Roman and Raymond: Or, Nicki, Usher, and the Gendering of (Black) Genius
Because I intend, eventually, to weigh in with my own take on Roman Reloaded, I’ve been reading up on all the excellent feminist writing on Nicki Minaj. As I was making my way through the articles/blog posts/etc., the fabulous Ann Powers posted her review of Usher’s new album on NPR.org. The juxtaposition of Powers’ take on Usher (whose real name is Raymond) with the feminist lit on Minaj threw one issue into relief: black artists’ stylistic diversity, especially when it takes the form of crossover into EDM-influenced mainstream pop. Powers uses this stylistic diversity to argue that Usher’s album is really good: it is a taken-for-granted positive that Powers can appeal to as a credible, commonly-accepted criterion of excellence. In Minaj’s case, this very same sort of stylistic diversity is not evidence of excellence, but the source of a problem or question that critics have to analyze. So, it’s not “Minaj does this EDM-pop crossover with hip hop and R&B, therefore her album is great,” BUT, “Minaj does this EDM-pop crossover with hip hop and R&B, so maybe this diminishes her artistic credibility, and maybe this is evidence that her album fails.” In other words, there is some serious double-standard ish going on, and it points to some underlying issues in the critical reception (and uncritical fandom or anti-fandom) of Minaj and her work. In this post, I want to examine the overarching cultural milieu that supports this double-standard. I want to clarify that I am not arguing that Powers is sexist; rather, I’m interested in the epistemic-aesthetic context that allows the same phenomenon to function one way in her analysis of Usher, and function another way in critics’ approaches to Minaj. The problem here is not with any music critic in particular, but with the underlying environment in which women’s accomplishments are always suspect and in need of justification.
So first, let’s look at Powers’ review of Usher’s new album Looking 4 Myself in NPR’s The Record blog. The opening paragraph pretty much says it all:
The line on Usher‘s soon-to-be blockbuster album Looking 4 Myself is that
it captures the veteran R&B crooner leaping over boundaries, Marvel hero style. Early reviews have noted the many genresthe 33-year-old former teen star tackles, from the EDM he reportedly discovered dancing to Swedish House Mafia at Coachella, to indie electronica courtesy of Australian duo Empire of the Sun and emo rap courtesy of Drake’s best friend, Noah “40” Shebib. Always a leader within the mainstream, Usher now wants to prove that he can do a toe stand on the cutting edge.
The bolding is all mine. But what do the bolded terms point out? That Usher’s embrace of R&B/electronic-dance crossovers makes him a “cutting edge” superhero. Similar terminology is pepperd throughout the review: Usher has “commitment to sonic innovation,” he’s “barrier-busting,” etc. So, according to Powers, part of what makes Usher a musical superhero is that keeps on top of the latest trends in the most cutting-edge, tech-savvy genres. But, perhaps most tellingly, Usher is a “great” artist because his roots in R&B, a feminized genre in black music (especially compared to its hypermasculinized compliment, hip hop) do not diminish his innovativeness. Powers writes:
Identifying the R&B sources on Looking 4 Myself doesn’t diminish the impact of Usher’s risk taking…He wields the kind of influence that helps define what relevance looks like. His recent talk about creating a new musical genre is so much vanity — he’s behind Beyonceby a year, for one thing — but the sound of Looking 4 Myself belies his words.
So Usher can be both classic and innovative—or rather, his ability to combine the traditional with the avant-garde is what makes him so superb an artist. If you read carefully, Powers acknowledges that Beyonce’s been doing that same thing—combining trad R&B with avant-garde musical practices—but without getting the credit. If Bey “weild[ed] the kind of influence that helps define what relevance looks like” that Usher does, then Usher couldn’t go around claiming Beyonce-like innovations as his own. Bey, of course, sells more records, and may actually be the one wielding the cultural influence, but she’s not getting the/enough credit for this—perhaps because we believe a dude when he claims his genius cred, but we have more difficulty taking women seriously when they make similar claims about their work. But, to summarize Powers’ review, she argues that Usher follows a trad black genre (R&B) + avant-garde black genre (EDM) = pop anthem formula, and this formula’s musically innovative character is evidence backing up her positive review of Usher’s album. In her concluding paragraph, Powers cites this innovative formula as the more significant, lasting contribution Usher’s album makes to pop music (it’s not just fun, it’s musically important). She argues:
When I talk with serious music fans these days, I consistently hear the term “post-genre.” There’s a feeling that the rise of the playlist and the influence of the generation that grew up on hip-hop’s sample-based eclecticism has broken down the division among different communities of music makers and listeners. The state of genre-based music cultures, and the need for genres, is a matter to be debated at length elsewhere. But what Looking 4 Myselfgives the pop world, besides many excellent songs that will have us dancing and karaoke-ing along for years to come, is a strong assertion from a young soul lion that trying something new does not require abandoning your roots.
So, Powers can cite Usher’s “post-genre” work as a reason why his album is not just good but great. BUT, this same post-genre-ism is what causes so much speculation about the significance and quality of Minaj’s work. What is unquestioned about Usher’s work is questioned in Minaj’s work.
The quality of Minaj’s Roman Reoladed, and Minaj’s overally artistic impact, talent, genius, etc., is something that is largely unresolved, at least among music critics. In fact, post-genre-ism is often what leads critics to question the quality of Roman Reoladed. We see this quite clearly in both Daphne Carr’s and Lindsay Zoladz’s reviews of the album. These are both writers I respect a lot, consider feminists, and do not suspect their implicit or explicit intentions. Rather, I what I am arguing is that they, as feminist music critics, have to respond to a question posed by a misogynist, patriarchal culture that discredits female artists. This question is: Minaj’s album combines a lot of styles and genres, without fulfilling any one genre’s critieria for musical quality…So, does this mean her album is boundary-breaking, or just broken?
Carr’s article poses the question, Is Minaj, or will she ever be, an “Acknowledged Great Musician”? As she digs into the evidence on the album, Carr answers with a resounding Yes-and-No. No matter what musical choices Minaj makes, she’s damned if she does, and damned if she doesn’t. For example, Carr explains that Minaj is “really known for her 21st-century-style free association, which some call innovative, others lazy.” Which is it: innovation or laziness? I’m arguing that Minaj’s genderis what undercuts her perceived musical accomplishment. She’s a female artist, so her critique of traditional practices often registers not as a challenge to the tradition, but as incompetence. For example, as Carr continues,“sometimes she quits cadence altogether and just talks, blurring the line between hip-hop theater and song. Whatever it is she’s doing, it’s weird and it gets people talking.” It registers as “weird” because people don’t know what to do with a female musician who breaks boundaries. When male artists break boundaries, their work isn’t perceived as “weird,” but “arty” and “avant-garde.” (This explains the contrast between the positive reception of Eminiem’s Slim Shady versus the negative reception of Minaj’s Zolanski, as Carr slyly notes.)[i]Implicit biases make it easy to accept the “weirdness” of male artists as evidence of their genius; these same implicit biases lead us to seek confirmation that this thing that sounds so strange really is as good as other people say it is.
Post-genre-ism is definitely a source of tension—i.e., perceived weirdness—in Minaj’s work. Carr describes Minaj’s post-genreism in several places, noting, for example, that “rather than choose to be a rapper, R & B star, pop star, or dance-music singer, she simply goes for it all.” And it’s this attempt to “go for it all” that raises the question, both of her potential greatness and her potential suckiness. While Carr ultimately concludes that Minaj’s post-genreism is evidence of the artist’s greatness, she can only do so after proving that it’s notevidence of Minaj’s, or the album’s, failure. (In fact, somewhat after Carr’s article, some radio DJs will infamously make fun of Minaj’s post-genreist crossover, “Starships,” implying that it’s somehow a betrayal of “authentic” hip hop.) Carr argues:
Minaj is already there on an artistic level. Her flow, including the corny hashtag raps and the growls and all the other forms of play that make her simultaneously so old school and so fresh, have already shifted the zeitgeist and inspired a new generation of pop lovers in one short year. Now it’s time for her to figure out how to step up to sound like she what she says on the album’s third track: “I Am Your Leader.”
This blending of old-school and fresh, especially as a combo of traditional hip hop, R&B, and contemporary EDM-inspired dance pop (e.g., Starships) is exactly the same sort of post-genrism Powers locates in Usher’s new album. But here, when talking about Minaj, Carr has to prove that post-genreism is actually evidence of artistic greatness, innovation, and cultural impact.
Lindsay Zoladz makes a similar move in her post on Minaj, titled, notably, “Epic Fails.” Though Zoldaz, like Halberstam (on whom she draws), wants to re-value “failure,” that Zoladz chose to approach Roman Reoladed via the idea of failure—de-valued or re-valued—means that the success and greatness of Minaj’s album is something that is generally questioned and up for debate. From Halberstam, Zoladz takes the idea that failure, by rejecting accepted norms for success and greatness, “can open up alternative ways of knowing and being in the world.” She uses this Halberstamian lense to address the question, “Is Roman Reoladed a failure?”. Zoladz specifically identifies the album’s post-genre-ism as what motivates this question. She writes:
Speaking of which, has there been a more glorious and fascinating failure this year than Nicki Minaj’s second studio album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded? A stilted, scotch-taped-together fusion of brashly minimalist, avant-garde hip-hop (“Come On A Cone,” “Beez in the Trap”) and blatantly commercial Euro-pop-flavored club bangers (“Starships,” “Pound the Alarm”), Roman Reloaded is inconsistent in just about every way imaginable. The reviews were understandably mixed when it was released in early April, and in the beginning I felt pretty mixed about it myself: some of the terms I remember using when first talking about it are as follows: “amazing,” “terrible,” “spectacular,” “erratic,” “missed opportunity,” “like a glittery, hot pink blimp on fire falling out of the sky.” We can probably just abbreviate all of this to “messterpiece.”
So, Roman Reloaded’s post-genre-ism is weird. But is this weirdness the sign of a genius, or of someone who just doesn’t get it? In Usher’s case, the tension generated by post-genre-ism is interpreted as the discomfort one might feel at the avant-garde: the weirdness is evidence that he’s bursting through boundaries like a Marvel superhero. In Minaj’s case, the tension generated by post-genre-ism is interpreted s the discomfort one might feel at a failed performance: the weirdness is evidence that she’s failing to meet the bar, like girls usually do.
So what we have her, what is revealed by the different approaches that Powers, Carr, and Zoladz each adopt, is a gendered double standard: Whatever it is, if/when men do it, it’s great; if/when women do it, it’s at best suspect, if not outright damning. This gendered double standard is not at all new. In fact, philosopher Christine Battersby wrote about it quite extensively in her 1989 book Gender andGenius. Here, she shows how, especially in ninteenth-century European aesthetics, the concept of “genius” was gendered in a very specific way. The artistic genius was male, but he demonstrated the ability to adopt and use both masculine and feminine traits, comportments, behaviors, etc. So, the genius was irrational, emotive, intuitive, close to nature and to his body—all very stereotypically feminine characteristics. In fact, these are characteristics that are cited as reasons why women canNOT be accomplished artists or intellectuals. In women, these stereotypically feminine traits appear to be natural, unmediated outgrowths of their “feminine disposition.” In men, these traits run counter to their “masculine disposition,” so they must be either accomplishmentsor gifts (e.g., talent). Moreover, men have masculinity—rationality, objectivity, education, etc.–and they, unlike women, can use their natural masculinity to moderate the deletrious effects of femininity. So, whatever it is—irrationality, variability, whatever—if it appears in men, it’s evidence of their exceptional status, and if it appears in women, it’s evidence of their failure.
The different tasks faced by Powers, as a critic responding to Usher’s post-genre album, and Carr and Zoladz, as critics responding to Minaj’s post-genre album, are evidence of this continued gendered double-standard facing female artists. And I didn’t even really talk about race! We can’t just assume that because Minaj and Usher are both black, they’re on a level racial playing field. Gender intersects with and modifies race, so just as the two artists are situated differently with respect to gender (and patriarchy), they’re also situated differently with respect to race (and white supremacy). But that discussion of race will have to wait, as I’ve already wandered waaay too far into tl;dr territory. So perhaps we can have that conversation in the comments?
[i] “Suckers fall for it, calling Minaj’s switches, and her Roman persona specifically, “sociopathic,” “wild,” “schizophrenic,” and the tracks spastic, frenetic, twisted. Of course, plenty of people said the same of Roman’s friend Slim Shady, but lots of folks forgave him because that sociopath could really rap.”
I think there is an important aspect you’re missing here. I am a big fan of both of these albums, but Usher has found a way of incorporating his R&B traditional vocals into more edgy production, leaving behind most overdone trends and vocal effect. (This is something he failed at miserably last album.)
Nicki on the other hand has moments of innovation, but also some hideous moments of generic trend-riding. Her claim to fame was always her rapping…it is not as if she has taken her rapping and found a way of keeping it edgy and genre-bending. She instead took all of her different personalities, gave them a few songs on the album (many of them unremarkable) and called it a day.
Usher succeeded in the fusion of his different sounds to creative a varied but cohesive album. Nicki kept it all separate, and failed in creating one album. She would have been better served doing 3 EPs rather than pretending she was making a coherent LP.
Love the article, though…great read.
Thanks for your comment, Andrew. I take your criticism of Nicki’s RR to be basically that it is inconsistent. It may be edgier, more creative, and more innovative than most other artists, but it also has some very weak points. Or: the highs may be higher, but the lows are also lower than average. Basically, “Roman Reoladed” is her “Sandinista”.
I would argue that this characterization actually _reaffirms_ my point in my initial post. This is so because, as Battersby discusses in detail in her book “Gender and Genius,” variability–having higher highs, and perhaps lower lows, but lacking consistency over all–is historically seen as a sign of genius _in men_, but a sign of _women’s_ incompetence. Take the comparison to The Clash’s “Sandinista”–it’s praised as this risk-taking, innovative, genre-bending, if inconsistent, landmark. It’s not easily praised like “London Calling,” but the true connoisseurs know that “Sandinista” is actually where the band do their most interesting (and sometimes worst) work–take, for example, “Magnificent Seven”. That song was probably (among) the first British punk crossover(s) to US hip hop radio.
SO, the underlying question is: Why do we continue to appeal to _consistency_, especially consistency across _an album_, when most pop aesthetics and musical practices actually have abandoned the 19th c notions of wholeness, genre-specificity, etc., that inform this appeal to consistency? Why use obsolete aesthetic criteria to evaluate musicians whose styles and compositional/performance choices don’t adhere to these older aesthetic criteria?