It’s a little sad that the latest high-profile edition of that classic, beloved hip-hop tradition—the rap beef—is yet more evidence of just how far the culture has fallen. Nicki Minaj and Remy Ma, two inarguably talented and entertaining rappers, have been going after each other on record for weeks, and regardless of how you score the bout, the clearest message to take away from it all is that hip-hop is dead.
To understand how we’ve arrived here, we’ll have to hearken back to an almost forgotten time, back when hip-hop was a niche, consciously rebellious, largely young and black and urban culture with its own battery of values and mores. Inauthenticity, unoriginality, and selling out were heresies, and the pinnacle of achievement was earning the confidence to strut around the neighborhood you grew up in and bask in the acknowledgement from your peers that nobody around could put together a doper verse than you.
Battles and beefs were where careers could be made or broken, where the tentpoles marking the major eras of the culture were planted. A thirsty up-and-comer might see a more established vet, pick up the mic and, sensing an opportunity to prove himself, attack. Maybe he’d claim that the established act was a phony who no longer lived by the ideals he professed in his music and was old and washed and never that good in the first place. (Oh, and he was ugly and kind of stupid, too.) The upstart, in contrast, would brag about how nice he was with the pen, crafting lines so intricate and personal and vicious and hilarious that no one could doubt that, under the criteria that rapping is historically judged by, the youth had surpassed the elder.
The veteran, meanwhile, might come back with a story about how the youngster was a scorned fanboy who was just mad the vet didn’t lend a verse to the new kid’s track when they ran into each other outside the studio one day. And anyway, everyone from around the way agreed that he’d been the best rapper out for a while, which he’d then proceed to demonstrate with insults and flows and rhyme patterns to back his supremacy. The victor would be determined by those who knew the terms of engagement of rap beefs, and what was at all times paramount was the style and skill of the rappers themselves.
As we can see in the Nicki Minaj-Remy Ma beef, the values of that culture have been almost entirely erased. In place of the aesthetic and moral standards that adjudicated beefs then, there is now only economics, a financial audit to determine who has better served the god of capitalism. This battle isn’t being waged on who’s better at rapping, or impressing their cultural peers with their respective skills, but instead on the purchasing preferences of culturally foreign white people. Which maybe shouldn’t be a surprise when even unrepentant biters are somehow allowed to thrive.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware that Remy Ma and Nicki Minaj have been locked in a heated rap feud over the past few weeks. Ma once appeared to be a budding star about a decade ago, when she appeared set to grab one of the very few seats for prominent female rappers the mainstream allocates. Then, right as she was on the rise, she went to prison for shooting (accidentally, she maintains) a former friend of hers whom she suspected had stolen her money. Ma was imprisoned from 2008 to 2014.
Meanwhile, during that time Minaj saw her star rise as she became one of the biggest rap and pop stars in the music industry. She got her start as a battle rapper, honing her craft in the underground free-mixtape scene for years before being discovered by Lil Wayne and blowing up. Minaj is incredibly versatile, going from a ice-cold, technically proficient rapper’s rapper when she wants (see her show-stealing “Monster” verse) to full-on pop act at other times (you might forget that it’s her’s, but “Starships” is a Minaj Joint). She might be a superstar who’s biggest songs are more Katy Perry than Rah Digga, but Minaj can truly rap with the best of them when the mood strikes.
Minaj and Ma have had a long, up-and-down relationship (you can read up on the full timeline of their history here), no doubt the varying trajectories of their careers causing the two to bristle against one another, as The Star That Is and The Star That Never Got To Be. The relationship seems to have soured somewhat recently. What began as a simmering, subliminal barb-laden tiff boiled over into a full-blown beef when Ma came out with “shETHER” a couple weeks ago.
“shETHER” (which is kind of hard to find online now, since Ma apparently jumped out the window with the song before acquiring rights to Nas’s “Ether” beat she raps over, causing Universal to get the song taken down pretty much everywhere) is scathing and disrespectful and juicy as hell. While many of the song’s lyrics don’t amount to much more than salacious celebrity gossip about Minaj’s alleged sexual dalliances, the main thrust of Ma’s attack on “shETHER” is that Minaj is disloyal and inauthentic and relies on ghostwriters for her best material, which, along with the kinds of base insults mentioned before, are perfectly typical battle rap fodder. Combine the intensity of Ma’s anger, the fame of its target, and the public’s love of celeb gossip, and it makes sense how Ma captured the imagination of the public in a way she never had prior in her career.
Minaj originally tried to play the whole thing off like Ma was merely a hater too below the self-proclaimed Queen of Rap’s station in life to be worthy of more attention than some offhand jabs on social media, including posting an Instagram video of Beyoncé calling Minaj the “rap queen” and quote retweeting this:
Minaj’s main contention was that since she is super rich and famous and successful, and Ma less so on all counts, Minaj could ignore Ma. But hip-hop fans were not so easily convinced. Faced with the tantalizing scent of fresh beef in the air and the prospect of one of the would-be combatants refusing to engage, rap’s fan base did not take well to Minaj’s attempts to big-time Ma. While listeners were busy talking about how Ma wrecked Nicki with “shETHER” and wondering if Minaj really would stick to her silent treatment in fear of losing even more face, Ma attempted to bait Minaj with another diss, called “Another One.” Finally, after two weeks of silence, Minaj released her official response track, “No Frauds,” last Friday.
Here is where I’d normally insert a Youtube link of “No Frauds,” so you could hear the Drake- and Lil Wayne-assisted song in its entirety. I can’t do that, however, because rather than make her contribution to the battle available to the broadest array of people via Youtube, Minaj’s track is only available in its entirety on exclusive subscription services like Spotify and Apple Music.
Thus, without subjecting yourself to the subscription fees of Apple Music or Tidal, or sitting through the ads on Spotify, it’s not that easy to hear Minaj’s response. There is, however, this snippet video Minaj put on Instagram to offer a taste of her sole verse—obviously directed at Ma, though her name is never mentioned—along with a (since deleted, but still available on Twitter) statement of purpose in the caption:
If, as the saying goes, the medium is the message, and the media here are a couple record industry-sanctioned software apps, then what is Minaj trying to say? Well, let’s look at what she’s literally saying on the song itself.
The lyrics of “No Frauds” advance the same primary line of response Minaj pursued earlier, which which essentially boils down to how she’s a better capitalist than Ma.
Here are a couple representative passages from “No Frauds” that demonstrate Minaj’s money-mindedness:
You can’t be Pablo if your work ain’t sellin’
What the fuck is this bitch inhalin’?
I woulda helped you out that pit you fell in
I am the generous queen! Ask Ms. Ellen
Back to back, oh you mean, back to wack?
“Back to Back”? Me and Drizzy laughed at that
They say numbers don’t matter but when they discussin’ the kings
They turn around and say Lebron ain’t got 6 rings
I never signed a 360, bitch you wild dumb
That’s why Jay ain’t clear his verse for your album
Minaj’s contentions about the two rappers’ respective bank accounts and Q scores are undoubtedly accurate, but not only are those facts completely beside the point, they’re further evidence of the complete razing of hip-hop’s founding ideology. Where and from whom rap emerged, and what the culture was supposed to mean and value, is almost completely irrelevant now. In place of those values has been the ascent of cold, amoral economic analysis.
Let’s translate the lyrics quoted above. “You’re not actually hot because you don’t sell enough albums. I, an international superstar, could’ve helped you sell more by lending you some of my shine, because I’m generous, as my famous friend Ellen Degeneres could tell you. Oh, ‘Another One’ obviously winks at Drake’s Meek Mill diss ‘Back to Back,’ which is funny because Drake is actually one of my famous friends and he thinks what you did is corny. Also I sell more, and people should respect that that matters because everyone acknowledges that numbers matter when it comes to things like determining the all-time greatest basketball player rankings. And not only do I sell more than you, but your jabs about how I don’t make that much money from my record deal are wrong, which makes you dumb and is why my famous friend Jay Z didn’t let you put his remix verse of your song on your album.” It’s all about how Minaj is richer and more successful than Ma, as evidenced by her album sales and her celebrity friendships.
Minaj continued with this rhetorical technique after releasing the song, retweeting and Instagramming pictures of how “No Frauds” was soaring up the iTunes charts, and posting this video of more famous friends of hers enjoying the song:
The message, then, is clear. Minaj’s proof of her superiority is built entirely around the economic argument, which stems from the taste of her celebrity buddies and the purchasing power of those who buy her songs. The problem here is that these indicators of success—album and single sales and fame—do not accurately reflect the tastes and opinions and values of the actual community that seriously engages with hip-hop music and its culture.
Nicki Minaj—a black woman who grew up in Queens, in a rap beef with a black woman who grew up poor in the Bronx—is essentially arguing that because middle- and upper-class (predominately white) people like her sound more than they do Remy Ma’s, that hip-hop culture—again, once the social and cultural force birthed and cultivated in the black inner city with its own, self-styled standards and morals and ideals—must name her the victor; or, even worse, that because white suburbia has already crowned her Queen of Rap, those who wish to apply hip-hop culture’s own, traditional code of rap diss grading standards and thus reject Minaj’s argument that her RIAA plaques make her the automatic winner have no standing to even judge the battle.
Seriously, what audience is Minaj courting here? Who does she see as the rightful judges of her beef with Ma? The clues are there if you look.
It’s right there in the Instagram video above, which “helpfully” translates some of Minaj’s double entendres and wordplay, apparently figuring that those who are watching aren’t familiar enough with rap lyricism to glean these for themselves. (Is a line, like a joke, still dope if you have to explain it?) It’s there in her continued elevation of sales as the unimpeachable arbiter of superiority, which, while talk about sales isn’t at all an out-of-place boast in rap beefs of yore, means something completely different in today’s climate, when things like album sales and chart success are way less indicative than they once were of the tastes of the growing, non-white lower class which traditionally serves as the core base of hip-hop culture, and instead more accurately reflects the tastes of members of the economically privileged, many of whom probably don’t even have a particular interest in or knowledge of hip-hop but think “Moment for Life” is really catchy and thus buy Minaj’s albums on their smartphones just to play the pop hits in the car. It’s even there in the decision to release the song on the likes of Spotify and Apple Music, rather than the more easily accessible Youtube. The classic tradition would have a rapper hand over the diss track to a radio DJ where it would then be spread over the airwaves for free for all to hear. With radio not being what it once was, the modern equivalent would be to put the song on Youtube. By walling the song behind paid music subscription services, Minaj is, consciously or not, seeking to control and limit access to the track and at the same time admitting that “No Frauds” exists primarily to serve the interests of her corporate benefactors who have done so much to help her become the star she is today. (And maybe the saddest part of all is that Minaj is plenty well-equipped to go toe-to-toe against anyone in a rap-off by all the traditional measures.)
The kinds of people Minaj is attempting to win over in “No Frauds” and the kinds of people who have made her as big of a crossover star as she is look less like her or Remy Ma, and more like the nice, pretty white people represented in this Pepsi commercial:
(Let’s also not forget that it wasn’t too long ago that a rapper selling her music and herself to a major corporation for a cringe-inducing ad like this would’ve made her the subject of endless ridicule.)
You can argue about whether Nicki Minaj or Remy Ma is the better rapper or songwriter or entertainer; about whether Ma’s disses truly are trenchant critiques of Minaj or if they’re empty, clunky insults that don’t stick; and what whether “No Frauds” or “shETHER” is the better song. But we all should agree that it’s the people who actually care about and directly participate in what’s left of hip-hop culture—at the very least those who understand the rap rivalry the “shETHER” beat and title are referencing—whose opinions and values and judging criteria should weigh heaviest here. Things like lyrical quality, entertainment, whose shots were funnier, conveyed emotion, etc. should be how the beef is judged. A rote accounting of the statistics the record companies collect to determine how much value they’ve extracted from their workers doesn’t—or shouldn’t—have any place.
In that sense, the stakes of this Nicki Minaj-Remy Ma beef are incredibly high. To a certain way of thinking, whether or not to accept Minaj’s argument that it’s sales that demonstrate how and why she’s a better rapper than Ma has to do with a fight for the very soul of hip-hop culture. Is hip-hop still its own, unique entity, separate from and often in opposition to mainstream American values? Or has it too, like so many movements before it, now become just another victim of postmodern capitalism, where success and failure can only be determined by which direction the invisible hand points? If “No Frauds” is enough for Minaj to “win” this beef, we’ll have our answer.