Imagine my delight Monday when Nicki Minaj signaled the end of what’s felt like the longest off-season of her career. It was just a couple pictures from a COVID-era, around the house photoshoot posted to Instagram. The caption read “FRIDAY”, which could have meant anything but we know means new music. We’re left with only the accompanying photos to search for clues as to what to expect from Nicki’s return. They’re both nearly-nude pics of her holding pink heart-shaped pillows, staring into the camera for one shot and covering her eyes with shades in another. Maybe a juxtaposition between love and hate? It’s clear Nicki loves Chanel. She’s wearing jewelry, seated atop a desk with fun-sized Chanel paraphernalia, and wearing diamond encrusted Chanel monogram Croc pins. Yes, on her Barbie-pink Crocs. We can’t hate on the Crocs though; she’s eight months postpartum in lockdown. Crocs have made a bit of a comeback since the pandemic started thanks to Bad Bunny, Ariana Grande, and Justin Bieber and now Nicki’s helping out too. Apparently, pink Crocs sales spiked by 4,900% in the hours following her post, crashing the Crocs site. Then, after a quick foam shoe frenzy, people moved on to anticipation for Friday’s new song. The Instagram post has over 4.5 million likes — already far eclipsing the first posts promoting the lead single from her previous album.
It feels like there’s a healthy appetite for Nicki right now and it’s not just from diehard fans like myself. I think that’s partly due to a changing narrative about her. It’s indisputable that Nicki’s public image has suffered in recent years coinciding with the rise of Cardi B and the media pitting these two women against each other, furthering the narrative that there’s only room for one popular female rapper. At this point a “Nicki Hate Train” was developing with help from the media because they know people love to watch a celebrity’s demise. But Nicki played her part in giving the media lots of drama to write about. In 2018, when her fourth studio album, Queen, was blocked from reaching the #1 spot by Travis Scott’s album, she accused Travis of using his girlfriend at the time, Kylie Jenner, and their daughter Stormi to sell t-shirts and passes for a tour that hadn’t even been announced yet. These perks were bundled with albums and inflated sales figures. A valid critique, but the message was lost in Nicki’s delivery and she was labelled as a bitter flop. Billboard has since changed the rules surrounding merch-bundled album sales.
The new narrative I’ve been tracking in recent months is a thirst for the skill and charisma of a Nicki Minaj character — which is obviously what she wanted to achieve by stepping away. Yes, she has been on hiatus because she welcomed her first child in September, but she knows the public often don’t know what they got ‘til it’s gone. She tested this in 2019 when she announced she was retiring. That was the wrong way to do it, but oversaturated artists do need to give the people time to miss them. A little time to remember why they loved you in the first place. On social media, I keep seeing one lyric being used repeatedly in the past few months: “Every time I take a break, the game be so boring.” The line comes from Nicki’s verse on Doja Cat’s “Say So” Remix. It reminds me of when Eminem said, “They tried to shut me down on MTV, but it feels so empty without me” back in 2002. Em and Nicki are both disruptors and sometimes people will hate them because controversial personalities like that get so much media coverage you can’t escape them, but history shows that the game is missing something when they’re not around.
So now the public has gotten a break from Nicki and they’re ready to receive her again on Friday, but they’ll get sick of her quick if it’s back to the same antics that consumed her during her last album cycle. Part of which was her need to respond to every comment or accusation made against her. If you listened to her Queen Radio show, she often explained how she’ll accept being labelled the “angry Black woman” because she’s not going to sit by and let people with influential platforms falsely accuse her of having a drug problem, or supporting her brother, who is a convicted rapist. If you follow Cardi B on Twitter, you’ll notice she’s in this stage of her career right now too — constantly fighting with fans and calling out blogs. One can understand why artists don’t want those narratives pushed, but acknowledging a rumour can legitimize it (even if you’re denying it) or a the very least bring more attention to the story. At the time so many people were telling Nicki that she’s too big of an artist to be bothered by negative press. People wanted her to be more like Beyoncé and rise above it, but she didn’t have it in her. Or maybe she just didn’t have a team that could advise her. If you look at her Instagram now, comments on her posts are limited to people she follows. I feel like that’s part of keeping negativity out of sight so she’s not even tempted to defend herself.
For us fans, the anticipation for this next era has been building for years because this will be her first album with a new team. In January of 2020, Nicki appeared on a Meghan Trainor record called “Nice to Meet Ya”, where she explained, “Had to cut the grass, there were snakes in the camp”, a line in reference to firing her management team months earlier — the same team she’d had for almost her entire career. A smart decision if you ask me, because as someone who’s tracked her career, I don’t think those people were growing along with her. They were still operating the same way they did when her first album came out, despite the fact that she’s millions of albums and millions of dollars past that point. Now she’s working with one of the most powerful men in the music industry: Irving Azoff. But the gag is she previously accused him of launching a smear campaign against her and he also manages Travis Scott, who Nicki famously told Ellen she wanted to punch “in his f—ing the face” during the merch-bundled album sales debacle. But hey, if he got Travis Scott a #1 album, he could position you in the same place. Keep your enemies closer, right?
Judging by Nicki’s follow-up post on Tuesday, our new song is likely called “Fractions”. I love a snappy title with multiple meanings. All the attention on Nicki’s Instagram has also led fans to notice she and Rihanna recently started following each other once again. Which could mean nothing… but these days artists actually use this follow-for-follow as a way to promote upcoming collaborations. And to further speculation, Rihanna posted a photo within hours of Nicki, wearing the same shoes. As Lainey would say, coincidence or conspiracy? At the very least the girls are signaling the shoe of the summer, courtesy of Bottega Venneta.