2009, what a terrible time to be alive in hip hop journalism. The Internet side of writing was about ten years old, yet crushed by blogs with a steady stream of aggressively average music premieres. Artists were churning out songs daily, with the quality getting worse and worse with each and every mp3 posted. I was nearing my own 10-year tenure in the game, and I was annoyed. Earlier that year, we found layoffs at almost every hip hop publication: XXL, AllHipHop, hell, even VIBE temporarily shut down.
I fell victim to those layoffs, but quickly found my way to an international digital radio company as the Director of Urban Programming while also jumping aboard the solid HipHopDX ship, who weathered that media storm better than most (I mean, hello, they helped this writer/editor still make money in a drought). It was a trying time of collecting checks from wherever possible, writing with a dried-up pen on plain paper that lacked any inspiration. As a woman, I think I felt that creative deficit a lot worse. Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was then 11 years old and I hadn't experienced any female hip hop artist with L-Boogie's gumption since then. So here I was bigging up a bunch of dudes in an industry run by dudes, trying to write like a dude because in hip hop that's often a great skill set to have. I can't tell you how many times I've written things with no byline, only to be told, "That was great! I thought a guy wrote it." Uh, thanks.
So yes, there I sat with two computers in my big office overlooking New York City with one hand updating HipHopDX.com on my laptop and the other hand adding songs to digital rotation in between Target ad spots and that still-new streaming service called Netflix — on a giant desktop computer with everything written in French. I couldn't count how many times I added Drake's "Forever" in a day. Even now when I hear it, I shudder. It was a wrinkle in time that I managed to smooth out with the help of my coworkers — some were my good friends, others became them.
I was in my office one day with my permanent fixture named Miguel. He was my intern turned assistant turned bodyguard who would wedge his chair conveniently in between the wall and my doorknob, warding off angry rappers turned radio show hosts (one living legend called me a C U Next Tuesday on the air) and all around disgruntled employees (we were all pretty pissed off, truth be told). That never stopped my friend Alex from entering. We've been friends since we were teenagers, having met on a Fugees message board, and found our way back in touch when he randomly read my interview with Kevin Federline (remember that guy?) years prior.
Alex was always riding for some new artist and would attempt to forcibly get me to like them too. He'd been trying for months to put me on to Nicki Minaj, and I would politely decline. See, Lauryn Hill was (and always will be) my favorite artist, but I was very much ride or die for Lil Kim. When I was 18, I courageously walked up to Kim at a T.G.I.Friday's in New Jersey and asked for an autograph. She invited me to sit down and have dinner with her, Lil Cease and her other friends. I left that night thinking if famous people could be that nice, then I could probably make a career out of interviewing them. I mean come on, Lil Kim was responsible for my entire career! How could I ever let Nicki Minaj into my heart? Alex was persistent. He'd already interviewed Nicki for HipHopDX and forged this interesting friendship with her. He was not going to take this lying down.
Alex barged through my office door (almost knocking over Miguel) and shouted, "Drop everything you're doing on both of those computers and report to YouTube immediately!" For all intents and purposes, I was his boss, but yeah he didn't care. Miguel jumped up and yelled "Chill, B!" trying to move Alex's arm as he typed YouTube into my Mozilla Firefox toolbar. It was too late. The deed had been done. The BET Hip Hop Awards aired the night before and the Cyphers leaked online. Before I had a moment to process the moment, Nicki was already rapping on my computer screen.
"Uh, call me Dracula 'cause all I do is Count chips / Ya money mini, I ain't talkin' bout the mouse, trick," Nicki sneered. "These girls runnin' like I just threw the bouquet / they know I'm headed to the top like a toupee." My eyes and ears remained fixated on her as Alex stood with his arms folded, nodding proudly. I shooed them all out of my office, put on my hi-def headphones and replayed that verse over 20 times that day. Being the investigatve journalist that I am at times, I dissected the entire Cypher with my eyes. I saw how they did Nicki, lumping her with Crown Royyal and Buckshot, who both looked noticeably disinterested from jump. Meanwhile Joe Budden smugly watched on as Nicki started her verse, secretly knowing she had bars. Her Cypher-mates' eyes grew wide and distant as a girl in a sweatsuit with bangs and a toothy giggle out-rhymed them. Maybe some will argue that Nicki's lines weren't punchy enough or her bars weren't the work of [insert typical male rapper from the Golden Era], but Nicki had confidence. She had exclusivity. "Now all these bums is wondering where I be's at," she barked. "If you ain't a Barbie, it's none of ya freakin' beeswax," she continued, popping out her Barbie chain.
You see, any woman in hip hop can attest to that overwhelming feeling of isolation that overcomes you at times knowing that many regard this as a "young man's game." You're always "left out" in a sense. Here was Nicki saying, "No! If you're not in my crew, then stay out of the business" to a room full of dudes. I related to that moment, because that had been me for 10 years. Nicki was speaking from multiple standpoints: feminist, badass, feminist badass, and rapper. As a writer and a woman, I felt connected to her.
I used to chant "only female in my crew." Now I had this.
The braggy bars ("I'm on stage, you can sit in the crowd / I be up in Lear jets, take a left at the cloud"), the metaphors ("And I'm killin' these b*****s, Mike Vickin' it up!"), they were all so..."dudelike." Nicki wasn't dripping in sex like she had been on previous mixtapes, which was her entry level pitfall to some (and shamefully me) who wrote her off as Lil Kim 2.0, complete with the signature squat. No, these were arrogant bars that painted a room full of egos who left with their tails between their legs.
The 2009 BET Hip Hop Awards Cypher did something for Nicki Minaj that arguably no other artist has felt since then. It gave her a true rap platform for her to bring her best gimmick-free self to the masses. No seductive clothing, no future costumes. It was Barbz all day, no compromise. And to this day, when anyone has the audacity to question what Nicki is without the bells and whistles, I reference that verse. That was the verse that made me a fan. That was the verse that made me want to keep writing about rap. That was the verse I quoted to Nicki in our first interview, thanking her for existing.
While Lil Kim was my reason for starting my hip hop journalism career, Nicki was my reason for continuing it. Years later, she inducted me into the Nation of Pinkslam herself...but that's a story for my other Barbz on another day.
Follow Kathy Iandoli on Twitter/Instagram @kath3000.