Is Nicki Minaj's 'American Idol' Gig as Big a 'Milestone' As She Says?
Rapper reacts (maybe too) confidently to new role
The world is as much at odds with Nicki Minaj as likely the alter-egos are inside her head. In just five years, she has become a most enigmatic artist.
For every seizure-inducing, "ho'"-hurling video of hers that is banned by BET, there is a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal offered by family-friendly soft drink conglomerate Pepsi. For every plastic surgery patient that covets her curves, there are tiny toddlers, by way of Britain, who idolize her for an entirely different reason (and appear on "Ellen" to prove it). And for every annual Summer Jam festival she forgoes with an insulting but metaphoric slap to the face, there is a mainstream, mammoth-size televised talent competition that will gladly offer her a spot on its show instead.
That's what FOX's "American Idol" did when they offered the always-colorful conundrum a seat at its judging panel for its upcoming 12th season—for a cool $12 million, no less.
It's a move that Minaj herself confidently (and maybe misguidedly) told MTV News is: "A milestone for me; a milestone for hip-hop; a milestone for young black women."
Considering that the jury is still out on if Minaj is a role model of any sort—one online forum asks if she's, in fact, the "worst imaginable"—is the rapper experiencing an inflated sense of self or is her new role as an "American Idol" judge as significant as she says?
Dr. Ebony Utley, pop culture expert and professor of communication studies at California State University Long Beach, doesn't see Minaj as a trendsetter; if anything, Utley says, she's walking a path that has already been trod upon.
"It's more of a milestone for herself than it is for the hip-hop genre or an entire race of women," Utley said. "Although she raps, her body of work is more pop than it is hip-hop. Her top singles are very much like the hits of Paula Abdul, Jennifer Lopez, and Mariah Carey—all of whom have been judges—and are readily identified as pop artists. Furthermore, I find it ironic that Minaj makes no room for Carey to identify as black which she could choose to do. I also find it curious that Nicki so staunchly identifies as a black woman and yet she appears increasingly lighter and blonder in her most recent videos."
As controversial as Minaj's manufactured "Barbie"-like looks may be, they weren't enough to offend "American Idol" executives. In fact, Andrea Williams, a Nashville-based journalist who has written for Uptown Magazine and CNN Money, believes it's Minaj's increasingly commercial charm that the show hopes will save them—even if it is a last-ditch effort. Last season, "Idol" achieved the lowest finale ratings in its history, with only 21.5 million viewers tuning in.
"The decision to cast her as judge is actually a shallow and poorly-guised attempt by producers to appeal to a varied demographic in hopes of resurrecting the strong, but faltering, 'Idol' brand," Williams said. "I can imagine the powers-that-be sitting around a conference room table, throwing up names on a white erase board. Keith Urban will reel in country fans; Mariah Carey will reach throngs of pop listeners who have been following her career for decades. As for the urban market, Minaj is a solid candidate with enough hip-hop credibility to be authentic, and enough crossover appeal to not totally scare off middle America. Sadly, what Minaj views as an influential moment is little more than corporate marketing at its finest."
But there are those who aren't immune to recognizing the authenticity of her achievements; to name a few, in 2010, she set a record for having the most singles—seven, to be exact—on the Hot 100 chart at one time, and earlier this year she became the first artist to boast 21 successive weeks in the top 10 with one single, "Starships."
Manny Faces, founder and editor-in-chief of New York-based hip-hop magazine Birthplace, acknowledges that Minaj is, indeed, a guilty pleasure, and still deems her a "very capable MC." Though he doesn't deny that many critics were created in the wake of her transition from "gritty Queens girl to Gaga-esque pop icon," he applauds the inarguable effects of her efforts.
"She has indeed set a different type of bar for how someone with hip-hop DNA can branch out, cross genres, take full advantage of corporate sponsorships, build a worldwide fanbase, and tour the globe," he said. "And, yes, there is a certain admirable effect of seeing a female from such modest means go so far. Bringing all of this to the national stage on 'American Idol' shows, at the very least, that her brand of entertainment is deemed powerful enough to have her involved with one of TV’s most lucrative products ever. It is the first time that hip-hop has been represented on this level."
Despite her hard work, however, unfortunately for Minaj, there are some "milestones" she'll never match, and some pundits she'll never please.
"I don’t think it holds the same weight as Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince winning the first rap Grammy," Faces said. "But it does reinforce the fact that hip-hop music can be much more than the profanity-laced, violence-filled, male-dominated craft it is often perceived as. And I think she's aware of these points of significance, but may also be unaware at how few will notice."