The hip-hop movement that coalesced in the Bronx during the 1970s has spread around the globe, colonizing not just music, but also art, sports, fashion and every other aspect of popular culture.
This black American idiom has seeded so many variants — in Europe, Australia, Africa, Asia and the Middle East — that some historians of music no longer speak of a single hip-hop culture, but point to plural schools of hip-hop that have distinctive flavors.
Hip-hoppers abroad may be working the underground, producing trenchant political commentary or wielding verse in an actual revolution. But rap in the United States has been thoroughly commoditized and brought to heel by its corporate masters. Gone from most playlists are the high concept rappers in the mold of, say, Mos Def, who once had wide exposure speaking to issues of the moment.
With some interesting exceptions, the medium is recycling well-worn ideas, as though the practitioners have reached a kind of creative limit. The rap video, which has long teetered on the pornographic, remains an homage to conspicuous consumption, with rap celebrities like Rick Ross singing of self-aggrandizement, piles of money and insanely expensive cars — just as any number of artistes did in the 1990s. The idiom has also remained overwhelmingly and unrelentingly male, with women mainly cast as part of the scenery.
In capitalism, everything that rises must converge, to quote Flannery O’Connor. Given that rap and pop are corporate products, it is only logical that they would coalesce. Mainstream pop stars are increasingly seeking street cred by featuring rappers on their records. Money talks, of course. And rappers known for hard-core lyrics clean up very nicely when they sign on for cameo appearances with fresh-scrubbed pop stars like Justin Bieber.
It was only a matter of time before a hip-hop star would blow through the lines separating pop from rap and appeal to two lucrative audiences at once. And it was as inevitable that hip-hop purists would swiftly cry foul. It is particularly upsetting to the hip-hop boys club that the most successful transgressor, a freshly minted megastar named Nicki Minaj, is a woman.
It is too early to tell whether she has the creative power to show a way out of the current situation or open up a broader space in rap for women generally. But she has been difficult to miss, raking in music awards and posing on magazine covers in the Day-Glo wigs and makeup that summon up Japanese anime. She raps in hyperspeed in British, Caribbean and New York accents, and channels her engaging zaniness through alter egos, one known as Harajuku Barbie. She refers to the young girls among her fans as Barbs.
She is as much an actor as a musician, hopscotching among genres and personas more easily than most of her rivals. Look back at her earliest music video appearances and you get the sense that she is driven to shed one role for another, maybe just to fend off boredom.
Her rise has been breathtakingly swift, even by Warholian standards. First came several guest appearances on chart-busting records by other artists. Then came her now legendary display in the 2010 video “Monster,” where she appeared as a black-clad, heavy-rapping vampire engaged in a musical dialogue with a pink-haired, Barbie-doll version of herself. For pyrotechnics and complexity of verses, she outclassed her two heavyweight collaborators, Kanye West and Jay-Z. Two albums later (“Pink Friday” in 2010 and “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded” this spring) and she is already being hailed, with some justification, as the most influential female rapper of all time.
The blowback against her played out publicly last month, when Peter Rosenberg, a notorious curmudgeon and radio D.J. from the New York hip-hop station Hot 97, attacked her just before the Hot 97 Summer Jam 2012, the big hip-hop event at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, where she was scheduled to perform. A few hours before the show, Mr. Rosenberg criticized her pop-inflected hit “Starships” for not being real hip-hop, in contrast to the work of male rappers like Asap Rocky and Schoolboy Q.
Insults, of course, are part of a business that capitalizes on the verbal battles, or “beefs,” that erupt when one artist disparages another. Mr. Rosenberg’s knock on Nicki Minaj was notable because he is a radio personality, and because he delivered it hours before the concert where she was to appear. She subsequently withdrew.
As the Times music critic Jon Caramanica pointed out, the big diss offered the “unusual and very modern spectacle of a white man deriding a black women for insufficiently upholding hip-hop values.” The episode says a great deal about the unrelieved gender gap in hip-hop, where even the most talented women are still considered novelties.
The success of Nicki Minaj will no doubt drive record companies to seek out female artists who might connect with the same audiences. But the business plan for the protean diva with neon hair seems pretty clear. She is already moving beyond the reach of the hip-hop powers that be.