Nicki Minaj is a hip hop legend known for her talent, image, and outspokenness. She’s had a lot of controversy and a lot of success. This piece will look at some of her struggles she’s faced against “The Man” — that being the industry, powerful figures, and the media. What you’ll find is that she looked bad in the face of controversies, but her stances have held their ground and are a display of strong character in retrospect.
Nicki v. The Grammys
Like many musicians, winning a Grammy was one of Nicki’s goals. Before the 2012 Grammys, which was a big Grammy year for Nicki, she said in an interview that Grammy awards are “the only thing” and she knew that she would get a Grammy at some point in her career. So far this has proven to be incorrect. She’s been nominated for ten Grammys, but has never won. In the last couple of years she has spoken of retiring to focus on starting her family. Since then she has gotten married and had a son making her goal of winning a Grammy seem like it will never happen. So how is it that one of the most influential rappers of the twenty-first century hasn’t won any Grammys? Ken Ehrlich.
Let’s back it up to Nicki’s first Grammy nominations. She was nominated with Ludacris for their performance of “My Chick Bad” in 2011 and lost. I can accept that because I don’t remember that song. 2012 was her big year. It’s the award show cycle when she dropped Pink Friday, which was a big commercial success and was received pretty well by critics. That year she was nominated for Best Rap Album, Best Rap Performance, and Best New Artist (and Album of the Year, but that was for her collaboration on Rihanna’s Loud). She lost Best Rap Album to Kanye West for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which I agree with. Tough competition. Her performance of “Moment 4 Life” featuring Drake lost Best Rap Performance to Jay Z and Kanye West for “Otis”, which I don’t feel strongly about. Personally, Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” is the most memorable nomination from this category that year. However, Bon Iver winning Best New Artist over Nicki is criminal.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Bon Iver. They (he) wrote an album for me forever ago. But Nicki is more significant in the grand context of music. That year she had seven songs simultaneously charting on the Billboard Hot 100, and she has breadth as an artist and rapper considering her different personas, singing, accents, etc. in addition to her rapping. This range doesn’t seem to get recognized next to male rappers who aren’t held to that same caliber. Now, in retrospect, we can also see how Nicki is the blueprint for all women in hip hop who came after her. We also see the loyal fanbase she earned over her career. She made a bigger impact than Bon Iver. I think, at the time, hip hop wasn’t as respected as alternative music and the Grammys voting committee definitely leaned more into alternative and rock and that’s why they chose Bon Iver. Even though it’s not all about sales, I think seven simultaneously charting songs should have foreshadowed Nicki’s impact to the voting committee.
Still discussing the 2012 Grammys, Nicki revealed in a 2019 episode of her Beats 1 show, Queen Radio, the politics of why she doesn’t have a Grammy, and this is going to be where Ken Ehrlich comes in. Ehrlich was the executive producer for the Grammys for four decades until after the 2020 award show. Nicki chose to be vocal about what really happened at the 2012 Grammys because Ariana Grande had just accused Ehrlich of gatekeeping her from winning Grammys in her thank u, next era, and Nicki wasn’t hung up on winning Grammys anymore.
In 2012, Nicki was set to perform “Roman Holiday” for the Grammys. She did commercials for it and promoted it on her social media. This was all while she was still optimistic about winning Grammys in her career. Unfortunately, the day before the Grammys, Whitney Houston passed away. The day of the Grammys, while Nicki was in her costume and about to go onstage to perform, the producers asked her not to perform because of Whitney’s passing. It didn’t make sense and was unrelated. So Nicki said that since she did all this promo and because her fans were expecting her, she was going to perform anyway.
Nicki’s performance had references The Exorcist and had demonic or satanic vibes making it very controversial. Nicki defended herself, which Ehrlich didn’t like, and she said in an interview that the producers knew she was going to do that performance, which Ehrlich hated. Nicki stuck to her guns. It seemed odd to push a narrative that the producers didn’t know what she was going to perform considering that’s their job.
Nicki didn’t know the power Ehrlich had. He blackballed her. Grammy award winners are decided by a voting committee made up of people in the music industry, so artists actually network and campaign to win awards. It’s a bit like in middle school when everyone votes on class president and there’s some merit, but really it’s a popularity contest. The world is middle school. So Ehrlich has the network, and I believe veto power, to stop Nicki from winning Grammys and he did. She has never won a Grammy despite her extremely successful career and influence.
Nicki Minaj has never won a Grammy because she was asked last minute not to perform due to an unrelated circumstance, then performed, and defended her performance. She said that the Grammy producers knew about her performance beforehand, which they did. That led Ken Ehrlich to hate her and make sure she never wins a Grammy. All because she wouldn’t keep quiet.
Nicki v. The Charts
Nicki has claimed the charts are rigged or manipulated. This is a more controversial stance than her Grammys situation because the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot 200 charts have more nuance considering their rules as well as the industry marketing artists’ songs. Nicki has had 114 songs chart on the Hot 100 with only two songs making it to #1 and they were both in 2020. First it was with Doja Cat on their “Say So” remix then “TROLLZ” with 6ix9ine. It’s surprising it took this long to get Nicki to #1 and also “TROLLZ” wasn’t that good. I would’ve expected “Anaconda” in 2014 and “Super Bass” in 2011 to go to #1, but they peaked at #2 and #3.
Nicki’s albums have had better luck with the charts with Pink Friday and Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded reaching #1 on the Billboard 200 chart and The Pinkprint and Queen peaking at #2. However Nicki was not pleased with Queen falling short of #1 to Travis Scott’s Astroworld in 2018. Queen was supposed to be her comeback after taking time off. She accused Travis of manipulating the charts and also came after his partner Kylie Jenner. Nicki said that Kylie posting on Instagram that she and her baby Stormi were coming on the Astroworld tour skewed chart numbers because they were encouraging tour pass sales to see her and her baby on the tour. I assume the tour passes were bundled with digital copies if Nicki was making a fuss about it. I guess it was major free promo for Astroworld, but this one seems like a reach. Nicki came for Travis accusing him of selling clothes as albums, referring to his bundles. He was including digital copies of Astroworld with his merch as bundles. What she’s getting at is that people were buying the bundles for the clothes and Travis tagged a digital copy of his album onto the purchase to improve his standing in the charts, when it was an afterthought for the customer. Bundles are common and Nicki has even sold bundles before. Artists don’t have sales and marketing teams for nothing. People at their labels are in charge of employing tactics to increase album sales. This is a business at the end of the day. Plus, Astroworld was huge in 2018 so I think Travis earned his spot at #1. However, in 2020 Billboard changed their charts rules to exclude sales that were bundled which legitimizes Nicki’s claim against bundles.
Still regarding charts, but not directly related to Nicki, in May 2020, 6ix9ine went off at Billboard pointing out sales gimmicks swaying the charts. I do not support 6ix9ine as a person, but he had points. For the week of May 14th, 2020, Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber’s “Stuck With U” topped the Billboard Hot 100, Doja Cat and Nicki Minaj’s “Say So” was #2, and 6ix9ine’s “Gooba” was #3. 6ix9ine pointed out that “Stuck With U” sales jumped on the last day for counting sales that week, making the charts look rigged. Ariana and Justin’s collaboration was a quarantine song with proceeds being donated to the First Responders Children’s Foundation, which is a nice thing to do for the frontline workers who are keeping everyone safe and healthy during this pandemic. So why then did the song go on sale on Justin and Ariana’s websites the last day of the week for counting sales for the charts? Because at the end of the day, Scooter Braun (both Justin and Ariana’s manager) wanted their song to be #1 at all costs even if that meant reducing profits on an initiative that was supporting a charity. Boom! This situation made me lose faith in the charts, and Nicki had been trying to tell us the charts were rigged for years.
At the end of the day, what do the charts really measure anymore though? It made a lot more sense when they tracked sales of physical copies because they were counting who sold the most physical records. When iTunes showed up it got a little more complicated, but not much. They were selling digital copies of records. Once streaming hit the scene, it became so technical with you have to listen to this many seconds of a song and these many streams equal these many sales and all this combined with the physical and digital sales. People are optimizing their music for the charts’ streaming rules. Then from there, they had to police bundles and sales gimmicks. It’s all so fussy.
Nicki v. The Media
Nicki seems to have come in and out of media favour over the course of her career, similar to what I said about Taylor Swift. People were hyped when Nicki made Pink Friday and did features. Her verse on “Monster” was legendary and outshined industry heavyweights on the same track when she was just a rookie. Then in the mid-2010’s, aside from her loyal fanbase, she was regarded by a lot of the general public as a caricature of everything wrong with celebrities from her body to the sexual content that she rapped about. Recently, there’s a widespread respect for her as she’s cemented herself as a hip hop staple for a decade in conjunction with the respect women in rap get now compared to when Nicki started. Though Nicki is loved today and has collaborated with other female rappers, for a long period of her career the media pit her against other women and villainized her.
The media has tended to sensationalize rivalries between black women when there’s more than one in an industry due to a “token minority” mindset. It’s what they did to Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks in the modelling industry, when Naomi was the established model and the media made it out that Tyra, the newcomer, was coming for Naomi’s spot in the industry. For the majority of the 2000’s there was a lack of women in hip hop, which is a part of why Nicki was such a big deal when she debuted. She did benefit from women before her, but she really blazed the trail for so many women after her. As Nicki was the reigning queen of hip hop for years, when Cardi B debuted, the women were pitted against each other. There’s been speculation that since it was hard to keep Nicki quiet, bigshots in the industry made Cardi her replacement. She was the J.Lo to Nicki’s Mariah. Fans and the media fuelled the idea that Cardi was coming for Nicki’s place in hip hop, but the two repeatedly said that they didn’t have a problem with one another. When they were both on “MotorSport” with Migos there seemed to be drama over Nicki switching her verse or one not knowing the other was going to be on the track, but both women said that those were rumours and it was just a miscommunication. This miscommunication narrative went on for years until Cardi yeeted her shoe at Nicki at a New York Fashion Week party in 2018. This was apparently because Nicki liked some rude tweets about Cardi and her daughter. I guess after so many years of being told you’re in a feud, you really are. The women seem to be on good terms now. They’re older and less petty, but also hip hop is much more welcoming to women now resulting in reduced competitiveness between them.
On her Beats 1 show Nicki has explained how difficult it is to be a black woman navigating the media and public perception because she feels villainized when she speaks up for herself. When she speaks up for herself, powerful people look at her like who do you think you are? And the other black women look down on her for feeding into the “angry black woman” stereotype so they talk down on her to distance themselves. If you look at the reaction to her speaking up about the Grammys for years versus when The Weeknd spoke up on it recently, you’ll see a big difference in how people responded to each of them. People were calling Nicki desperate and praising The Weeknd for his bravery. This far down Nicki’s career, we can see that she hasn’t been taken seriously for a lot of things she’s said that turned out to be true.
A lot of what we know now, we wouldn’t know without Nicki’s Queen Radio show, in which she has cleared her name from decade-old controversies. She was able to do so by letting go of ambitions that are being gatekept by industry people who don’t like her, and also in gaining more respect over time. It’s quite remarkable what Nicki has persevered through and held her ground on considering there was no one before her to lean on. It shows her strength and why so many young people look up to her.