea of mortgaging our own identities to fit somebody else’s expectations? It’s the rare pop song that mixes one part Walt Whitman, one part teenage riot, one part day-glo protest couture and packages the result into a triumphant anthem. “Stand Behind the Music” does well what few others figuring out how to synthesize pop and hip-hop accomplish: It uses the catchy power of pop to manufacture an earworm that, fortified by a hip-hop flourish, has real guts to it.

I’m waiting for Minaj to have this Anjulie “aha” moment. As a solo or featured performer, Minaj has given the world 24 singles to date. Despite that feat, she has yet to bare her heart or convey some narrative from her own life. I’ll thank you not to argue that “Marilyn Monroe” from Roman Reloaded is exemplary of Minaj laying her heart bare for all of us. It’s a standard pop song that could’ve gone to anybody from Rihanna to last year’s third-place X Factor: Bulgaria finalist.

This latest wave of romance between hip-hop and pop is too fresh to declare any sole performer the singular inspiration for all others, especially when so many still haven’t broken through to the mainstream. If what we’re hearing is this vibrant across the board, maybe we need to spend more time listening before we declare a winner.