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Music Monday: It’s Nicki’s Time Now

December 27, 2010

Rapper Nicki Minaj

This week we’re going to focus on the new queen of hip hop, Nicki Minaj. Nicki’s been all over the airwaves in 2010, lending verses to an array of tracks alongside the likes of Drake and Eminem. She recently had the highest-selling 1st week ever for a female rapper with the debut of her first album, Pink Friday, on November 19th.

Onika Tanya Maraj, or Nicki Minaj (as she is better known), was born on December 8, 1984 in Trinidad. She came to the US around the age of 5, where she was then raised in Queens, NY. Minaj used to perform via Myspace, until she appeared in a music DVD that caught the attention of hip hop star Lil’ Wayne. Shortly afterward, she signed with Lil’ Wayne’s record label, Young Money Entertainment. Since then, Nicki Minaj’s animated and creative public persona has grown to reflect the drama skills she learned while studying at LaGuardia Arts High School in Manhattan. Nicki incorporates her acting skills into her music through what she calls her “alter egos.” These characters are very different from one another, as they each express things that Nicki herself would not say, according to the rapper in an interview with Chelsea Handler on Chelsea Lately.

(Chelsea asks about Nicki’s alter egos at about 2:26)

There are at least three alter egos that make up Nicki Minaj: Barbie, Roman, and Martha, Roman’s mother. (Nicki also mentions Rosa, a Spanish-speaking alter ego she created for George Lopez.) Sometimes she performs these alter egos in conversation with one another, other times they seem to interject Nicki’s raps with interesting points. Regardless of whether they’re talking to the audience or one another, the characters are very distinct. As Nicki explains on Chelsea Lately, they each have their own ‘accent’ and express themselves quite differently.

First, there’s Roman. According to Minaj, he is an angry and vicious gay boy prone to lashing out. He has a deeper, rougher voice than Nicki’s normal one. Roman also plays with prosody to produce emphatic, choppy speech in his raps. Nicki often pronounces his name as Roe-man, with what linguists call a fronted o. This pronunciation of the o vowel is a feature that researchers have found to be associated with the speech of gay men (as well as several regional dialects), although we don’t actually hear it too much in Roman’s speech.

Unlike her “son”, Martha (Roman’s mother) is  formal and mild mannered.  She speaks English with a British accent, which involves making use of r-lessness and changing her vowel pronunciation to sound more British and less American.

Then there’s Barbie, the sweet, naive girl with the high-pitched sugary voice. Barbie’s speech most closely approximates Standard American English, although she tends to hyper-articulate her vowels and word-final rs, which produces a kind of mocking effect.

Finally, we have the real Nicki, who refers to her own accent as that of a “South Side Jamaica, Queens girl”. It’s clear that she is speaking a variety of African American English (AAE) that is particular to New York City. You can hear her New York City AAE accent in the way she pronounces words like all, calledboss and on. The raising of the vowel in these words is strongly associated with New York City speech and is often portrayed in the media, for example on the early nineties Saturday Night Live segment Coffee Talk with Linda Richman.

Interestingly, Chelsea Handler reacts at one point to a shift in Nicki’s speech, which occurs following a number of short and one-word answers to Chelsea’s questions. Nicki begins to tell a story, and her speech speeds up significantly. “You’re going all Puerto Rican on my a**, all of a sudden,” Chelsea says. To which Nicki replies in AAE “Chelsea sit yo a** down!” (To see this, begin viewing the clip at 1:40.) So why did Chelsea read Nicki’s speech as Puerto Rican?

One explanation might be this: When Puerto Ricans first arrived to the US, they settled among African American communities and attended the same schools. As a result of living in such close proximity to African Americans, they picked up AAE. As such, we find quite a bit of overlap between Puerto Rican English and African American English.

Check out Nicki Minaj’s verse in Kanye West’s Monster to get a sense of her incredible ability to switch between different ways of speaking as she switches between characters.

(Note: this song contains language that some may find offensive).

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Alex Gordon permalink
    April 20, 2011 8:02 pm

    Nicki Minaj has always been a captivating character for me. She’s talented and assertive but down-to-earth, and aware. Maybe growing up in Queens, one of the most diverse areas in the world, and going to LaGuardia High School, caused her to be incredibly aware of how people speak and act, and how everybody has to change it depending on where they are. The fact that she has diverse alter egos – even if they are just for show – means that she is aware, and is trying to work out the world for herself. Though I don’t agree with the fact that her alter egos are incredibly stereotypical, I still find them interesting. Though I find her Barbie to be the most stereotypical, though it does fit in with female “performativity”: high-pitched voice but a bit more soft, not nearly as assertive as Minaj comes off normally, and as a caricature of white girls.

    I also picked up on the fact that Minaj’s voice changed before Handler pointed out that she went “Puerto Rican”. It is interesting how much environment affects people and how they talk. This post talks about how PR picked up AAVE, but I think it’s just as interesting that Minaj slid into this speech pattern without any effort. It almost seems like a form of code-switching, but instead of words between languages, she changed her intonations. Obviously growing up in Queens causes one to be exposed to more accents and speech patterns.

  2. Eric Silver permalink
    April 21, 2011 6:15 pm

    I think what is most fascinating about Nicki Minaj’s alter egos is how much she depends on linguistic difference and vocal change to create them. Her subject matter does not change; all of her alter egos follow the same subject in the rap. Note her verse in Monster. Every alter ego spits about how awesome Nicki Minaj is. But, as Ayeska and Cara have discovered, there are actually linguistic distinctions between the alter egos. It makes me wonder if Miss Minaj intentionally developed speech patterns for each alter ego, or this is just an instance of incidental genius.
    It is important to note that Miss Minaj is preying off of linguistic sterotypes to develop her alter egos. For example, Martha’s mild-mannered personality is linked to a British accent and pronunciations. This demonstrates the stereotype that Americans have for the calm and formal British temperament. We must understand that the qualities we associate with a dialect are only common examples, not the universal descriptions. This is especially crucial when examining someone who is a speaker of AAVE, an extremely complex and dynamic dialect.

    Also, here’s a better link for Nicki’s Monster verse:

  3. Brianna Sullivan permalink
    April 21, 2011 7:25 pm

    The analysis of the Chelsea Lately segment with Nicki Minage reinforced the discussions we had about West Indian immigrants in New York City. As the blog notes, although Nicki’s roots lie in Trinidad, she describes her accent as a blend of “South Side Jamaican” and “Queensian”. This dual identification reminded me of the Jamaican participant in Professor Blake’s and Cara’s study that referred to herself as “Jamerican”. Clearly, Nicki attributes her dialect to the two areas of the world that she has lived (The West Indian Islands and America) just as the girl in The Second Generations of West Indians in NYC did with her identity (Jamaica and America).
    The article by Cara and Professor Blake also noted that as West Indians often reside near African Americans, they tend to adopt their language. The adoption of AAE by Nicki is evident, as the blog mentions, in her pronunciation of words like all and boss. However, her employment of different dialects (referred to as character names like Roman, Martha and Barbie) may be her attempt to define a separate identity from African Americans. The separate identity that Nicki may be trying to accomplish again, reinforces the research done by Cara and Blake as they found West Indians employing /r/fullness to distinguish themselves from the AAE community.

  4. Hannah Carlan permalink
    April 25, 2011 10:20 pm

    In watching this video with Nicki and Chelsea, so many different identities are being produced through the manipulation of language. Nicki’s paternity as Trinidadian as well as having been raised Jamaica, Queens makes her able to produce a malleable and transient ethnicity and identity, which then take the form of her “alter egos” that arise in her music. I am a huge fan of Nicki’s, but it wasn’t until I saw this video that I realized just how prominent and distinct her four characters are in her music. I am most familiar with Barbie, since that is probably the character which is most starkly opposite of Nicki herself. It is interesting, and possibly attributable to her training as an actress, that Nicki is able to manipulate her voice so fluidly to produce these different accents/identities. As a natural “bought-raiser” she is careful to make her [a] sounds lower and backer, and as they mention in the blog, to exaggerate her /r/fulness. Another interesting note relates back to the comment made by Chelsea concerning how Nicki suddenly “got all Puerto Rican” in telling her story. Nicki is in fact not Puerto Rican, but Trinidadian, another example of how various forms of African American and West Indian identities get conflated and homogenized by many Americans. It is clear, however, that Nicki is able to navigate many ethnicities through the use of language, a beautiful and complex example of the way identity is constantly being performed and reinvented.

  5. G.Shapiro permalink
    April 27, 2011 12:27 am

    I think the manner in which Nicki Minaj manages to switch between her alter egos is quite fascinating; she merely uses vocalistic and linguistic techniques to portray her different characters. She develops a complete persona for each that the listener can himself interpret, all through the use of language. This puts emphasis on the importance of linguistics in the creation of our own individuality; we, too, ‘put on’ different facades in our daily life depending on who we are interacting with in efforts of being more accommodating or more well-liked, and a vital aspect of those facades are the dialects we speak. For example, the way we communicate with our friends is often more informal and perhaps less grammatically correct as opposed to how we communicate with our professors, to whom we speak in a more scholarly or academic way — something closer to “Standard English.”

    Essentially, our society is not very different from Miss Minaj, or any of the many rap personas in today’s entertainment world. Similar to her alter egos, as well as her desire to be both a “boss” and a “submissive girl,” we all have varying emotions and individualities we wish to expose, although not simultaneously, and we may accordingly expose them through the use of our language and tonality.

  6. Na X. permalink
    April 28, 2011 1:13 pm

    I think it is very unique how Nicki Minaj tries to utilize linguistic features to create the multiple alter egos in her music. I don’t think it’s an entirely accurate depiction because I couldn’t tell there were three distinct alter egos based on the linguistic manipulations. I think she changes her intonations more distinctly and these “accents” are based more on personality rather than the stereotypes of the identities she created. I also agree with a previous blog in which this article reflects the 2nd Generation West Indians in New York City. She has her own identity as a “South Side Jamaica, Queens girl” and this is lucid just from the way she speaks. But then language is altered to create these alter ego identities separate from her own. This article shows not only is our speech correlated to our roots, but also the way we perceive ourselves and the way we want to align with particular social groups.

  7. Ruth Brillman permalink
    April 29, 2011 7:51 pm

    I found this article particularly interesting for the way that it showed, so clearly, the way that language ideologies can be interpreted and manipulated subconsciously. The phonological feature Nicki Minaj uses in creating her personae are, within Linguistics, relatively easy to describe. But it’s also doubtful that, when creating Martha (which was, granted, most likely a lengthy, thought-out process), Nicki Minaj probably did not actively decide to “use an r-less dialect” in order to index a British accent. But she nonetheless understands perfectly how to index ideologies through her manipulation of phonological features. Chelsea Handler’s response to Nicki Minaj’s use of AAE is also salient–and perhaps shows how language ideologies can vary from speaker to speaker.

  8. M. Carlucci permalink
    May 3, 2011 3:23 pm

    It is interesting to note the linguistic differences between Nicki Minaj’s alter-egos and “herself” in her work. For example, on her verse in rapper DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win”, Minaj raps as herself. Her tendency to “bought-raise” on words like “all” and “talk” and her line “… hailing all the way from Trinidad” put her paternity and roots as a member of a minority community in New York on display. She is clearly not trying to hide who she is, but in other songs she switches between alter-egos from many different backgrounds and races. While (as mentioned in other comments), Nicki is probably not aware of the technical linguistic variations she is employing, she does show a keen awareness that language is one way in which race and other social factors can be showcased and manipulated. It is also interesting to note that Minaj has incorporated features of Asian culture into some of her work, notably the songs “Your Love” and “Check It Out” and their music videos. Nicki Minaj once stated in an interview, “The point is, everyone is not black and white. There are so many shades in the middle, and you’ve got to let people feel comfortable with saying what they want to say when they want to say it.” Here, she eloquently presents some of the problems that occur when trying to place people into boxes based on race and ethnicity. Overall, Minaj’s work and attitude demonstrate that race and culture might be more fluid than we sometimes think.

  9. C Douglas permalink
    May 5, 2011 9:09 pm

    It’s interesting that Minaj has so many different personalities, I hadn’t realized from listening to her songs that they were so distinctive. The different dialects she chooses for her different personality types are also interesting. For example, the fact that Minaj chooses a British-inflected accent for her “formal” voice over an American one ties into prestige and how people perceive different dialects of English. Minaj’s manipulation of language is especially impressive given how prevalent AAE is in modern Rap and R&B.

  10. J.Pawlak permalink
    May 5, 2011 10:57 pm

    I think Nicki Minaj, and in this interview in particular, offers a unique opportunity to examine the assumptions people associate with particular language use. Her alter egos are interesting because they are only distinct through variation of intonation, syntax, grammar, lexicon, and other linguistic features. It would seem that this would be the perfect exercise to examine the assumptions that go along with linguistic variation, because while Ms. Minaj herself bases her language use off of how she conceptualizes the character of each alter ego, her audience begins to make assumption about each alter ego based on how they use language. Yet, these assumptions are made all the time, as Ms. Handler perfectly exemplifies when she exclaims, “You’re going all Puerto Rican on my a**, all of a sudden!” It did not seem like Ms. Minaj did more than pick up the pace of her speech, but Ms. Handler read her speech as “Puerto Rican.” While Ms. Minaj is not herself Puerto Rican, she BOUGHT raises with words like “boss” and “all,” a feature of many dialects of English in New York, including AAE. Unfortunately, we can clearly see how preconceptions become attached to ways of speaking, and how these notions can take us further away from any true communication.

  11. Aaron Duffy permalink
    May 6, 2011 12:01 am

    I am immediately reminded of Matsuda’s article, “Voices of America: Accent, Antidiscrimination Law, and a Jurisprudence for the Last Reconstruction,” in which the author recounts a moment when she subconsciously switched from a Californian to Hawaiian dialect during a conversation.
    We speak differently depending on who we talk to. While I do not possess multiple accents to alternate between, I notice shifts in my pitch, intonation, and speech pattern depending whether I am addressing my parents, a friend, a classmate, a professor, or a complete stranger.
    While I find her accents to be so stereotypical to the point of parody, her ability to take on different identities is perhaps what appeals to the public. By changing her accent she can cross different
    Then again, any imitation of a accent is based on stereotype. Take Handler, for instance, who perceives the rapid speech rate as representative of Puerto Rican English? Its might well have been but Handler based that judgement on a preconceived stereotype. While I am not a Nicki Minaj fan, I find it fascinating how she is defying the cliches of a music genre that is so tied to AAE. The only other musical genre I can think of that is also dependent on accent and dialect is country. What would happen if there was country music without a southern accent? Would it still be considered “country”?

  12. Shannon M permalink
    May 7, 2011 3:20 pm

    I have been completely obsessed with Nicki Minaj since before Pink Friday came out way back in November of last year. Interestingly, as I was just getting into her music around August or September, I was also extremely aware of her Caribbean heritage and her Caribbean identity. It was publicized everywhere, almost as if in anticipation of people first viewing her to be straight-up African American. On all the music blogs I read late last summer it was basically like “keep in mind she is Trinidadian DO NOT FORGET THIS”. She got really popular first through her verse on Kanye West’s “Monster”, where she also first introduced some of her vocal characters. I remember being so impressed by the contrast she managed to create between her own voice and the above-noted SAE-approximating “Barbie” character. How she shifted so effortlessly between her two voices while managing to keep the difference so salient truly shows Nicki’s overt claims to identity in multiple cultural groups. She can be American girl, African American girl, Caribbean girl, Trinidadian girl, Queens girl, and even take on a male identity through her character “Roman”. I think it is more acceptable in our society for artists to be culturally and ethnically multifaceted than it was even ten or twenty years ago. When you look at the impact made by artists like Biggie in the 1990s, you realize that he was read by American society practically solely as African American, despite the fact that he was ethnically Caribbean. With the rise in popularity of artists like Rihanna and, more recently, Nicki, artists who confidently express their Caribbean identity alongside and sometimes over a socially-imposed homogeneous-black identity, I believe that American society has shown itself to be more accepting and understanding of multifaceted and complex identities such as these artists have.

  13. T.Barner permalink
    May 19, 2011 3:45 am

    I believe Nicki Minaj, is very unique and has definitely transcended many boxes placed on female MC’s since Kauryn Hill’s classic album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Not only has her over the top, in your face persona(s) become a voice for women in the music industry, she has also created a platform for the question of sexuality, sexual preference, and race to be spoken about in popular hip-hop culture. Through her accent switching to her character Roman, Barbie, Rosa, and Martha she not only uses varying lexical knowledge to be able to portray her perception of these people, she also uses these different items to bend words in shapes that create art in a way that has not been done before. Although I may not agree with her substance, I would definitely say her mastery of the use of language and phonetics has truly garnered her her number one spot in “the game”…for now.

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