BildungsRoman: ‘The Pinkprint’ by Nicki Minaj as Coming of Age Narrative

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(I wrote this ages ago and realised I never did anything with it. The follow-up to The Pinkprint is probably coming soon, so maybe this is relevant now.)

On August 2nd 2014, something important happened to Nicki Minaj.

The remix of Beyoncé’s ***Flawless, on which Minaj now famously featured, appeared on Beyoncé’s website. On the track, Beyoncé introduces Nicki as if she is invoking a demon spirit – she says her name slowly, gutterally; warning us that what she is about to unleash – that is, the sheer talent of Nicki Minaj – is powerful, profound and, moreover, shit hot. Crucially, though, instead of announcing Nicki by calling her ‘Nicki Minaj,’ Beyoncé utters three syllables: “O-ni-ka.” In doing so, she signals the beginning of a new stage in Nicki Minaj’s career.

Onika, of course, is Nicki Minaj’s real first name. And from the moment that Beyoncé – and all of the cultural and artistic legitimacy which is synonymous with her – introduced Nicki Minaj as ‘Onika,’ Nicki Minaj became a different, somehow more complete artist from the one she was before.

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Throughout her career, Nicki Minaj has built a fearsome reputation upon her voice’s versatility and her ability to create and embody different characters. Her second full-length record is named in part for Roman Zolanski, her most fully realised alter-ego, and even on Itty Bitty Piggy, the first song on her early Beam Me Up Scotty mixtape, she offhandedly reels off a list of her alternate personas: “Like, I’m Nicki Minaj, Nicki Lewinsky, Nicki the Ninja, Nicki the Boss, Nicki the Harajuku Barbie.” 

At the head of that list is ‘Nicki Minaj,’ and I want in part to suggest here that ‘Nicki Minaj’ has always been as just as much a character as the other alter-egos. And when, on August 2nd 2014, Beyoncé introduced her friend as “Onika,” she also announced the beginning of a process via which Nicki Minaj, self-proclaimed Queen of Rap, would finally invite the facts of her life as Onika Maraj from Queens, NY, into her music. This process found completion on December 14th 2014, with the release of Nicki’s third studio album, The Pinkprint.

At the beginning of The Pinkprint album cycle, Nicki began to shake off many of the visual trappings of ‘Nicki Minaj’ that she had previously clothed herself in, replacing the garish coloured wigs and neon outfits of her earlier career with more natural-looking hair and make-up and low(er)-key styling. Via this physical transformation, she foreshadowed the more personal, stripped-down feel of her third record. This brings me onto the second point that I want to make: The Pinkprint is an album with an unusually strong narrative thread, and this narrative is enabled largely by the fact that the Nicki Minaj mask has been allowed, partially at least, to slip – though it is never fully removed, because three albums into a highly successful career it has become less of a mask and more of a tangible part of Onika Maraj’s personality.

On The Pinkprint, Nicki speaks candidly about the events of her personal life (indeed, of her life as Onika) – in particular she discusses her break up with her fiancé Safaree Samuels after an eleven year relationship. In doing so, she crafts a type of aural bildungsroman, or coming-of-age narrative, which both charts the emotional journey of her break-up, and which sees her literally ‘come of age’ as one of the greatest rappers of her generation. It is by exposing more of her real self – by coming of age on record – that she does her most interesting creative work to date. From a number of key tracks on The Pinkprint, the overall bildungsroman status of the album’s narrative is clear, rendering it both a story in itself and an important moment in the ongoing story of Nicki Minaj’s artistry.

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The Pinkprint begins with departure. Its main subject matter, after all, is a painful break-up, and the first track All Things Go (which, even from its title, at once confronts the listener with dynamism and change) feels like a refocussing on the things that actually matter to Nicki Minaj: herself; her soul; her family. This ‘refocussing’ is at the core of The Pinkprint, and Nicki’s public actions seem to reinforce this: when she won the BET Award for Best Female Hip-Hop Artist after the release of this record, she brought her mother onstage with her to accept her trophy.   

The first bar Nicki spits on All Things Go, and, therefore, on The Pinkprint, is “I had to reinvent.” Here, she refers to both the aesthetic reinvention in the months before The Pinkprint was released, and to the creative reinvention that the record represents. Both of these were likely spurred on by the emotional changes that her break-up forced her to make. In a jarring removal from previous work, The Pinkprint becomes personal very quickly; less than a minute into All Things Go, she states that she’s okay with the fact that she’ll only have one life, “as long as seven years from now I’m taking my daughter to pre-school.”

She puts aside the lyrical wizardry that made her famous in order to speak candidly about her life as Onika. Having already given the world two records’ worth of alter-egos, punchlines and linguistic acrobatics, on The Pinkprint she has nothing left to prove. The only thing left to do, therefore, is be herself. Her bars on All Things Go – which feel less like lines from a rap song, and more like simple statements of fact – reflect this: “I lost my little cousin to a senseless act of violence”; “I love my mother more than life itself and that’s a fact.” She also discusses her relationship with her brother, stating “I know Jelani will always love me, and I’ll always love him,/And I’m just his little sister, not Nicki Minaj when I’m around him.” From the very first song, The Pinkprint acknowledges that ‘Nicki Minaj’ and does not fully represent the person who is speaking – at least not anymore. It breaks down the many layers of bravado that Nicki has spent her entire career building up, and, finally, is honest about her experiences and vulnerabilities.

This honesty dominates the next two tracks, I Lied and The Crying Game, which, in directly discussing her break-up, expose the very nuanced nature of Nicki Minaj. Though she is known for her mercurial changes of voice and tone during tracks, they don’t feel performative here; they are more driven by genuine emotion than by a desire to entertain. Over the course of these two songs, Nicki is by turns angry (“I’m just abusive by nature” (The Crying Game); “I’ll be smashin’ windows and cuttin’ them break lines” (I Lied)), vulnerable (“I lied to keep you from breaking my heart” (I Lied)), violent (“blood drippin’ out ya arm on my Asian rugs” (The Crying Game)) and unsure (“is it too late to talk?” (The Crying Game)). Her voice changes to showcase these varying states of mind, as she switches from aggressive rapping to gentle singing, sometimes in the same breath, representing with her voice the wildly emotional early stages of a breakup.

However, the initial shock and confusion presented by I Lied and The Crying Game are not the only feelings a person experiences at the end of a relationship, and they’re also not the only ones which are related on The Pinkprint. The record’s fourth and fifth tracks are Get On Your Knees and Feeling Myself, which feature Ariana Grande and Beyoncé respectively. The former is a brazen assertion of sexual dominance, and Nicki enlists Grande for an injection of feminine power after using the opening of her record to recount the turmoil caused to her by her now-ex boyfriend. However, of these two tracks it is Feeling Myself which really stands out. A celebration of self-love of all kinds (masturbation included – Nicki don’t need a man to please her as long as she’s got her “jack rabbit”, a fact underlined by the amazing crotch-heavy music video and tour choreography for the song), it serves as a reminder, both for her listeners and for herself, that having escaped a toxic relationship, she is ready to focus again on what she does best, as she states almost monosyllabically: “bitch never left but I’m back at it.”

Feeling Myself, then, is an important aspect of The Pinkprint as bildungsroman: it signals a new chapter of the record, and a rediscovering of the self, post-trauma. Moreover, though, it is also hugely significant in terms of Nicki Minaj’s coming-of-age as a performer. The track is the second of two collaborations with Beyoncé – the first of which put this entire process into motion. Interestingly, in this new part of her career, wherein she is as much Onika as she is Nicki, Minaj sometimes requires others to confirm her legitimacy – she is, after all, occupying creative territory that she has never ventured into before. When, on ***Flawless (Remix), Beyoncé announced “Onika,” she endorsed this new element of Nicki Minaj’s art form with her cultural capital. On Feeling Myself, Nicki acknowledges her place as the Queen of Rap, but does so in a way which also requires the say so of other respected musicians: “Go ask the kings of rap / who is the queen of things of that / nature.”

Moreover, the title of the record itself, The Pinkprint, is a reference to and attempt at association with The Blueprint, the seminal album by Jay-Z, the other half of the Knowles-Carter juggernaut. In associating herself with and gaining the approval of the most respected people in her business, Nicki Minaj negotiates for herself a new level of legitimacy as an artist, and The Pinkprint sees her coming of age in this sense, as well as in terms of its own narrative.

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The final six tracks of The Pinkprint can easily be placed into two groups. The first comprises of Trini Dem Girls, Anaconda, and The Night is Still Young, all of which are upbeat party tracks, and represent the part of the breakup story wherein a newly single Nicki goes out and drinks hella Nicki Minaj-brand Myx Moscato. The Night is Still Young, however, is also important in the larger story of Nicki’s ascendancy: it’s reminiscent of Starships, the huge, omnipresent hit single from her second LP, and its placement on The Pinkprint might well do service to a part of her career that critics like the influential DJ Peter Rosenberg had previously shamed her for, because it was viewed as a move away from “real hip hop.” However, singles like Starships (and indeed, like The Night is Still Young) are what gave Nicki real crossover appeal, and proved her to be a heavy commercial hitter as well as a great artistic rap talent. Both are required to become a star that shines as brightly as Nicki Minaj.

The party, however, has to end, and the comedown from this first trilogy of songs is represented by those which succeed them, and which finish the album. Pills and Potions, Bed of Lies and, finally, Grand Piano all revisit the failed relationship at the heart of the record, but their approach is more considered. It is wearier but wiser; still disarmingly honest (on Pills and Potions Nicki confesses, “I still love you”; on Bed of Lies she discusses “contemplating overdosing”), but with more perspective than the album’s emotional openers. The Pinkprint is structured as a story in and of itself – that is, as a bildungsroman-type narrative – and when, on Grand Piano, Nicki states “the people are saying that you have been playing my heart like a grand piano,” there comes a moment of realisation which brings that story full circle. As she sings the last refrain of “play on, play on, play on,” there reappears the sense of continuation that began the record on All Things Go. The man she loved can “play on” all he likes; she’s just not listening anymore.

Nicki Minaj, then, ends the story of The Pinkprint by making a statement about moving forwards. And, therefore, in the story of her career, The Pinkprint becomes a stepping stone – the tool by which she has revealed an entirely new aspect of herself and her art. The “play on” refrain that ends the album, then, might also be viewed as an invitation to herself: now that she is established as both Onika and Nicki – as a rapper who has truly come of age – there is no limit to what she might “play on” and do. 

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