“The men are like, ‘Why did I come here?’” Nicki Minaj said, giggling, after a brief tirade on the thanklessness of that particular gender. Strutting across the stage in all gold — looking like the world’s most curvaceous awards show statuette — Minaj had just implored the “dirty ass dick n—-s” to “get down and kiss the motherf—ing floor we walk on.” The “we” was, simply and beautifully, all women — even with Meek Mill and Rae Sremmurd on the bill, it was ladies night at Barclays.
That in itself is an anomaly for hip-hop fans. “Are there any ladies in the house tonight?” most artists will eventually ask, and our ears perk up. Then, they inevitably start playing a song about some phase of romance (probably nearer to the bedroom than not). It’s fun and great, but an all-too-real reminder that that’s our moment — the brief time when men have to take us seriously.
But Nicki takes us seriously from the jump, by taking herself seriously from the jump.
She presents a studied, careful version of femininity — but one flexible enough not to shatter when she steps outside her well-rehearsed Barbie poses. The freeze frame-ready looks and try-me glares are punctuated with as many megawatt smiles, even the occasional giggle at her own punchline. At one point, adrenaline-filled from the unquenchable crowd, Minaj shouted, “I don’t know why these n—-s ever thought they was fucking with me!” — defying the cultural imperative to act a certain way, while implying it’s fine if you want to act that way, too. Being effortlessly flawless, often an impossible requirement of feminine identity, has no place in Minaj’s world. In her rendition of Beyoncé’s “Flawless (Remix),” “I woke up like this” was a sweeping motivational maxim, rather than descriptive truth. She implored the crowd to sing along, grinning — perched atop the shoulders of two shirtless men.
Nicki has been very successful at doing it all, scoring chart-topping hits as well as SoundCloud smash remixes — but the staging of her show was less assured than her onstage persona. She sold “Starships” with the same enthusiasm she did in 2012, but clunky costume changes and strange transitional videos made Nicki’s attempts to appeal to everyone more obvious than they needed to be. She would likely be forgiven for not playing every single hit if she had shown a little more of her ability to create a cohesive concept — clearly, the woman who has (according to Wiki Minaj) 15 alter egos is capable of creating a stage show that also elevates her music. Instead, a strangely Broadway diva-ready ballad portion (complete with a long pink gown, onstage pianist, and falling snow) was followed by an on-the-nose, all-neon EDM set, with no sense of why the same person was at the center of both.
Her versatility, though, has also fueled her industry-wide dominance. Minaj’s reign was reinforced by appearances from two of her biggest fans: longtime advocate Lil Wayne and new beau Meek Mill. After Wayne bounced on-stage to “Loyal,” Nicki bowed down to the troubled MC, insisting that he was “the best rapper alive.”
“I would agree with her,” replied Wayne, “but there is a certain person named Nicki Minaj who is kicking my ass right now,” he concluded, chuckling with grim self-awareness. Nicki ignored his self-deprecation, instead posing as the unrepentant fangirl. “I know you’re gonna kill me after,” she said, while telling her DJ to cue up the rapper’s 2008 hit “A Milli.”
Meek Mill’s appearance, highly anticipated in the wake of his ongoing, WiFi-mediated scuffle with Drake, included the requisite tit for Drake’s tat (the diss track “Charged Up,” released Saturday night). “I was doing my album and I asked [Drake] to give me a verse for my album, but [Drake] gave me a verse that he didn’t write, that another wrote,” he told the crowd, adding that “Charged Up” was “very soft, baby lotion soft.” Nicki also got in on the action, briefly, telling the audience about how she too writes all her own verses — an allusion to both Meek’s allegations about Drake and her ex Safaree, who previously alleged that he wrote for her. “Y’all don’t even know how to pronounce the motherf—ing words in my motherf—ing rap, bitch,” she insisted.
Perhaps the most effective clap-back at Drake, though, came at the show’s conclusion, when Nicki reappeared in her final costume alongside Meek for a few affectionate duets. “Make some noise for the girl that got me starstruck,” Mill told the crowd, alluding to Drake’s immediately infamous line “No woman ever had me starstruck.” “N—- you starstruck?!” Nicki responded jokingly, before the couple kissed to arena-wide awws. It didn’t really matter who “won” after that, as Nicki, costume slightly askew and Louboutins in hand (rather than on feet), jubilantly conga-lined offstage.