As I listen to Cole Cuchna breakdown the iconic Monster verse that Nicki Minaj gave us in her early career, I’m moved to tears. Considering I’ve shed about a billion tears as I’ve listened to Dissect the Podcast, this would seem like a normal moment if it weren’t for the memories. I remember what that verse did. I remember as I was exiting high school and embarking on the first step of my later tumultuous college career, how much I felt connected to Nicki Minaj. Although, ironically, going through a notable beef with the legend, Lil Kim, she was still that for us. She was our Lil Kim. But, arguably, on an even more major scale due to the mixtape culture of our time. We had been rooting for Nicki for years. Having the exclusivity of being one of the ones that’d stayed down since Trapaholics, it was like we’d been side by side with her through basement freestyles and recording in closets. I don’t know if she actually did that, but because I have, that’s the images I see in the humble beginnings of mixtape creation. Either way, I felt like I was part of the journey. I relished in my ability to flawlessly recite verses of hers from Slumber Party, to Girls Kissing Girls, and the anthem of a high school moment, Itty Bitty Piggy. For me, a girl unapologetic, and at times, unnecessarily verbal about my sexuality, Nicki represented my kind of freedom. A freedom that included the opportunity to be a gorgeous girl in a room full of trap rappers and rapping them under the table. An opportunity that wasn’t given to her, an opportunity she took. She was inspiring.
So, in a moment like “Monster”, I felt energized by her ability. I felt all the work and proving led to that moment. Not only being alongside Kanye West, Chi Town’s Hero (until he wasn’t), but out rapping THE rapper of my time, Jay Z. It was Girl Power rolled up in gold and viciously spit out on anyone who didn’t think she could. That we could. I felt included. Of course, the verse was not only lyrically amazing, but the delivery and sound of it kept you in a sort of daze. Not even caring what was being said, but just wanting to say it in the same exact way.
Cole Cuchna’s breakdown of the verse, that I’m now hearing 8 years after the song’s release, is making me feel a little bizarre. With his constant theming of empathy (a quality that I literally pray for daily), I'm left wondering, how would I have taken this breakdown had I heard it in 2010? Or even when the podcast came out in 2017? About a year before new thoughts of Nicki Minaj’s character had surfaced in a lot of our minds. Well, okay, I’ll just speak for myself here. Basically, the little bit of access I’ve given myself to Nicki Minaj in the past year has made me conclude that she’s losing it. Let me point out, this original thought is not my own, which is a completely different issue that I could probably write a book on. Anyway, I’ve seen things, blog headlines about her lashing out on people via Twitter and even in people’s DMs, but if it weren’t for me hearing other people’s views on that behavior, I don’t know how much thought I’d put into it. Which calls to point another issue. Cancel culture. In my mind, Nicki’s been cancelled since her apparent defeat in the Remy Ma back and forth. I stopped thinking of her as a “good” lyricist completely. Although, I was already going down the path of thinking she’d lost her groove from some of the pop songs she’d done over the years. Cancel culture is another thing that we can really dive into to connect more to Cole’s message of empathy, but that's too much to get into right now.
Bringing it back to the strange feeling I felt through listening to Cole’s breakdown, and keeping in mind this theme he’d made me think of as the first and second season of his podcast progressed, I can’t help but wonder about Nicki’s mental state. Like, genuinely wonder. Not in the common, "look at her, she obviously needs help" kind of way. My hope is that my thoughts on this are, for once, completely void of judgment. One thing that Cole pointed out to me about celebrities (specifically Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West) is their ability to personify a sort of darkness that’s occurring in their mind. We see it in Kendrick’s skill of rapping from different perspectives, from the perspective of himself as an adolescent, to the perspective of his ideas of evils, the devil and Uncle Sam. We see it in Kanye’s fluid shift from arrogant asshole to insecure being begging for forgiveness and acceptance. It places a presence of good and evil equally inside of them; creating both a sense of accountability and a complete lack of it. We can guess that this keeps them safe or at least helps them to make sense of what’s going on within and outside of them.
With Nicki Minaj, we saw her dive into characters as soon as she reached her peak stardom. Roman is a side of her that is outlandish and rude, while Barbie comes across sweet and innocent. I’m brought to wonder what parts of herself she was hiding in these characters. And what these characters really represented. If Nicki Minaj is anything like her rap peers, based off what I’ve learned from Cole, I can’t help but feel a little nervous for her. I can’t help but wonder what she’s feeling underneath all of the layers of rap beefs, breakups, family issues made public, and constantly having to defend her talent.
It’s Cole’s theme of empathy that makes me feel this way. From what I’ve heard so far, Cole is a master of stripping away judgment to truly assess the artist at hand. He focuses on the why, the intent of what is said and done, and not the fact of the sayings and doings. It is a practice that I find difficult, although I never let anyone know. But it’s apparent in my actions and conversation. Every time I bash or “cancel” a celebrity for doing something that I think I wouldn’t do, without taking the time to understand what was actually done. So, when I now think of my thoughts of Nicki’s behavior online and make unwanted suggestions to make sense of it, down to even thinking that she’s on drugs, it really challenges my empathy. Who am I to make a literal Monster of her? Not realizing that this is making a Monster of myself. Closing me into a world of knowing better than the people really dealing. It doesn't make sense, and when exposed, it feels really shitty.
We always say that we need to give people their flowers while they’re still here. This mostly refers to celebrities who go through the ups and downs of fans and critics deeming their every move as right or wrong while here on earth, just to die and be praised relentlessly while they’re gone. While “roses” usually means praise, I think we should add a couple of other flowers to the bouquet. Empathy, understanding, and if you’re close enough, genuine Love, presence, and support. This is what I want for Nicki Minaj, this is what I want for all people. The opportunity to be human and be understood in a real way.