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Posted on Dec 14, 2012

How Nicki Minaj Brought Rage Back To Pop

"Stupid Hoe" and "Come on a Cone" make fury seem aspirational — and inspirational.

Caroline McCredie / Getty Images

A friend of mine was going through a rough situation at work earlier this year, struggling with a boss who seemed determined to tank the morale of the entire department, and who had targeted my friend in particular for some very personal harassment. Largely unable to take out her frustrations in the office — at least not without getting fired, or prosecuted — she'd bottle it up, get in her car, and on the drive home, shout along to "Stupid Hoe." It focused all the negative energy she'd generated in the previous eight hours into three minutes of pure aggression. Maybe it didn't help her deal with the boss any better, but it siphoned off enough of the black cloud that she was able to apply for new jobs when she got home.

"Stupid Hoe" was a key tributary this year of the aggression slowly working its way back into pop music after the brief and frightening reign of Glee. To write an angry song that works in the way "Stupid Hoe" does is not easy. Either the writer's so angry that their bile is specific toward its target and thus difficult for anyone else to use as a channel for his or her own rage (see, for instance, Elvis Costello's "I Want You"), or it's so aggro that embracing it would feel uncomfortable (like Shellac's "Prayer to God"), or it's so diffuse and general that the anger gets buried (Cee-Lo's "Fuck You").

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"Stupid Hoe" has a target, but it doesn't really matter; as Rich Juzwiak points out, the song is basically one long shade-throw, a side-eye that can be aimed at any deserving target. But it's still incredibly aggressive, in no small part because of the noise Nicki generates, both in the backing track (it's apt that the song begins in almost the same way as LCD Soundsystem's loudloudloud "Movement") and her voice, from the elongated "wouuuuuuuld" at the end of the first verse to the precise freakout at the end that plays out like the nightclub scene in Kill Bill. And at the same time, that aggression is not threatening, probably because she's dressed like a sci-fi ballerina, an anime Joan Rivers, and a Bratz doll while delivering it. For unmoored anger that doesn’t want to make itself known outside your head, "Stupid Hoe" is a megaphone.

On "Come on a Cone," Nicki references her appearance with two small girls wearing pink tutus on Ellen and then croons, "Dick in your face / Put my dick in your face." On "Roman Reloaded," she shouts out her voice acting inIce Age right before Lil Wayne considers the effects of combining oral sex and oral cocaine use. A surprising variety of people complained about her dance-pop tracks, but this multiplicity is precisely what makes Nicki Minaj one of the most important figures in pop culture right now. It's hard enough to gain admittance into the mainstream while expressing any sort of anger, but for those who do, you're not allowed to also be the wounded lover, the playful weirdo, the sexual being, the party starter. That Nicki's done all of those things both plausibly and without major objections says to we watchers that maybe our public faces don't have to be one-sided and uncomplicated. Maybe all those different voices within us can be let out without fatally confusing the other watchers.

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More than anything else, Nicki Minaj is important because of the power she embodies and expresses. The constant reminders of her success, which feel perfunctory and content-free for some rappers, for her feel absolutely necessary. It's not surprising that someone like Drake made it big despite his unlikely roots, but it still seems fairly unlikely that Nicki's become as famous as she has. Her persona is wildly successful, absolutely powerful, and relatively effortless, and watching her act out that authority in such a convincing way imparts a little of it to the listener. "Stupid Hoe" is a rewarding song to listen to when your boss is being awful in a very different way than something like Kanye West's "Spaceship." That song paints a picture of leaving the game as winning the game, of overcoming your current situation by transcending it at some point in the future. "Stupid Hoe" is about playing the game so well that you annihilate your opponent. It lends itself not to idle dreaming but to a mastery of the present moment. Be who you are, but more so, and you can win it all, Nicki tells us. Doesn't it feel nice to believe her?

Mike Barthel is a PhD student in the communication department at the University of Washington, and a writer for Salon, The Awl, and The Atlantic.