Using an award show as a platform to send a message to rivals is a practice that’s been going on for years and has provided some of Hip Hop’s most memorable moments. Who can forget Fat Joe and 50 Cent taking shots at each other at the 2005 MTV Video Music Awards? Fat Joe used his time on the podium as a presenter to sarcastically announce how safe he felt courtesy of the great security provided by 50’s G-Unit and of course 50 responded by calling Fat Joe a myriad of expletives at the end of his set that night. Suge Knight effectively started the East Coast vs. West Coast ‘beef’ by calling out Bad Boy Records at the 1995 Source Awards. My personal favorite was ODB interrupting the presentation of the Song of the Year award to voice his displeasure about the Wu-Tang Clan losing to Puff Daddy in the Best Rap Album category at the 1998 Grammy Awards – “Wu-Tang is for the children, we teach the children. Puffy is good, but Wu-Tang is the best!” Does it get any better than that? I would argue no, it doesn’t.
This past weekend at the BET Awards another such moment occurred when Nicki Minaj did everything but call Iggy Azalea out by her (stage)name. In a move that was great for television and hopefully great for Hip Hop, Nicki delivered one of the more memorable acceptance speeches in recent history. Having just won the award for Best Female Hip Hop Artist for the 5th straight year, Nicki quickly plugged her upcoming ‘The Pink Print’ album and then confidently declared that she wanted everyone to know that “if Nicki Minaj spit it, Nicki Minaj WROTE it” (and yes, the bold pink print does in fact symbolize the emphasis Minaj placed on the word “wrote”). Playing off the crowd’s boisterous reaction (seemingly part surprise that she went there and part adulation for the fact that she went there), Nicki went on to use her body language, first locking her lips with her finger as if to signify “you know who I’m talking ’bout, but I’m not saying no names” and then striking a sexy, sarcastic yet empowering ‘swivel your hair and pop your hips out’ type pose to add more gasoline to the flame she had just lit. She went on to credit Lil’ Wayne for pushing her to improve her writing skills to the point where she doesn’t consider herself just a “female emcee” but rather an artist who can spit with the best of them, regardless of gender. To close out her speech, in a move perhaps even more potent than the “Nicki Minaj wrote it” comment, she implored BET to continue to “support authenticity.” And this is where this potential battle between Minaj and Azalea (should she choose to reply) gets interesting.
Recently there’s been some chatter not only about Iggy Azalea using ghost-writers (most notably T.I.), but more importantly the cultural significance of her rise to stardom within the Hip Hop community. Both angles are extremely interesting to consider within the context of Nicki’s acceptance speech. Iggy is currently enjoying a wildly successful run which as of today includes 5 straight weeks at # 1 on the Hot 100 charts for her single “Fancy” and an equally impressive fifth straight week at # 2 for Ariana’s Grande’s single “Problem” on which she is featured. Nicki on the other hand, though wildly successful in her own right, cannot boast about having the top 2 songs on the charts at any point in her career. Today, Nicki is in a position where though she really doesn’t have anything to prove, for the first time in her career there is another female rapper hoarding a spotlight she’s used to having all to herself. And given that Hip Hop is a competitive sport, it makes sense that Nicki would use the platform at the BET Awards to “throw shade” at her main competition, especially having just won an award that at least for the moment solidifies her status as the top female emcee in the game (despite Iggy’s major successes this past year). For Nicki to focus on Azalea’s rhyme-writing abilities (or perceived lack thereof) as well as bringing to question Iggy’s authenticity is a brilliant first warning shot to fire.
Authenticity is something that matters more in Hip Hop than any other genre. The Hip Hop community has always been one to point out and look down upon anything that comes across as fake or contrived. Whether it’s boasting your lyrical prowess when you don’t write all your own rhymes, claiming you’re hardcore and “from the streets” when in fact you’re not, or trying to pass off imitation brand clothing as the actual brand, a fundamental edict of Hip Hop culture is ‘keeping it real.’ As such, white emcees are traditionally met with some skepticism initially, until of course they “prove themselves” as “real” to the Hip Hop community. The other side of that coin is that white emcees have a commercial advantage, at least in the United States. Without getting too analytic as far wage disparities by race in this country (I’ll provide this link and the 2 graphs you see to the left and below as quick examples), for the purpose of this piece I’m going to work off the notion that it’s neither unfair nor far-fetched to say that in the United States, “White Privilege” exists. That said, let me be clear about my views on white rappers:
Not every white emcee is a Vanilla Ice-like joke (see the Beastie Boys, MC Serch, and Eminem – all examples of white rappers that contributed heavily and positively to Hip Hop culture).
Being a white emcee doesn’t guarantee overwhelming success (see Mac Miller, Action Bronson, and Yelawolf as examples of white emcees who’ve done well, but not to the extent as an Eminem or an Iggy Azalea for that matter).
In America (and I won’t speak about any other countries for lack of a frame of reference), despite the ‘keeping it real’ factor, being a white emcee often helps more than it hurts.
On that last point, a big part of the equation is how a given white emcee manages questions about his/her authenticity. Vanilla Ice for example suffered greatly from claiming he was hardcore and from the streets when he in fact wasn’t, while an Eminem or a Mac Miller have never claimed to be anything they’re not, and as such haven’t had any backlash for not being authentic. So to bring the point full circle, for Nicki (again, in a competitive Hip Hop context) to go for Iggy’s jugular right off the bat, questioning her authenticity not just as a writer/emcee, but also her entire existence within the game is bold and calculated. And judging by the crowd response, as I pointed out above, it seemed like many were glad she went there. Even though Iggy’s success is a function of fans liking her music (and make no mistake about it, many on hand at the BET Awards were indeed fans of her work, as evidenced by the crowd reaction she got during her performance), many reacted to Nicki’s shots as if to say, “yeah Iggy’s good but someone had to call her out eventually.”
Is Iggy in fact a skilled emcee whose success is as much a product of her hustle and lyrical prowess as it is her beauty and her skin tone? Or is she completely contrived and solely a product of the hype-machine? Much like when Eminem crossed over into the mainstream, a big part of Iggy’s appeal is that she is in fact a DOPE white emcee. Regardless of how many of her lyrics she actually writes, her flow, delivery, voice, and stage presence are anywhere from solid to very good. In the same way that Eminem was something of a novelty when he blew up (yes, white rappers existed before Em, but none were the monster on the microphone that he was in the late 90s and early 2000s), Iggy is no doubt benefiting from the fact that there hasn’t been a white female emcee as good as her up to this point (none that has reached the masses at least). As such, the fact that it was Nicki Minaj, the reigning Queen of Hip Hop, to call her out not only makes sense, it gets people going.
Let me take a moment here to point out that I enjoy Iggy Azalea and am not bothered by her Australian roots and southern, swaggerific delivery. Her back-story about leaving Australia for the States as a teenager to pursue her dreams in Hip Hop and then bouncing around from Miami to Atlanta, etc… absorbing southern Rap culture, and eventually linking up with T.I. is good enough for me as an explanation as to why why an Australian born woman raps with no Australian accent about themes that are much more southern Hip Hop than Australian outback. I wrote in more detail about her back in early May when reviewing her major label debut, ‘The New Classic‘ and my take on her was that she’s a skilled emcee, but I wasn’t feeling the album as much as her previous mix-tape work. That said, the ghost-writing thing doesn’t bother me much at all. Ghost-writing is common in every musical genre including Hip Hop. As a consumer of music, I just want to hear a good track, and if that means that a given artist can perform it better than the person who wrote it, I’m okay with that.
That having been established however, I also have no qualms with Nicki taking shots at Iggy’s authenticity. In Hip Hop, authenticity is one of the major variables that helps separate the great from the good, so it’s shrewd for Nicki to place herself among the greats while implying that Iggy can’t be. And while it wouldn’t bother me if Iggy took the high road by either not responding at all or issuing some sort of politically correct / toe-the-line statement, the fan in me would love for this potential battle to play itself out on wax. The narrative of the feud is juicy unto itself; the top 2 femme-fatales in the game going at it for Hip Hop supremacy. The underlying themes that would come with this battle however are not only damn interesting, but culturally important. Is Iggy the latest domino to fall in an industry-wide scheme to whitewash Hip Hop, as suggested in this article? If so, will Nicki expose her for that and come out the victor while setting into motion a movement to preserve Hip Hop’s roots? Or will Iggy own up to the ghost-writing accusations, make it a point to write her own material on dis tracks towards Nicki, and find a clever way to address the cultural authenticity jabs without further incriminating herself to the Hip Hop community?
I believe that a Nicki versus Iggy battle can really stir up the landscape of Hip Hop and make for some memorable & entertaining moments. Not only that, it can potentially spearhead a very important dialogue about where Hip Hop is going, whether its whitewashing is avoidable, and if so, how to get that accomplished. Will Rap go the way of Rock & Roll, Blues, & Jazz, art forms that Brand Nubian emcee Lord Jamar points out were created by Black people but ultimately taken away by White people? This is just one of the many factors that would be at the forefront of a Nicki Minaj and Iggy Azalea battle, and I for one would not only love to see it, but would argue that this conflict needs to take place. Let’s see if Iggy has anything to say about Nicki’s acceptance speech…