Music Monday: It’s Nicki’s Time Now
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, called, boss 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).