Photograph by Burak Cingi taken at Hammersmith Apollo June 2012. See the full set of photographs here.
Nicki Minaj has built on her reputation for venomous vocal barbs and whippet-quick raps peppered with pop culture diatribes, which are in turn all shrinkwrapped into the plastic gloss of her technicolour bubblegum. She’s got a ferocious tenacity matched by no one and has been dubbed the most influential female rapper of all time, now you don’t get that title without good reason. She’s collaborated with scores of other superstars in her so far fairly short title-reign, churning out so many hits you’re hard pressed to get a week without her in the top 40. In short, to many, she is the shit.
Though there are two sides to this neon pink coin. One camp – her ‘Barbz’ (think Justin’s ‘Beliebers’) will quite literally weep with excitement at her mere presence. This is Beatlemania for hip-hop. The stans (what a great word) will defend the smallest slight with fervour, worship the ground she walks on and follow orders like a lime-wigged child army. However, some are not so kind. Branded as trashy pop or lambasted by ‘real music fans’, she struggles to be taken seriously by the wider world, some seeing her as another Lady Gaga and leaving it at that. She wants herself to be seen as a role model for children and women. She wants to be taken seriously as a rapper in a male-dominated industry. Minaj is juggling a lot of ambitions and fending off harsh words from all comers while dressed up like cotton candy and rapping about slapping her dick in your face. It’s kind of easy to see why some people have a problem and her live show, well it veers on the weak side this evening.
Even before the spectacle that is Minaj takes to the stage, there’s drama. Scantily clad tweens are carted out by security for being too inebriated, thrown pints douse the stalls in (let’s hope) beer and a ridiculous overreaction erupts for what looks like Tim Westwood. The tension is palpable as screams overshadow the PA and fill the arena in the minutes prior to the divas’ arrival. The fierce following that the callipygian Trinidadian has garnered is out in full force tonight – devout young fans plastered in her merchandise, wielding banners, glitter and lost in the palpable excitement of their first live show experience. And from the second Minaj crash lands in a rocketship to the second she leaves they are hypnotised. They are here to watch their idol dance, sing and rap: The calibre doesn’t matter, all that matters is that she is in front of them – for “realsies”! Yeah it is at times trite and cloying but she is a pop idol after all. She may have begun as Lil Wayne’s protégé, a silver-tongued ‘bad bitch’ from Queens, but she has come a long way.
There’s a veritable goldmine of back catalogue to draw from, she’s got the raw talent and she can undoubtedly work a crowd. The wheelbarrows of money her label has poured into her Pink Friday: Reloaded probably could have fed a small nation – riddled with pyrotechnics, lasers and t-shirt cannons, no expense is spared on the aesthetic. There’s a purpose-built façade behind her made of projection screens, with staircases and fireman poles for the backup dancers to gyrate on. The whole thing is a set rather than a stage, and the performance about to unfold comes not from a musician, but from an actress. She’s a multi-faceted being, transcending genres and dominating the charts; there’s a wealth of talent within her, and she knows it.
A large amount of her time is spent doubling a backing track, letting the DJ play her music while she waves and smiles like a cartoon cat on speed – kind of zoned out, but still really bloody happy. Maybe this crowd of kids isn’t versed in the the deeper understandings of music appreciation – maybe the bright lights and loud noises are all Minaj needs to make an impression on them. If this is true, and she’s just putting in minimal effort, then it’s sad because given the speed and perfection of her flow when she does pull her finger out, she can rap exceedingly well. She’s collected, precise even, and when the beat drops and she’s left holding her own for well over a minute without breathing, even the staunchest opponent can see she’s skilled.
Kicking off the performance half an hour late, she rattles through the hits at breakneck speed, sometimes playing only the chorus or the intro. The tracks all meld together, and it’s difficult to tell where ‘Come On A Cone’ starts and ‘Beez In The Trap’ stops. The only respite from this seamlessly and lavishly choreographed set is during costume changes (at least five) and when she waltzes off on a tangent about her love of London, adopting an atrocious Mockney accent to request scones and tea – it’s borderline offensive. However, efforts like the infectious ‘Super Bass’ and ‘Pound The Alarm’ remind us just why she’s at the top of the game. There’s mountains of energy, it’s loud and it’s exactly what we expect of Minaj – a show. ‘Marilyn Monroe’ demonstrates that while Minaj can murder classic pop art, she can also sing beautifully.
Is the kitschy cavalcade proof that although her label believes she can make money, there’s no faith in her musical ability? Or is this truly the extravaganza Minaj wants? One certainly expected an element of showmanship this high up the food chain, but when the visuals overpower the music, it becomes a problem. Saying that, the crowd doesn’t give a toss, as one “I love you” later from Minaj, they’re melting into hysterical piles on the floor.