Miss Andry: Nicki Minaj and the male gaze

Words by alexmacpherson

Illustration by James Ormiston

With her new album set to drop this year and two teasing tracks released unexpectedly, Alex Macpherson weighs the significance of the most recent work of one of the best rappers of our time.

 

The most important thing about the sundry reactions to Nicki Minaj’s latest single, “Lookin’ Ass Nigga”, is this: dudes are shook. Trey Songz and Cassidy are shook, though it hasn’t been enough to invest their weak, misogynistic response salvoes with any power or worth. The hubbub of commenters beneath its video are shook: “fuck you nikki imma fap my dick to your phat ass and nothing you can do about it, you’re just a piece of meat,” mewled one in protest at the track’s evisceration of his gender. Another, spectacularly missing the point, pouted: “fuck this fake ass ho if you don’t want niggas lookin at you kill yourself fuckin hypocritical ass bitch.”

It’s worth noting that Minaj chose to premiere “Lookin’ Ass Nigga” not via a mainstream outlet such as YouTube or a nice, credible, tastemaking blog—but through World Star Hip Hop, the underbelly of the urban internet. Originally designed for unknown rappers to upload their own videos, its daily traffic of over one million visitors is now largely thanks to mobile phone footage of real life fights. And as the aforementioned comments demonstrate, its levels of misogyny make YouTube seem like a haven of progressive thought.

No wonder Minaj is angry. It’s been a long time coming; not the flamboyant, cartoonish anger of “Roman’s Revenge”, nor the bratty shit-talking of “Stupid Hoe”—both of which found her levelling her acid tongue and assortment of, “these bitches are my sons,” punchlines at fellow women. The anger of “Lookin’ Ass Nigga” is a cold, hard one. Minaj does not smile once in the video; one doesn’t sense this is fun to her. You could call it feminist, were it not ultimately indefensible on those grounds—but Minaj opts not to present a well-argued case against the misogyny she encounters as a woman in hip-hop (and the world), but to hurt her targets in the places it hurts the most with a cathartic, violent and misandrist gut response.

Hence: a video that reduces men to a single body part, a leering, creeping pair of eyes. Shots of Minaj on a beach are intercut with shots of her reflected in the man’s pupils, a target of the male gaze. Minaj’s relationship to sexualization has been scattershot and contradictory (adjectives which sum up her MO across all subjects). She consciously rejected the straightforwardly sexual image used to sell her in her early mixtape days in favor of becoming a shape-shifting, technicolor cartoon: one minute she’s pandering to the male gaze, the next creating a hyper-feminine pink Barbie fantasy, the next rupturing it all with violent or comedic grotesquerie. (Sometimes all has occurred within the same video, as on “Stupid Hoe”.) On “Lookin’ Ass Nigga”, Minaj defends her right to present herself sexually without being reduced to it: “Look at y’all lookin’ ass niggas / Stop lookin’ at my ass ass, niggas,” she spits contemptuously. The camera lingers on her ass, but also her mouth, reeling off rapid-fire put-downs; her eyes, dripping with scorn; her hands, armed with heavy-duty weaponry. The video concludes with the target turning, gunning down the stare that trapped her—our stare, as the final shot makes clear.

Hence: “I’m raping you niggas.” It’s the most shocking line in the song: Minaj flips rape culture back in the faces of men, but also perpetuates it. It’s politically indefensible, ultimately. But on a visceral, gut level? It’s analogous to Descent, Talia Lugacy’s 2007 film in which Rosario Dawson plays a rape victim who achieves catharsis by enacting an equivalent assault on her rapist: whether it’s strictly right is irrelevant compared to whether it’s real. And context is crucial. Minaj is a woman in the public eye, which means she has assuredly received her share of rape threats. She works in an industry in which her own A-list collaborators, such as Rick Ross, think nothing of rapping lines promoting date rape. Minaj may be blasé much of the time, but it’s hard to believe she would throw this threat out thoughtlessly. It’s a, “how does it feel to be on the receiving end, for once, of something women experience daily?” moment. It’s not progressive, but artistically it’s a sucker punch.

Minaj has been building up to this. Lately, there’s been an unspoken hip-hop rule that shit-talking and beefs should be gender-segregated. Witness T.I.’s response in 2012 to Azealia Banks’ attempt to drag him into her feud with Iggy Azalea: “That’s bitch shit, I’ma man. You ain’t got no business addressing me. Get your man to address me, if you got a man, get him to address me and he and I can speak on it.” When Kendrick Lamar laid down the gauntlet to rap rivals on his much-hyped “Control” verse last year, Minaj was a notable omission to the names he called out—and her gender was the only plausible explanation. Her superb response—to declare herself the king of New York above the boys—was illustrative of her outrage.

Despite rap matriarch Missy Elliott’s valiant attempts to promote solidarity among female rappers, divide-and-rule tactics have paid off lately: Banks, Azalea, Angel Haze, Lil’ Kim and Minaj herself have all dutifully played up to the catfight stereotypes. On record, Minaj has historically cleaved to this as well, with her most vicious ethering reserved for female rivals. There’s little sign of her stopping that—but the past year or so has at least seen her widen her focus. “The Boys”, her wickedly funny collaboration with Cassie, saw the pair throw pitying shade at Drake’s faux-sensitive sad-boy aesthetic; her guest verses on Ciara’s “I’m Out” found Minaj gleefully joining forces for a break-up anthem. Even better, her remix of PTAF’s “Boss Ass Bitch”, snuck out at the end of December as the opening salvo in her Pink Print campaign, contained a step-by-step guide to eviscerating straight men:

“I said, rule number one to be a boss ass bitch:
Never let a clown nigga try to play you.
If he play you, then rule number two:
Fuck his best friends, then make ’em yes-men;
And get a dick pic, and then you press send;
And send a red heart and send a kissy face;
And tell him that his friends love how your pussy taste.”

Nicki Minaj as feminist icon? That’s too reductive a label—though it’s worth noting the contrast between her own feminist moments and the shallow racism of self-proclaimed feminist Lily Allen. What is clear is that Minaj is biting back against the patriarchy ever more explicitly—and that can only be a good thing for her upcoming era. ~