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Originally published on 8/21/14. Nicki_Minaj_Anaconda-2-300x300

The cover for Anaconda, the first single from the Pink Print, the third album from Nicki Minaj features the rapper crouched in a sports bra, thong bikini bottoms and Air Jordans. Her back is to the camera and she’s glancing over her shoulder.

You’d be forgiven if the first thing you noticed was her barely clad bottom. It’s not quite NSFW, but it’s pretty damn close. As you might imagine, this image inspired commentary. Some of said commentary was bad. Chuck Creekmur, the owner of the AllHiphop website wrote an open letter to Nicki on Mommynoire suggesting that she behave more respectably and consider the impact her actions and image have on young women and the broader community. Ebony senior editor Jamilah Lemieux responded with a balanced op-ed that was both critical of Creekmur’s suggestion and his failure to call out male hip-hop stars who promoted “hip-hop’s decades long campaign of violence and sexism” and of Minaj’s use of suggestive (often explicit) language and images while engaging with an audience that includes a number of underage women. Mychal Denzel Smith focused attention on the gender politics behind Creekmur’s letter and put it in the context of other black female performers who’ve been criticized for their efforts to assert control over their sexuality in public.When I first saw the image, it struck me as an unimaginative (and kind of boring) choice for a single cover, the kind of thing that’s only ‘provocative’ to people who have avoided pop culture for the last forty years. It was surprising for an instant – one doesn’t see Nicki Minaj’s (nearly) bare bottom everyday – but that went away pretty quickly.

The interesting thing about coming late to a controversy is that you read everything backwards, going through layers of backlash. I first heard about this controversy via a quote from Smith’s piece that was approvingly reposted on Tumblr. I wanted more context, so I followed the quote to the original article, which led me to the Lemieux post and the original Creekmur letter. If I read Creekmur’s letter first, I would’ve noticed the problems with his argument, but I don’t think that it would have stuck in my mind at all. [1. If I’m being perfectly honest, I probably wouldn’t have read it because ‘open letters’ to celebrities are almost universally awful.] Lemieux and Smith’s reaction to the letter gave it a weight that it probably never deserved.

I don’t have any interesting opinions about Nicki Minaj as an artist. She’s a very talented rapper who generally makes music that I respect and avoid. I appreciate her efforts to branch out from the ‘hardcore female rapper’ silo to become a pop star, but I’ve aged out of her target demo. I like the production and her flow on the Anaconda single, but the lyrics are pretty boring. I find the idea of Nicki Minaj – her talent, narrative and hustle – more appealing than the actual music that she releases. The notion that Nicki will be the first female rapper to be considered a mogul on the level of Jay-Z, Dr. Dre or Sean Combs (and yes, I know that the latter two aren’t really rappers) is more meaningful than the debate over where she would be ranked in some imaginary top ten mc list.

Let’s take a moment to talk about Anaconda as a song/music video. Anaconda is a standard ‘series of graphic anecdotes about the rapper’s sexual prowess’ song, the kind that made Too Short and Lil’ Kim famous. Nicki distinguishes herself from her predecessors by linking the sexual dominance that rappers like Kim typically express in these songs (it’s sexy when women are dominant in the bedroom!) with a theme of sexual empowerment. Nicki’s not just trying to appeal to the prurient interest of the audience, she’s asserting herself as a strong sexy woman with desires of her own. The only problem is that the message is far clearer (and more compelling) if you combine the audio and the video.

If you listen without watching, the song starts to sound like a dirty (and boring) nursery rhyme.

Once I read about the controversy, I felt obligated to think a little bit more about that Anaconda cover. The image is brazenly seductive, aggressive and provocative. It’s perfectly aligned with Nicki’s brand, which perfectly embodies and subverts gender stereotypes common to mainstream/gangsta rap – the hyper aggressive/confident (typically male) mc and the hyper sexualized (in appearance and behavior) black woman. [2. We do the same thing to Latinas and other women in hip-hop (especially women of mixed heritage), but majority are still black.] It’s an artistic statement informed by feminism – she’s telling us that she can be a pop superstar and an incredibly talented mc while being a sexually desirable figure. It’s a compelling and unsettling reference – almost, but not quite a homage – to the explicit images of female hip-hop artists that have been featured on the cover of albums like Hardcore and Chyna Doll over the years.Lil_Kim_Hardcore_album_cover-150x150 Chyna_Doll-150x150

The Anaconda cover transforms an image that we associate with sexual exploitation into an expression of sexual power. Nicki appropriates the misogynist imagery of music videos and album covers while asserting the agency denied to the women in the narrative. She shakes her ass as well as the most experienced video vixen, but it’s not for the male mc or for her audience, it’s for her. In the Anaconda image, Nicki is inviting desire through her pose and (lack of) attire, but her knowing gaze hints at more – she has not abandoned her self assurance with her clothing.

The message becomes even clearer when you compare the cover to its most obvious antecedent – the famous promo image for Hardcore, Lil’ Kim’s debut album.

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Prior to the album’s release, Kim had built a reputation (on tracks like Player’s Anthem and Gettin’ Money) as an assertive female mc who held her own with other hardcore rappers and wasn’t afraid to be sexually explicit. Kim didn’t change her aggressive approach to music on Hardcore, but the cover and the promotional images seemed to send a different message. The images are suggestive, but her facial expression lacks the confidence that she conveyed on her lyrics. She’s trying to appear seductive, but her face just looks kind of blank.

In contrast, Nicki’s image is perfectly aligned with her sound and her brand. Over the last few months, she has adjusted her image by donning less colorful outfits and wigs and behaving in a less animated way in music videos and public appearances/performances. This shift helped Nicki emphasize her sex appeal in a non-ironic/camp way while signaling her authenticity to hip-hop purists. Hip-hop purists still demand performances of authenticity from their top-tier artists, and Nicki’s newly muted appearance reminds them that there’s a person behind the outlandish character.

For all of its artistic merit and feminist power, the cover of Anaconda is still a promotional image for an album owned and released by a major media corporation. The involvement of music executives, promotion and marketing staff complicates any notion that cover is a pure representation of Nicki Minaj’s artistic vision. The cover is still a profoundly provocative image, but the commercial considerations lurking in the background make it feel slightly less powerful than the summer’s other complicated comment on and celebration of black female sexuality.

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Karen Walker’s A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant is an is an unmediated expression of her views on race, gender, sexuality, class and history.

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When I see the cover for Anaconda, I don’t just think of Nicki’s vision, I think of Young Money, Cash Money and Universal Records. The power of the Anaconda cover is at least slightly undermined by the fact that it’s expressly designed to promote a commercial product. The cover might be a perfect representation of Nicki’s vision, but I think it’s fair to ask whether there’s not some ‘hetero male gaze’ in the mix. It’s also possible to embrace a black woman’s effort to control her image and sexuality while having some concerns about the advertising strategy for an album.

The Anaconda cover might be slightly worrying, but it’s nowhere near as troubling as the paternalistic critiques from figures like Creekmur. Jamila Lemieux explored how his letter is informed by the politics of respectability, but I’m also unsettled by his underlying assumption that pop stars should be leaders at all. Even if Creekmur heeded Lemieux’s advice and demanded moral accountability from artists from all genders and ethnic groups, Im still not sure that it makes sense to view pop stars as potential models of civic virtue. The skills that are necessary for professional success don’t necessarily overlap with the qualities one needs to be an ethical person or a leader. Sometimes we get lucky and get athletes who are political activists, entertainers who educate or Presidents who don’t cheat on their wives. That shouldn’t distract us from the fact that we primarily want people in those positions to perform great athletic feats, evoke a genuine response with their art or manage the Executive Branch. If we put any of these people on a pedestal, we will always be disappointed. We should not expect artists, entertainers, or any other public figure to be role models for children.

The problem, of course, is that pop stars do have at least some influence on some members of their audience and some people will view them as role models. I think Creekmur’s letter may suggest a solution. He lists a number of artists who had an influence on him as a young man, including Chuck D, LL Cool J, KRS-ONE, De La Soul, Ice Cube, Willie D and Ice T. He asks Nicki to be more like Maya Angelou, Ruby Dee, Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah and MC Lyte. All of the creative people he named are talented artists who have inspired people with their music or their actions. They are also flawed human beings who’ve made their share of mistakes and who’ve occasionally expressed some less than enlightened ideas in their art. They’ve said things that are violent, misogynist and/or deeply misguided. I suspect that Creekmur was able to reconcile these contradictions by reflecting critically on the messages that the artists were sending and recognizing which message was most important. You can choose to view Nicki as a negative role model for young women who promotes attention seeking behavior or a positive role model who encourages young women to be successful and own their sexuality.

As a new father, I can sympathize with Creekmur’s fears. I want to shield my nine month old son from anything that’s not purely positive and perfect, but it’s unfair to expect the world to be perfectly aligned to his stage of development. We (as parents) should take responsibility for helping our children become media literate and take the effort to learn how to unpack and examine culture ourselves. If/when our kids come across questionable images, we should try to use it as an opportunity to talk to them about the positive and problematic messages that are packed in the image and place it in a larger context. The cover of Anaconda’s a comment on Minaj’s career and gender politics in hip-hop. It’s not just about her ass.

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