Feud for thought

Can we criticise authenticity in a commodified rap world?

Cut-out image of Nicki Minaj's head, donned with a platinum pink wig, crying blood from one eye, on a faded background of roses. “And to be the Queen of Rap you gotta actually rap”. Image: Justine Landis-Hanley

“And to be the Queen of Rap you gotta actually rap”.

As is the case with many hip-hop disputes, hostility between the Nicki Minaj and Remy Ma began with a few ambiguous lines, prematurely dubbed a ‘battle’ by over-enthused fans. It didn’t take long for competing ambitions to transform what was an easily avoidable conflict into an iconic feud. Tracks were released, statements were made, and the rap industry found its juicy new rivalry. However, months later, following Remy’s incarceration in 2007, it appeared the row had been put to rest. Nicki took over and didn’t look back, rising exponentially as one of hip-hop’s biggest artists. For the new generation of hip-hop fans, Remy Ma was, at best, a fading memory from a previous decade.

That changed in April this year, following the release of her track ‘Shether’. On a surface level, the six-minute song contains all the generic elements of a diss track: attacks on Minaj’s appearance, cheeky double entendres using the names of her songs, and criticisms of her general street cred.

Remy’s song shares the same name and beat as fellow hip-hop artist Nas’ critically acclaimed ‘Ether’, which he released at the apex of his feud with Jay-Z. One of the most documented and discussed tensions in hip-hop, Nas and Jay-Z’s feud is generally considered to have emerged from both artists’ desires to dominate the East-Coast hip-hop scene, following Biggie Smalls’ passing in 1997.

In this way, there are similarities in Remy and Nas’ narratives beyond a song title; two talented albeit fading rappers are taking aim at their more commercially successful counterparts. Perhaps then, their criticisms of Nicki and Jay-Z for “trading [their] souls for riches” are more than just a fights between frenemies; they reflect a wider tension in the industry between commercialisation and traditionalism.

To understand rap traditionalism, it is important to understand the origins of rap. Rap music’emerged from a powerful counter-cultural movement in 1960s New York. It acted as an empowering resistance to systems of capitalism and white hegemony, with street credibility being a defining element of the genre.

A form of music that was initially ridiculed as a “mere fad”, rap music started to rise in popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with many crediting the likes of Wu-Tang and N.W.A for putting hip-hop on the map. Even in this era of commercial success, themes of racial and class oppression have continued to dominate the works of major east and west coast artists, pushing the boundaries of artistic freedom. Is criticism against Jay-Z and Minaj justified given rap music’s origins?

The avid Nicki Minaj fan will point to the sexually empowering nature of songs like ‘Anaconda’ to affirm her place in rap’s movement.  Others will suggest the lyrics of her songs do not hold a candle to the provocative music of ‘The Golden Era’. The problem isn’t necessarily that adjudicating Minaj’s works within the broader tension between authenticity and commodification is subjective and arbitrary. Rather, in both cases, the legitimacy of hip-hop has been derived from commercial success. It is probably true that N.W.A or Tupac were subversive, but their status as a metric for ‘true’ rap music is nevertheless tied to their commercial popularity. In such a world, hip-hop is not rewarded for how empowering or self-expressive it is, but rather how palatable it can be to a predominantly white market”.

Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj have probably prioritised their bank accounts over the authenticity of their records. However, perhaps our criticisms should be saved for a system that cares more for the profit attached to Jay and Nicki’s names, and less for the empowering nature of self-expression through rap.  Tragically then, in order to be the “Queen of Rap”, at some stage artists need to leave “real rap” behind.