The two artists’ latest clash reveals just as much about the fans who pay attention to feuds as it does about the rappers who get into them.
Nicki Minaj and Cardi B.’s feud has everything: a physical altercation in couture gowns; the alleged leaking of private phone numbers on the internet; a 10-part Instagram saga; an odd call for a truce. The only thing missing from this clash of rap titans is an actual rap song, but that’s hardly necessary in our current era of social media-driven feuds.
The latest chapter in the now year-old squabble began on October 28 when news broke that Cardi’s sister, Hennessy Carolina, had accused Nicki of leaking Cardi’s phone number to fan clubs devoted to Nicki, leading members of those fan clubs to harass Cardi.
— DJ Louie Styles TV (@DJLouieStylesTV) October 28, 2018
Nicki denied the accusation.
“You [Cardi] can’t control your sister, but you want me to control millions of fans,” she said on the 10th episode of her radio show on Apple’s Beats 1, Queen Radio, released this past week. “I’ve never leaked a number in my life … y’all continue to lie on me to make me look like a bad person.”
It seems fair to say that Nicki’s comments struck a nerve. In response, Cardi posted 10 different Instagram videos addressing Nicki and covering such topics as what kind of narrative Nicki is constructing; whether Nicki’s role in their feud is that of a victim, an aggressor, or the Street Fighter character Chun Li (a reference to Nicki’s latest album); how Cardi has turned down advertising deals that Nicki subsequently picked up (she specifically mentioned the denim brand Diesel); and how jealous Nicki is of Cardi’s success. All together, the videos ran for about eight minutes total; Cardi would later delete them, but not before someone compiled them on YouTube for posterity:
Cardi’s posts made it seem like she had hit Nicki with her full arsenal of truth, feelings, and meme-worthy phrases. The videos immediately went viral.
And while they may have been prompted by an alleged doxxing, they also seemed to confirm that bad blood has been brewing between Cardi and Nicki for some time. Among other things, Cardi specifically accused Nicki of lying “so much you can’t keep up with your fucking lies” and threatening other artists and telling them not to work with Cardi.
Over the past year, the two rappers have gone from denying ill-will toward one another to slyly shading each other to allegedly brawling at a party during New York Fashion Week. Their feud is supposedly rooted in a disagreement over how a track came together, and though it’s gone through distinct periods of dormancy — Jezebel has a full timeline — Cardi’s Instagram videos undoubtedly escalated it.
Eventually, Nicki tweeted an oblique call for a truce. But it’s unclear if that truce will actually happen, or simply smooth things over temporarily.
Regardless, while Nicki and Cardi’s feud might seem superficially entertaining, there’s also something deeper and instructive embedded within it. By looking at the two rappers’ latest clash in the relative comfort of its aftermath, we can see how they have maintained a tense relationship that speaks to both women’s understanding of their fans and fandom, and the roles they play in pop culture and the music industry. What’s more, it reveals some unsavory things about what it means to be a rap fan today.
Nicki Minaj and Cardi B.’s feud fits into a established pattern of female rappers fighting with each other — and their fans egging it on
Nicki Minaj is no stranger to very public fights. From clashing with Taylor Swift over who gets nominated for the MTV Video Music Awards, to bickering with Miley Cyrus over taking sides in her dispute with Swift, to what is now an eight-year-long feud with Lil’ Kim over rap industry dominance, the Google results of “Nicki Minaj” and “feud” read like a yearbook of music titans, dating back to when Nicki released her first mixtape in 2007.
It’s always possible that there are genuine disagreements or disfavor within these squabbles. However, it’s important to know that when it comes to the mainstream consumption of female-driven hip-hop, there seems to exist an irrational paradigm that reads like a crooked fairytale: There can only ever be one dominant female rapper of the moment.
Cardi discussed this idea as it pertains to herself and Nicki in an interview with Complex in October 2017. “I feel like people wouldn’t even be satisfied if me and [Nicki] was making out on a freaking photo,” she said. “I feel like people just want that drama because it’s entertaining.”
This “only one” theory doesn’t seem to apply to male rappers, or to female artists in other music genres. (In the latter category, while you could point to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera in the 2000s or Madonna and Cyndi Lauper in the ‘80s, both of the artists in each of those respective pairs were able to coexist and be successful, without being pulled into a narrative about dominance and reigning supreme.)
But as Kiana Fitzgerald argued at Complex in April 2018, there was a decline in the number of prominent female rappers in early 2000s, and “once the leading cast of female rappers dwindled, the space for women in rap restricted by default—if there are fewer women rapping at a prominent level, there’s less room needed for them. That tightened space in the rap landscape was the perfect breeding ground for competition.”
That’s how the idea of a reigning queen of rap likely originated. And as Tyler Lewis wrote for the Atlantic in 2010:
What the hip-hop community wanted in female emcees is simply different than what the mainstream record-buying public wants in a female emcee. And the message that the mainstream record-buying public has sent to the industry is that it doesn’t much care about female emcees unless they are larger-than-life caricatures that tragically reinforce and celebrate white beauty standards and cartoonish, one-dimensional sexuality that fronts like it is all about female sexual agency when it isn’t. And there is only room for one.
When Lewis was writing in 2010, Nicki had recently released her first album “Pink Friday,” after three mixtapes. And Lewis was explaining that, while the very public fight between Nicki and Lil’ Kim that spanned that same year could have been the result of a genuine dislike between the two, it was also a byproduct of Nicki and Kim adhering to what the music industry seemed to want from them.
“The truth is that it serves the interest of a music industry that does not want to (or doesn’t know how to) support and promote a variety of female emcees to continue to perpetuate the notion that female emcees are volatile and won’t allow for other female emcees to get any shine,” Lewis wrote.
So both women repeatedly asserted their supremacy over one another and over the genre. Their posturing made headlines, drawing attention toward the battle between the “reigning queen” and “the new voice of hip-hop,” and becoming a fight for fandom.
That was eight years ago. But a similar pattern and narrative were in effect during Cardi’s breakout year in 2017.
As Complex recently pointed out, there’s actually a debate over whether the beef between Nicki and Cardi started in March 2017 or June 2017. The mere fact that a debate exists signals that there is interest in said fight. And though there were some perceived slights between Cardi and Nicki in the summer of 2017 — over who Cardi was performing with and whether those people had beef with Nicki — it’s worth noting that Nicki warmly congratulated Cardi that September on her success with “Bodak Yellow”:
Congratulations to a fellow NEW YAWKA on a RECORD BREAKING achievement. Bardi, this is the only thing that matters!!! Enjoy it @iamcardib
— QUEEN (@NICKIMINAJ) September 25, 2017
It’s not until November 2017 that we can find the first real hint of blood in the water, with Nicki subweeting that Cardi was ungrateful after Cardi gave an interview about Nicki and Cardi’s then-recent collaboration with Migos on “MotorSport.”
During the interview, Cardi said that when she recorded her verse on “Motorsport,” she had heard Nicki perform a different verse than what ended up on the final track — in effect calling into question a previous account from Nicki about how she had actually approved Cardi’s inclusion on the song.
The corniest thing you can be is ungrateful. Give thanks.
— QUEEN (@NICKIMINAJ) November 30, 2017
Then, in April 2018, as Nicki released two singles, “Chun-Li” and “Barbie Tingz,” she started to talk about how Cardi had hurt her feelings and damaged her reputation because of what she said in the “Motorsport” interview.
“The only thing she kept saying was, ‘I didn’t hear that verse. [Nicki] changed her verse,’” Nicki said.
Nicki also went on to say that Cardi had played into the idea of a feud, by not speaking up when rumors emerged after the “Motorsport” video was released. Though Nicki and Cardi both appear in the video, they weren’t on the set at the same time, which some fans took to mean that they disliked one another.
According to Nicki, the reason they didn’t shoot together was a conflict with her hairstylist’s schedule. Nicki alleged that Cardi never set the record straight in interviews, and made it look like they were fighting when they weren’t.
The most significant apparent blowup between the two came shortly after Nicki released her latest album, Queen, in August 2018 (more on this in a bit). Nicki and Cardi reportedly got into a fight at the Harper’s Bazaar Icons party during New York Fashion Week on September 7, and there were pictures afterward of Cardi sporting a giant knot on her forehead and being escorted out by security. Cardi said that security had hit her, while Nicki maintains it was someone in Nicki’s entourage).
Cardi devoted an Instagram post to Nicki on September 8, seemingly to explain why she and Nicki had fought. She called Nicki a “pussy” and accused her of trying to mess with Cardi’s reputation, music career, and income. “I let you sneak diss me, I let you lie to me, I let you attempt to stop my bags, fuck up the way I eat! You’ve threaten other artists in the industry, told them if they work with me you’ll stop fucking with them,” Cardi wrote.
She also said that Nicki had finally crossed the line by insulted Cardi’s parenting skills — the latter being one of the reasons fought with Nicki at the New York Fashion Week party.
Almost two months later, Nicki shared her own account of that night. On October 29, she bragged to the audience of Queen Radio that her friend Rah Ali had hit Cardi — so bad that Nicki (sarcastically) felt sorry for her. But not so sorry that she didn’t offer $100,000 to anyone who could provide surveillance video of Cardi’s forehead getting pulped:
Rah really, really beat Cardi’s ass bad. Rah beat you so bad that I was mad at Rah. You went home and told people security hit you, and we let that ride for legal reasons. Anybody that wanna pull up the surveillance footage, I will give you $100,000. The minute Rah let your head up, I saw the knot on your head.
That account from Nicki, along with the Nicki’s denial that she had leaked Cardi’s number to her fans, spurred the eight-minute Instagram diatribe from Cardi where she called Nicki out.
“Do you wanna be the victim, or do you wanna be the gangster?” Cardi asked in one of her videos.
Cardi’s question is a pertinent one that perhaps unwittingly confirms the female rapper paradigm that Lewis was writing about when he suggested that female rappers have to be willing to fight to be successful. Adopting and embodying one of these narratives — victim or gangster — is part of the formula for success.
What’s just as unfortunate as this paradigm, however, is the gnarled picture it paints of those who hang on every new development of Nicki and Cardi’s feud. It’s easy to recognize that whatever they’re fighting about is petty. It’s harder to recognize our own role in the proceedings, and how our interest in whatever feud is in the headlines encourages its participants to fight with each other for our entertainment.
Nicki Minaj’s strategy in her feuds has been to weaponize the ugliest aspects of stan culture
To fully understand the Nicki Minaj and Cardi B. dynamic, you have to understand what mainstream music fandom looks like today. The term that comes to mind is “Stan,” a word derived from the 2000 Eminem song of the same name. The song is about a deranged fan, and its title has evolved into a label that describes a celebrity’s most devoted followers.
The word can refer to a member of a celebrity’s fervent fandom, like Rihanna’s Navy or Beyoncé’s Beyhive or Nicki’s Barbz (also stylized as Barbs or Barbiez). For example, Beyoncé stans will declare their loyalty to the Beyhive, and constantly remind you that your fave could never (do what Beyoncé does on stage).
It can also signal derision; for example, many people have condemned the Mac Miller stans who blamed Miller’s ex-girlfriend, Ariana Grande, for the rapper’s death and drug abuse.
Reflexively, saying that you “stan” someone you admire has become a popular mode of self-deprecation and identification. It shows that you acknowledge someone’s greatness, even though their “greatness” is especially subjective. This often comes into play when someone admits they stan celebrities or fictional characters who display abhorrent or petty behavior.
omg i’ve finally caught up with ahs and holy fucking SHIT
also madison montgomery really is THAT bitch i fucking STAN
— ᴋɪᴀʀᴀ | 2 (@alrightkiara) October 4, 2018
For true stans, the objects of their stan affections can do no wrong. True stans are also willing to do whatever they can to ensure their chosen celebrity/actor/musician/artist is seen as the best. For some stans, it’s not just about believing that someone you’re a fan of is superior to all comers, it’s about proving and quantifying that superiority in any way possible, whether it’s in terms of box office earnings and album sales or fan-voted honors like the People’s Choice Awards.
A pertinent example: Earlier this year, a number of of fervent DC Comics stans fervently demanded that Warner Bros. release Zack Snyder’s director’s cut of Justice League, despite not knowing if such a thing actually existed. Snyder left the movie during its production to deal with a family matter, and director Joss Whedon finished the film, which then received negative reviews. But Snyder’s fans were adamant that a movie he’d had a hand in couldn’t have been bad, so any critical thrashings were either Whedon or Warner Bros.’s fault.
Nicki has occasionally weaponized this loyalty by courting her fanbase, her Barbz, her stans to combat any criticism made against her. In June, for example, a freelance writer named Wanna Thompson criticized Nicki in a (now-deleted) tweet to her then 14,000 or so Twitter followers (Thompson’s follower count is now over 20,000).
“You know how dope it would be if Nicki put out mature content?” Thompson wrote. “Just reflecting on past relationships, being a boss, hardships, etc. She’s touching 40 soon, a new direction is needed.”
In response, Nicki tweeted a selection of her songs; the implication was that Nicki viewed them as examples of “mature” work, and that she was responding to Thompson, even though her tweet didn’t directly reference Thompson or Thompson’s comment.
Pills n POTIONS. Bed of Lies. I’m gettin ready. Nobody. Save me. Autobiography. The Crying game. I lied. All things go. Buy a heart. GRAND Piano.
— QUEEN (@NICKIMINAJ) June 30, 2018
But later, Nicki (or someone with access to Nicki’s account) sent Thompson a direct message, insulting her. Thompson published the comments.
Nicki Minaj exhibited #Queen behaviour when she hopped in my DMs and insulted me numerous times over an innocent music opinion while her fans continue to harass me and DM me death threats. This is NOT okay. pic.twitter.com/bJI9TVvJV7
— Chocolate Drop’s Mama (@WannasWorld) July 1, 2018
And the New York Times reported that after Thompson made the response public, Nicki’s Barbz began a relentless assault on her various social media pages and phone lines:
In the week since publicizing the acidic messages she received directly from Ms. Minaj, whose next album, “Queen,” is scheduled for release in August, Ms. Thompson said she has received thousands of vicious, derogatory missives across Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, email and even her personal cellphone, calling her every variation of stupid and ugly, or worse. Some of the anonymous horde included pictures Ms. Thompson once posted on Instagram of her 4-year-old daughter, while others told her to kill herself.
A similar incident occurred during the promotional period around the release of Nicki’s most recent album, Queen, in August.
To promote the album, Nicki debuted Queen Radio on Beats 1, using the show to share her thoughts about the album, the music industry, and whatever else crossed her mind. When Queen didn’t debut as the No. 1 album in America during its release week, she spent an episode of Queen Radio making some NSFW declarations about Travis Scott, the artist who had edged her for the top spot, and his girlfriend, Kylie Jenner.
She named Scott the “Ho N*gga of the Week” and accused him of bundling tour tickets with his new album to inflate his sales numbers and bump Queen down to No. 2. Nicki also accused Scott of asking Jenner to mobilize her massive social media following to get get people to buy his tour tickets and album:
When [Scott] realized that Queen was about to [be] the Number One album in America, he and his label decided to have Kylie and baby Stormi put up a tour pass … He had her post and say, ‘Hey, me and Stormi can’t wait to see y’all.’ How are you selling something that does not have anything to do with your album but it is being counted on Billboard as album sales?”
To some extent, with Scott and Cardi, Nicki’s actions qualify as playing the game and creating entertainment. But with Thompson, Nicki was punching down and encouraging her fans to attack a critic who didn’t have anywhere near the clout or resources that Nicki has.
Regardless, because Nicki’s stans are so devoted, whenever Nicki attacks someone — no matter who it is — she’s simultaneously re-energizing her fanbase and asserting that she’s the fighter they believe her to be. And they respond by brigading the message that she’s the undisputed best. It’s like shaking a tree, except instead of leaves you get adoration.
While Queen didn’t become the No. 1 album in America upon its release, Nicki’s attack on Travis Scott most likely resulted in more streams and more purchases from her stans. Before that, in responding to Thompson, Nicki showed that she will never back down to criticism, no matter who is saying it.
And now, even though Nicki insists that she did not leak Cardi’s number, Cardi has said that she received death threats from Nicki’s fans. But, insane though it may sound, such threats are the natural outgrowth of the way Nicki operates. In continuing to fight (or “fight”) with Cardi for the past year, even as both she and Cardi have frequently said there’s no beef between them, Nicki has been gesturing that the rap crown is still hers to bear. And her loyal fans have internalized that message and amplified it.
Why Nicki Minaj is in a no-win situation
To judge who “won” Minaj and Cardi’s latest spat is to look at who’s dominated the conversation that has surrounded it. Cardi’s 10-chapter Instagram novela is the thing people can’t seem to stop talking about.
“Nicki is more popular (based on Instagram followers) and more powerful (at least by tenure), but if you’re lured onto unfamiliar ground, you run the risk of being beaten with experience,” The Ringer’s Micah Peters wrote. “As evidenced by the hastily uploaded selfie videos, each a haymaker in its own right, social media is Cardi’s battlefield. She was born in it, molded by it.”
While Nicki is extremely aware of how powerful fandom can be, Cardi is perhaps even more so. Her fame is the product of virality and Instagram audacity: She is an artist who used Instagram to land a spot on a reality television show and then to launch a music career — there was one point where she had 10 million Instagram followers without even releasing an album.
It seems that Nicki may have realized that, in this case, weaponizing her fans won’t be enough to take the upper hand away from Cardi, who intuitively understands how to use social media to sway public opinion in her favor. After Cardi posted her Instagram diatribes, Nicki tweeted a plea for a truce — which Cardi then appeared to accept by amplifying it on her own Instagram:
There’s something somber about Nicki’s tweet, in that it seems to reveal her frustration with that irksome “one female rapper” concept.
“I know this stuff is entertaining & funny to a lot of people but I won’t be discussing this nonsense anymore,” she writes, as if she understands that to “win” her fight with Cardi would mean getting messier, more candid, more raw. She appears to be nodding to the idea that conflict between Nicki Minaj and Cardi B. is what fans want, and not how Nicki actually feels.
Mainstream hip hop fans, stans, the music industry, and the media have rewarded a Nicki Minaj who reinforces the paradigm that there can only be one dominant female rapper at any given moment, and that she must be perpetually aggressive and combative about her place in the industry hierarchy. We can’t be surprised by Nicki wanting to be that rapper, or leaning into that image to achieve success.
What’s more difficult is answering the question of why we find it so entertaining when Nicki Minaj, or Cardi B., or any other female rapper acts in this way.
The “one female rapper” idea ensures that no matter how hard Nicki or Cardi or any other female rapper has worked or how successful she’s become, she will constantly be doubted, because her success can only exist until someone better comes along to challenge it. So she must be grateful for that success — and to show her gratitude, she must defend it at all costs.
As fans, we could easily stop this cycle. Nicki’s plea to focus on the positive feels like the closest she can come to saying that the way female rappers are encouraged to behave is cripplingly frustrating. But the ghoulish way that so many of us clearly cherish feuds and fighting, and love to demand that our idols prove they are the unrivaled best, suggests there’s no end in sight.
Author: Alex Abad-Santos