PART 3/3: Nicki Minaj Responds to LL Cool J’s “Around the Way Girl”
While in “Around the Way Girl,” the woman’s erotic power manifests in all facets of her identity, in Nicki Minaj’s remix, “Who’s Ya Best M.C.?” this erotic power is restricted to the realm of sex and sexuality.
Like Marilyn Monroe…
They say I’m too pretty to be spitting 16
I should be on the screen posing for Maybelline…
Hood star broad, Black Barbie doll
Lil white tee and some air max on
Sum Dolce Gabban[a] pretty panties on…
Neva give out my number
Only the email
Drawing parallels between herself and the late American sex symbol and former Playboy Magazine centerfold Marilyn Monroe, the sexual aspect(s) of Minaj’s version of the around the way girl are clearly augmented. “Broad” is a slang term with less than respectful connotations with definitions ranging from: “a woman who is very difficult to respect” to “a derogatory meaning for female i. e. bitch, woman, lady, trick, chick, hoe” to “female, usually referring to a prostitute or easy lay.” (Urban Dictionary.com) The term “Barbie” has similarly negative connotations: “The word Barbie has come to be used as a derogatory slang term for a girl or woman who is considered shallow, most notably in the 1997 pop song Barbie Girl [by dance-pop group Aqua],” “a plastic whore,” “a symbol of bimboism” and “a limited and unrealistic [portrayal]of women.” (Urban Dictionary.com)
A Black Barbie doll, Minaj depicts the around the way girl as a commodity, an object to be possessed and played with, disempowering because it connotes a perpetual state of commodification and objectification. In its disrespectful and implicitly sexually promiscuous undertones, the hood star broad is no different. Directing attention to her sexual faculties via her undergarments, “cherrythong.com” serves as a metaphoric domain for Minaj’s version of the around the way girl.
In promoting the erotic as a crucial space for self-healing and self-love, Audre Lorde, in her essay, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, creates a distinction between the erotic and the pornographic, lamenting the latter. “…We have often turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with its opposite, the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling” (ctd. in Bobo’s Black Feminist Cultural Criticism, p. 286). In Minaj’s “Who’s Ya Best M.C.?” there is no mention made of emotion as the around the way girl is defined primarily by sexual terms, whereas in “Around the Way Girl” love figures predominantly as LL Cool J expresses his intense adoration for her.
Lorde advocates the usage of the erotic in all spheres of women’s lives as the “lifeforce of women” which “heightens…sensitizes…and strengthens all…experience” (Bobo 287-88). To relegate and restrict the erotic to sex and the sexual is to suppress this “well of replenishing and provocative force” (Bobo 286). In “Who’s Ya Best M.C.?” the erotic functions exclusively as a purveyor of sexual sensation, suppressing “the erotic as a…source of power and information” and thus negating its transformative power.
Whereas the original around the way girl’s identity is constructed as one of autonomy in LL’s text, Minaj’s version relies on external forces, such as male cultural icons for instance, as terms by which to redefine the trope. Impersonating the around the way girl, Minaj parallels herself with prominent male popular culture icons, thereby ascribing traditionally masculine characteristics to her identity. Capitalizing on Hip Hop’s fascination with male aggression and violence, Minaj asserts that as the around the way girl she:
Get[s] it poppin’ like M80s or twin tre 80s young money first lady…
Nicki could get it in, Nicki could spit gats/
ya girl got hustle Nicki could pitch crack…
Riding the bassline like Quille O’Neal…
Not a baby mama but I’m drama like Kay Slay…
Nick is so gutter
As “poppin’” is a slang term which means “doing your thing, whatever it is you do,” what is notable is the manner in which she “does her thing” is being compared to firearms. An M80, formally known as the BVP M-80 ICV/IFV, is a Yugoslavian military vehicle, and a 380, formally known as the Bersa Thunder 380, is a pistol. A “gat” has come to signify most any type of gun, but was originally short for the Gatling gun, an old rapid-fire weapon used during the Civil War. Not only does Minaj execute tasks (and perhaps live her life in general) with the speed and efficiency (and all other associative and relevant adjectives) of weaponry but she is able to vocally create the same effect. (To spit is to rap or freestyle. It is unique to rappers but its usage here can be understood as symbolic for the female voice in a general sense.)
In “Around the Way Girl” there is much emphasis placed on the female voice and the woman’s attitude is heralded as a positive attribute by which she asserts herself. The power of the female voice and attitude is functioning similarly in this context. However, the metaphor that this woman “spits gats” factors in a new element largely associated with masculinity. The around the way girl’s ability to hustle, “ya girl got hustle,” is distinctly masculine as within the underground economy and rap music that reflects this street lifestyle, the men hustle by selling drugs (hence Nicki’s “pitch[ing] crack”).
In addition to this ascription of masculine characteristics into the around the way girl trope, Minaj likens her to male popular culture icons. In her alignment with professional athlete Shaquille O’Neal and disc jockey DJ Kay Slay lies an implicit affirmation of the around the way girl’s mastery and skill through her association with (that of) men. Also, in the sixth line, Nicki’s name is shortened to its masculine form: “Nick.” A recurrence in the Minaj oeuvre, this substitution of a feminine identity with a masculine one is emblematic of the constant masculinization of the female body and self.
“Nick is so gutter.” More than merely the narrow channel(s) located along streets responsible for transferring (rain) water into the sewer, gutter is a way of being. The following Urban Dictionary.com entry sums it up fairly well: “straight street; rough; gangsta; don’t wanna mess wit em type.” The key word here is “gangsta.” Within the context of Hip Hop, the term “gangsta” is used to identify males involved in illegal activity and organized crime, such as selling drugs gangs or serving as members of gangs. Not only has gangster, both within and without hip hop, been historically and traditionally gendered as male, but the thematic foci of the male and female narratives of rap affirm this gendered association. “Male rappers…rap about…gang pressures…gun fights…and drug[s]…[whereas] female rappers [rap about]…love or a girl who has been involved with a drugdealer…” (Rose 1994:2) Notably, women often figure as the acquaintance or perhaps accomplice to a (male) drug dealer, but rarely are they themselves selling the drugs.
Minaj’s revisionary ascription of masculine qualities to the around the way girl occurs in many ways simultaneously: she is deliberately aligned with powerful male figures, described as gangster (gutter), a (capable/possible) hustler, violent (per her linkage to firearms), aligned with prominent men and even christened with /identified by a male name! While female and feminine attributes function in concert with these masculine qualities, they are lacking in depth and mainly work to sexualize and objectify the around the way girl, severely limiting her agency.
Keeping with the patriarchal guidelines of hardcore female rap, Minaj defines power by masculine terms and asserts her dominance through metaphoric usage of the male voice and body. Because LL’s rendition of the around the way girl is so positive and empowering, Nicki’s rejection of it is puzzling. Even more bewildering is her subsequent bastardization of the trope, denying the around the way girl the erotic power which the antecedent affords her. Had Minaj embraced the around the way girl per LL’s vision, or even proceeded to improve upon or modernize it, such an action would effectively, to borrow Gwendolyn D. Pough’s phrase “bring wreck” to the patriarchy.
In hardcore female rap, femcees are constant performers of masculinity who, between their Signifyin(g) on male [sexual] discourse and (re)appropriating sexist and misogynistic language, negotiate a treacherous space where a thin line exists between the subversion of male dominance via gender performance and affirmation of its patriarchal norms. Minaj’s “performance” as illustrated by her problematic revision of the around the way girl motif, is extremely disempowering to women and rather than bring wreck to the patriarchy, it affirms sexist notions of Black womanhood.
Female rappers routinely relinquish their agency by masculinizing themselves. In “Who’s Ya Best M.C.?” Minaj’s identification as an around the way girl possesses incredible potential for empowerment. However, her rejection of the positive trope for a debased reconstruction of it, reducing the woman to her sexual and physical self—imbued with sexist sentiment inherently harmful to women’s welfare—demolishes any attempts made in the name of female autonomism.
Nicki Minaj’s rejection of a powerful woman-centered identity as articulated by a male rapper stands as a universal symbol of hardcore female rap’s innumerable missed opportunities for female empowerment.
Video: “Who’s Ya Best MC?,” Nicki Minaj