On Drake, Nicki Minaj, B.o.B., and the Art of the Debut-As-Pop-Crossover

Attack of the singing rappers

For the first 325 days of 2010, Nicki Minaj's baarsss were like succulent, hashtag-rap-imbued appetizers. The eyelash-batting Harajuku Barbie stomped on half the fellas she accompanied on supporting-actress collabos that bumped everywhere from hipster lounges to Escalade dashboards. A "rah-rah!" here. A "muthafuckin' MONSTER!" there. A "wait, wait, fixate" afar. Surely, this chick could rap her padded ass off. Except when her own wildly anticipated full-length finally came, Pop Star Nicki kidnapped Rap Star Nicki, and almost everyone walked away wishing Pink Friday, with its candy-coated coos and child-safety-lock lyrics, tasted more like her guest-starring hors d'oeuvres. Sugar and spice and everything nice: That's what rap debuts are made of?

Coincidentally, neither Drake nor B.o.B. "rapped enough" on their respective breakout albums—Thank Me Later and B.o.B. Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray. Instead, we got cheerleader pop, rock ballads, a track called "Find Your Love," and a Vampire Weekend cover to complement that Natasha Freaking Bedingfield hook on Nicki's record, making 2010 the year hip-hop's most anticipated newbies turned into off-key alt-rock r&b MCs.

Seldom do rappers so early in their careers feel the need to skew pop-ward and blatantly court indie rockers. But in 2010, it happened thrice: transparently, logically, and (the scary part) successfully. Pink Friday went gold and outsold Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in both records' third week of release. Dark horse B.o.B., once better known as André 3000 Jr., delivered two colossal pop hits, with hooks by Bruno Mars ("Nothin' on You") and Paramore's Hayley Williams ("Airplanes"). And Thank Me Later sold nearly 450,000 copies its first week out, and, like the pop-chart-topping Bobby Ray, scored multiple Grammy nominations, including Best Rap Album. Critics mostly preferred Big Boi, and everyone preferred Kanye, but with commercial success like that, it hardly matters.

Natasha Freaking Bedingsfield, not pictured, for good reason
Howard Huang
Natasha Freaking Bedingsfield, not pictured, for good reason

Details

Drake
Thank Me Later
(#24 album)

Nicki Minaj
Pink Friday
(#242 album)

B.o.B.
The Adventures of Bobby Ray
(#192 album)

Pazz and Jop 2010
Rise of the Douchebags
Kanye West and James Murphy turn their private flaws into public triumphs
By Zach Baron

Never Forget
Cee Lo Green sums up 2010 in two little words
By Rob Harvilla

Little Pink Polos for You and Me
Wallowing and/or reveling in social anxiety with Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend
By Eric Harvey

The Wayward Crucifixion of M.I.A.
On the dodgy, opportunistic, truffle-fry-fueled campaign against both Maya and Maya
By Charles Aaron

Leave Chillwave Alone
In defense of the nostalgia-steeped genre Ariel Pink both invented and abandoned
By Simon Reynolds

The Great Gay-Pander-Off of 2010
Katy, Nicki, Ke$ha, P!nk, and Gaga taste the rainbow
By Rich Juzwiak

The Internet-Rap Atomization
Odd Future, Lil B, Wiz Khalifa, et al. build tiny kingdoms, and rule them
By Tom Breihan

Justin Bieber, Twitter Casanova
The Most Popular Boy in the World rules the only voting bloc that matters: pre-teen girls
By Camille Dodero

The Top Ten
From Kanye West to The Suburbs

Stuff We Like
Rick Ross Lies, the Rolling Stones Plunder, And Taylor Swift Triumphs

The Personals
Industry Woes, Cultural Theories, Polite Suggestions, and Calls of Bullshit

For B.o.B., his cluttered musical palate proved both a blessing (the cautionary horn-filled rock-reggae hybrid "Fame") and a curse (stay away, Rivers Cuomo). Fans of the Georgian's early mixtapes—particularly 2008's left-field but still rap-heavy Hi! My Name Is Bob—got a watered-down version of that on Bobby Ray. Admirers of his pre-fame, DMX-worshipping days—full of songs like "Haterz Everywhere" and lines like, "I just want to grip your body/I like it when it's real, real sloppy"—now encountered a certain sameness; the preacher's son who plucked a guitar and shamelessly spoke of his desire to learn the cello politely retorted that today's hip-hop fans are more open-minded. Which is true. But even Ja Rule thugged out for a while.

In Pink Friday's case, the hardcore spitting is largely confined to the three opening tracks, including the stellar, staccato, Bangladesh-helmed shit-talk anthem "Did It on 'Em," where literal-potty mouthing ensues ("If I had a dick, I would pull it out and piss on 'em"), along with all the other good stuff Weezy taught her. From that point on, though, on tracks like "Right Thru Me," "Fly," and "Save Me," Minaj discovers she can sort of (not really!) sing, and suddenly the artist Kanye West suggested could be the second-greatest rapper ever in the history of time—second to Eminem—is hardly even rapping. We shouldn't be too shocked, though, that a woman who in her MTV mini-doc expressed a "paralyzing fear" of failing, one tasked with reviving the Female Hip-Hop Nation, wants to grab the biggest audience possible. When your buzz hits its peak, it seems, there's nowhere to go but pop. As the Voice's own Rich Juzwiak wrote, "It's the r&b crossover as the first album of her career. It makes me long for the days when selling out was something you resisted, not something you jumped to do."

Clearly, crossing over is the new black. Rap doesn't typically embrace cupid-struck rappers, but with Kanye and Diddy and, especially, Drake testing the limits, let's call it progress: giant leaps for rap-kind. Drizzy's mixtape-as-unofficial-first-album So Far Gone, you'll recall, was filled with glistening Auto-Tuned bars and the completely non-rap sounds of Lykke Li and Peter Bjorn and John. We knew what we signed up for. He wore his softie side like a badge; we may not have loved Thank Me Later as unconditionally as Get Rich or Die Tryin', but we mostly accepted Drake's hodgepodge of soul-searching and half-white-people problems because he wasn't embarrassed about it. And because a lot of it sounded so good. So Drake, by managing to balance the creativity of hip-hop and the lure of pop, is the least guilty of switching tunes.

And as it happens, B.o.B. is right: Hip-hop is more accepting of skinny-jeaned rappers with a Coldplay fetish nowadays. And rappers are less concerned with the backlash they risk by preening in the pages of GQ and more comfortable with being themselves, even as they're still discovering who exactly that is. It's a bleak forecast—generic pop-rap overshadowing talent—but circumstances are such that the "official," rap-murking album is the commercial product, while mixtapes and other free fodder—featuring the creative music you actually asked for—are closer to the artist's true identity. Want their old shit? Download their old mixtapes. Or hope that the next wave of mainstream rap debuts—from, say, J. Cole, Wiz Khalifa, or 35-year-old virgin Jay Electronica—feature more conventional rapping. But who's to say they won't reach for the crossover hit themselves? Because everyone wants to be the next Drake.

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17 comments
Misty Jean Moore
Misty Jean Moore

There was a lot of singing in Wiz's album, lol. It's a trend that can't be stopped!

MALIKHOPKINS1
MALIKHOPKINS1

HII MII NAME IZ MALIK AND II LIKE FINGERING BOYZ FOR MONEY N DEY ASS

Diamondciera
Diamondciera

brittani dj dont want yo dry pussy ass so yhu put mii name n summthanqq else im beat da lip gloss of yo fake ass n dat is wat yhu iz fake yhu put on for ppl yhu laugh n talk fake bt all ima say iz yhu got summ tewh say bitch cmm tewh mii fuccn face

MALIKHOPKINS13
MALIKHOPKINS13

WAZ UP NICKI MINAJ U R SO FREAKIN FINE CAN I CLL U

MALIKHOPKINS1
MALIKHOPKINS1

MII NAME IS MALIK HOPKINS AND IIM IN LOVE WIT MAKAYLA JOHNSON

TYSJAE
TYSJAE

HII MII NAME IZ TYSJAE AND IM A HOE II GHO WIT A GURL NAME ALEXIS AND FUCKIN A GURL NAME MYLEAH

JAMIEWILLIAMS
JAMIEWILLIAMS

HII MII NAME IS JAMIE AND IM SO FREAKIN FINE ALL DA GURLS LOVE MEH

TAYLAJACK
TAYLAJACK

hi my name is tayla and im 11 yrs.old AND IM IN LOVE WITH TREY SONGZ SO SORRY NICKI BHUT HES BUYIN MII ROZAE

Brittani_easton
Brittani_easton

hii mii name brittani easton and im 13 and ii like every boy except jamie and keilon but the main niggah ii want i darian watson he is mii lover and mii friend ii all these bitches no exspecialy diamond dailey......... GOOD BII HATERZ

Kiana_Falkner
Kiana_Falkner

hii mii name is kiana and im 14 and ii have big pink lips like a P_U_S_S_Y and im gay jux like you and ii was wondering whe ii could get yo CUCHIE

KEUNDRIAWYATT
KEUNDRIAWYATT

HII IM KEKE MY IM SO NASTY AND IM 13 AND I GOT SO MANY HATERS

Myleahburks
Myleahburks

LUV YU AND YOUNG MONEY MII NAME IS MYLEAH AND II NAMED MII BABY AFTER YU AND 13

Kevo Bibbs
Kevo Bibbs

Pink Friday was a good pop record but not a good rap record. BUT...the rap songs on the CD...Romans Revenge...Did It On Em...Here I Am...Muny...Blow Ya Mind are really good songs...so if she wants to rap she can and she make a good record at that

YoungJFK
YoungJFK

Awesome read. My lone disappointment of 2010 was no Waka x John Mayer collabo. Fingers crossed for '11! Ha!

leena
leena

well u will be happy to know that nicki minaj told her fans the other day on the phone( yes she talks to us on the phone she's very close to her fans and down to earth treats us like family) that her next album will be more like her mixtapes more hard rapping not pop-like ..so hopefully you will like it and i have a question you claim that thank me later was not such a stretch from so far gone so but to be real pink friday was not such a stretch from nicki last mixtape beam up scotty that mixtape had alot of singing so you cant judge a person of their features judge them of there lastest body of work as a whole which was beam me up scotty and nicki can sing especially compared to the pop singer out now nicki sounds better live then katy perry rihanna and ke$ha

skylar d
skylar d

nicki minaj dont want yo13 year old ragedy ass beleve dat

DRAKECAKES
DRAKECAKES

IAM NOT TRYING TO BE MEAN MY SISTA AND I JUS5T GOT ON AND PUT THIS ON HERE

 
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