While the death of hip-hop has been a matter of debate in recent years, the demise of the star female emcee had been all but accepted.
There had always been at least one female rap act to contrast hip-hop’s defining male edge, from Queen Latifah to Lil Kim to Missy Elliott to Lauryn Hill. But in the past few years, women rappers were mere blips on the scene, and the occasional hit only underscored how weak the field had become.
Nicki Minaj, the in-your-face, highly animated sex kitten and protege of rap prince Lil Wayne, has not only emerged as hip-hop’s leading female, she’s outdoing her male counterparts, too.
The 26-year-old Minaj has yet to release an official studio album, but she’s saturating all facets of hip-hop, from radio to mixtapes to magazines.
She’s costarred on songs with Lil Wayne, Drake, Usher, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera and Diddy, among many others. She’s also set to appear on Kanye West’s upcoming CD. With her collaborations, she’s landed 10 songs on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop singles chart, including three in the Top 10; and Minaj’s had eight overall tunes on the Hot 100.
Her current single, the Annie Lennox-sampled "Your Love," is spending its seventh week on top of the rap charts; it’s the first time a female act, as the lead artist, has topped that chart since Lil Kim did in 2003. And "Your Love" is steadily climbing elsewhere, peaking at No. 5 and No. 14 on the R&B and Hot 100 charts, respectively.
"I think since Nicki came out there’s going to be a lot of new girls coming out," producer-rapper Pharrell said. "There’s always one that paves the way and opens the door (and) I think she reopened the door to hip-hop for females."
Minaj, whose real name is Onika Maraj, was born in Trinidad, but grew up in Queens, NY. Lil Wayne discovered Minaj and signed her to his Cash Money imprint last year. She’s released three mixtapes and performs with the rap group Young Money, which includes Lil Wayne and Drake. The group’s 2009 album, the gold-selling "We Are Young Money," has produced two Top 10 singles on the pop charts.
"Now that you have somebody that has pretty much her own style and does her own thing, people are gravitating toward it, so I think that makes her stick out ’cause she’s so different," said Ludacris, who had Minaj rap on his hit "My Chick Bad."
Minaj’s style is one that is playful, youthful and wild. She wears multicolored wigs, sings and raps in various accents and boasts about her sexuality, even playing up bisexuality, though she’s said in a recent Vibe interview that she doesn’t date or sleep with women. (Minaj’s rep said the rapper would not be interviewed for this article because it was not solely about her.)
Like Minaj, a lot of female rappers reached their height in the mid 1990s to early 2000s as part of a hip-hop posse.
Junior M.A.F.I.A introduced Lil Kim, the multiplatinum diva who flaunted her sex appeal on the mic and in her music videos. Jay-Z introduced Foxy Brown, a feisty, skilled rapper who battled Lil Kim for rap’s top female spot in the 90s. And Ruff Ryders, led by DMX, brought forth Eve.
50 Cent said the decline of this kind of posses has limited new female talent.
"There’s not as many female rappers because there’s not as many emerging crews," 50 Cent explained. "When those new crews come up, there’s a potential for a female artist when the head of that crew sees the idea of bringing someone to speak from a female perspective."
Lil Kim and Foxy Brown both have seen their careers wane after criminal charges led to time behind bars.
Eve has achieved platinum success, won a Grammy and stretched into television and movies, but she has had trouble releasing her fourth album after two disappointing singles in 2007. After leaving Interscope, she plans to release a new album with EMI in January.
When asked about the lack of top female rappers, Eve said: "I wish I had an answer or some kind of theory.
"In my travels, I do meet girls who are like, ‘Oh, I want to be an emcee. I want to rap.’ So I don’t know what the problem is or why it hasn’t happened."
While Eve gives credit to Minaj, she says that hip-hop needs more than one voice speaking for women.
"Even though Nicki is representing for females period, she’s not representing for every female. She’s a specific type of entertainer," Eve said.
"There are a lot of different kind of men out there representing for the males, and you need a lot of different females that represent for the different kinds of females," she added.
Eve says one voice that is certainly missing is Lauryn Hill’s: "She was our female consciousness. She was our most positive voice and we need that back."
Hill, who first appeared with The Fugees alongside Wyclef Jean and Pras, has only released one studio album, but is arguably still hip-hop’s most celebrated female lyricist. Her 1998 solo debut, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," won five Grammys and has sold eight million copies. In a recent interview with NPR, Hill says if she does release new music it will feature more singing than rapping.
Like Eve, it has also been some time since Elliott released new music; her rep says her new CD will be out next year. In the late 1990s and for much of the new millennium’s first decade, the rapper-singer-producer was a multiplatinum powerhouse with her theatrical, fun style, which Minaj borrows from. The now-defunct best female rap solo performance Grammy Award, presented in 2003 and 2004, both went to Elliott.
Bill Freimuth, the vice president of awards at The Recording Academy, says the category was eliminated because "it wasn’t enough competition essentially, due to the lack of the number of releases in that category."
While that award no longer exists, Minaj’s already received industry praises: She won the best new artist and best female hip-hop artist trophies at this year’s BET Awards and she’s up for best new artist at the upcoming MTV Video Music Awards.
Queen Latifah, the rap pioneer who’s segued to acting and singing, says when Nas declared that hip-hop was dead in 2006, that was partially due to the lack of feminine voices.
"Part of the reason hip-hop was dead is because there weren’t any female emcees out, really like in the forefront of hip-hop, playing on the radio, in the daytime, every day," Latifah said.
But when Minaj releases her debut album "Pink Friday" on Nov. 23, the resurrection may finally be complete.
"Honestly, between (Lauryn Hill) and me and Nicki being out there, hopefully a lot of other females will be coming up," Eve said.
"There’s just too many guys on the screen. I can’t take it."