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Nicki Minaj Isn’t Afraid of Setting Fires — But Her Legacy Might Get Scorched, Too

From the beginning of her career, Nicki Minaj has taken the moments as they’ve come. When her debut album Pink Friday arrived in 2010, she was navigating somewhat unpaved terrain. Breaking through the barriers of hip-hop’s boy’s club meant defending her craft to people who perceived her femininity as a limitation on her capability, while also proving that she wasn’t a carbon copy of the women who were her predecessors. “When you’re told something for a long time, even when it changes, your mind frame doesn’t change,” the Queens rapper told Complex in 2012. “And you’re subconsciously trying to prove everyone wrong.”

Operating within the gray area between rap and pop, Minaj entered into a careful balancing act in which every opportunity, every song, and every performance was a chance to cover her seat at the table in gold — to cement her legacy with a throne. But back then, music was something of an afterthought for the rapper when asked to look ahead to the future. She envisioned her life as a wife and a mother first. “I know that I don’t feel like I need to be doing music in 10 years to feel fulfilled,” Minaj said. “And I don’t want to be one of those people who doesn’t know when to call it quits.” 

At the time, Minaj was preparing to release her second studio album, the now two-time platinum Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded. Sales and hits weren’t her specific measure of success then, but rather intuition and cultural relevance. Last year, her fifth studio album, Pink Friday 2, became her third to debut at Number One on the Billboard 200, making her the female rapper with the most chart-topping albums to date. Those kinds of metrics-driven achievements have become more essential to her narrative in the absence of significant cultural successes. But the longer Minaj goes without earning coveted industry accolades (e.g. Grammy awards) while at the same time being put in frequent with the new generation of women emerging in hip-hop’s top spots, the more it appears that the “memo in your brain that tells you, quit it,” as she called it back then, might not ever arrive. Instead, it’s being drowned out by Minaj’s own desire for respect and the volume of her most die-hard fans, the Barbz, in her ear. 

The fanbase Minaj has amassed over the course of her career exists in a near-constant state of fight or flight, though they lean most frequently towards fight. “Be sure to never threaten anyone on my behalf. Whether on the internet or in person,” she wrote to them on Instagram in November 2023. “Whether in jest, or not. I don’t & never have condoned that.” But unlike Taylor Swift’s Swifties, or BTS’ ARMY — who have used similar methods of doxxing and harassment while defending their favorite artist against unimpressed critics and rival fanbases online — Minaj is often on the frontlines with the Barbz. She leads them into battle, rather than turning a blind eye to the very fights spurred by their boundless allegiance that she asked them not to engage in. 

Their rewards often arrive in the form of Instagram and TikTok live streams, engagement on X (formerly Twitter), and the strengthening of their parasocial bond through private interactions. “It’s like a lion with their cubs. A female lion with her cubs, you don’t mess with the babies, and Nicki is our baby,” one Barb told Rolling Stone in 2018, discussing their plight to defeat the “Nicki Hate Train.” Another added: “It’s like a mama bear type of thing. It’s like an instinct. You feel like you have different people that are close to you, do things that you really care about, especially people who in a way are defenseless.”

The positioning of Minaj as defenseless feels akin to Swift recently claiming to have been “canceled within an inch of my life” during a public feud of her own. Through the lens of personal perception, subjective beliefs are often presented as simple truths. And when millions are willing to follow an artist over the edge of a cliff, validating their every word, accountability becomes a myth.

Most recently, Minaj’s own familial instinct merged with that of her fanbase as she called them into action during a days-long social media tirade. “I remember how everyone kept my name in their mouth & how I said the next person mention my family gon regret it,” Minaj tweeted on Jan. 28, three days after Megan Thee Stallion released her latest single, “Hiss.” While the song doesn’t mention Minaj directly, the lyric “These hoes don’t be mad at Megan/These hoes mad at Megan’s Law,” has been interpreted as a nod to Minaj’s husband of more than four years, Kenneth Petty, with whom she shares a son. Megan’s Law references the federal legal requirement that convicted sex offenders appear on a registry. 

In 1994, Petty was convicted of attempted rape of Jennifer Hough by force or fear and served four years in prison. In 2021, Hough sued both Petty and Minaj, alleging that they both “directly and indirectly intimidated, harassed and threatened [Hough] to recant her legitimate claim that Defendant Petty raped her.” Minaj was later dismissed from the suit entirely. In 2022, Petty was sentenced to a year under home confinement, along with probation and a $55,000 fine, for failing to register as a sex offender in California. Last year, he was sentenced to 120 days of house arrest by a federal judge in Los Angeles. He had been recorded on video “making threatening remarks towards a specific individual while in the company of someone with a criminal record,” the individual reportedly being Migos rapper Offset.

“Bringing up 30-year-old tea from when a man was 15, being lied on, is not the flex you think it is,” Minaj said during a Stationhead stream on Jan. 26. (The “tea” in question is a crime). The rapper amplified the points of her social media rant on the response song “Big Foot,” which regurgitated previous posts and featured chaotic Dr. Seuss-meets-Disney Villain lyrics and rhyme schemes in place of the on-record charisma she was once known for.

The song named Megan directly, taking aim at the gun violence she faced at the hands of the now-imprisoned Tory Lanez and the 2019 death of her mother, resulting in increased security at the cemetery where she is buried after Barbz posted the location online, according to TMZ. Megan has not yet issued a public response. For nearly an entire week, Minaj and her fans have been heavily engaged in battle mode — even against each other. 

“Nicki Minaj doesn’t know she’s Nicki Minaj and it’s pissing me off,” TikTok user TakeishaLafaye shared in a video posted on Jan. 26. “Cause girl, you’re Nicki Minaj. What the fuck?” Within hours, the rapper had come across the video, which had no caption or tagged accounts. She has eyes and ears everywhere, it seems. “Girl the question is: who are you?” she wrote in one of three since-deleted comments. “If you knew, you’d do better. Blessed day. Don’t make me come back.” The TikToker, relatively confused about the ominous threat, shared a response video, stating: “Nicki Minaj, this was not a diss. I promise you this wasn’t a diss. I just feel like you’re queen, you shouldn’t have to talk to peasants.” The videos have nearly 10 million combined views. 

There’s usually an insular element to the rapper’s kingdom; its internal workings are guarded until an alarm begins to sound, like when Minaj pushed back against the COVID-19 vaccine because of her cousin’s friend’s swollen testicles. It’s during these hyper-visible moments, when she isn’t being showered in praise and admiration, that Minaj has a harder time deciphering fans from foes. For her, nearly any display of dissent, or disinterest, is indistinguishable from disrespect. But unlike the sales, chart positions, and plaques that both she and Barbz are quick to remind you of, respect is not often tangible. And if it isn’t being blatantly spelled out for her, as Doja Cat did on the outro for “Get Into It (Yuh)” or Lil Nas X on “Industry Baby,” Minaj often deems it insufficient. None of this began with Megan, and it won’t end with her, either. 

“I really fully supported her and up until this recent interview I had never seen her show me genuine love in an interview. I can just imagine how many girls wish they could’ve been on a song with Nicki Minaj. I’m not saying it in a cocky way,” Minaj told Beats 1 in April 2018 about Cardi B, who had just released her Grammy-winning debut Invasion of Privacy. Months later, in October 2018, the Bronx rapper addressed Minaj on Instagram, saying that while the rapper was a staple in her high school music experience, “the difference between me and a lot of these bitches? I don’t suck your dick. That’s the difference. What you need to do is stop focusing on other people, focus on yourself, and focus on your craft because you’re out here fucking up your legacy looking like a fucking hater.”

It was the same warning that Minaj had issued to her own predecessor, Lil Kim, nearly a decade prior. “You know what scares people? Success. When you don’t make moves and when you don’t climb up the ladder, everybody loves you because you’re not competition,” she told Hot 97 in 2010. “When you become competition, then people start [saying], hold on, wait. So I felt like, you’re gonna go down in history now as a sore loser, as opposed to going down in history as the queen.” An unfortunate full-circle moment, it didn’t mark the closing of the increasingly unproductive cycle that the rapper has been stuck in since more women began walking through the same door she helped kick off its hinges. 

During her largely one-sided Megan Thee Stallion media blitz, Minaj stated on Instagram Live: “You have three Grammys and you have to learn how to rap on the beat and be comfortable in the music.” The jab seemed counterintuitive. Minaj and Megan collaborated on the single “Hot Girl Summer” in 2019 and there didn’t seem to be a problem with anyone’s flow then. Plus, one of the veteran rapper’s most recent online squabbles included a duel with Latto in 2022 over genre categorization at the Grammys. Despite Minaj making a fair comparison, the approach and optics —  especially when Latto pointed out that Minaj, who she had long admired, is older than her mother — were not in her favor. The Atlanta rapper was ultimately the only one to be nominated, anyway. 

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This weekend, at the 2024 Grammy Awards, Minaj is up for two awards, her first nominations in eight years, alongside Ice Spice for their collaboration “Barbie World.” But even if she were to take home her first-ever gilded gramophone on Sunday, would it be a significant enough achievement to overshadow the week she spent relentlessly antagonizing and mocking another rapper? Or the resurfaced narratives of abuse — her husband’s attempted rape conviction; her older brother’s conviction for predatory sexual assault against a child; and her defense of Tekashi 6ix9ine, who she collaborated with after he pleaded guilty to a felony count of use of a child in a sexual performance — that are becoming increasingly interwoven with her own legacy? What about her recent alliance with conservative commentator Ben Shapiro?

Gold, in its purest form, doesn’t tarnish. When mixed with lesser metals, however, it loses both shine and value. Minaj earned her title as a trailblazer over a decade ago, built a throne and has been relentlessly defending her crown ever since. But when a queen spends night after night running through the halls paranoid about being dethroned, questioning the security of the palace, and hiding behind villainous alter egos, she risks coming across as an unfit leader — one with a broken moral compass who doesn’t know when to call it quits. 

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