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Queen versus Queen: Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, and why hip-hop pits women against each other

Rival kingdoms: Nicki Minaj, left, and Cardi B at the Met Gala in May
Rival kingdoms: Nicki Minaj, left, and Cardi B at the Met Gala in May Credit:  Getty Images North America

The meteoric rise of Cardi B, a Bronx-born rapper who found fame on reality television and the defunct video sharing site Vine, bears all the signifiers of star-is-born hysteria: an out-of-nowhere smash hit single, celebrated collaborations, a high-profile romance and overnight acceptance into the worlds of fashion and mainstream pop culture. But it has been her very public feud with Nicki Minaj, whose position as hip-hop’s number one female rapper was unexpectedly usurped by Cardi, that has come to dominate headlines.

Most famously cemented by a physical brawl at a New York fashion show in September - a fight that saw Cardi throw a shoe at Minaj and leave the event with an elbow to the face courtesy of a Minaj hanger-on - the feud has roped in all manner of accusations. From industry bribery and the leaking of music, to more recent claims that Minaj published Cardi’s personal phone number online, leading to harassment from Minaj’s fans.

Monday night saw further antagonism arise between the women, with Minaj using her Apple radio show, Queen Radio, to accuse Cardi of lying about their brawl and manipulating fellow rappers. Hours later, Cardi responded by issuing a 10-part dismissal of Minaj on Instagram, in which she denied the allegations against her and, among other revelations, claimed (with apparent proof) that Minaj only got her guest feature on Little Mix’s new single after Cardi had turned down the offer. Further back-and-forth has occurred since through the pair’s respective social media profiles, roping in suggestive "likes" and character-witness statements from everyone including Naomi Campbell and Little Mix themselves, but the continued war has left many fans asking the same question: where do both women go from here?

Rap beef has long been embedded in the DNA of hip-hop, used to certify clout or boost ego, but watching the Nicki/Cardi feud unfold has made particularly bleak viewing. Earlier this year Cardi became the first solo female rapper to hit Number One on the US Billboard charts since Lauryn Hill in 1998, speaking to a genre in which commercial female dominance remains unusual. But with the August arrival of Queen, Minaj’s fourth and arguably strongest album yet, the landscape of hip-hop appeared to be on an interesting path – with two female heavy-hitters dominating sales and cultural impact in a way not seen since the Nineties.

But while the pair were initially cordial – exchanging kind words about Cardi’s success on social media – such niceties were quickly replaced by hostility and discord. The specific source of the conflict remains ambiguous, but wherever it came from, it was exacerbated by rival fandoms and misogynist media outlets resting on old stereotypes about girl-on-girl conflict.

Lil Kim and Foxy Brown cover The Source during the Nineties

Such a narrative has precedence. The long-running feud between Lil Kim and Foxy Brown, two iconic late-Nineties rappers whose sex-positive, X-rated lyrics paved the way for everyone from Minaj to Azealia Banks to CupcakKe, eventually descended into literal gunfire and diss tracks about their respective spins in jail, but few will be able to name what exactly started it.

Instead, like that between Nicki and Cardi, it appeared to be a feud almost willed into existence, with constant questions about competition or rivalry helping sew seeds of mutual paranoia that swiftly evolved into outright apathy. At the same time, influential hip-hop magazine XXL suggested in 2016 that the desire of their respective labels to get the pair to collaborate may have had the inverse effect, with the constant comparisons between them leading them to despise one another.

The instigators back then, from gossip maven Wendy Williams’s radio show to inflammatory industry-magazine editorials, may not exist anymore, replaced by clickbait journalism and duelling Twitter fandoms weaponised by the stars they worship, but the specifics remain the same: feuds cooked up by the music industry and then exaggerated through exhausting conspiracy theories, and female stars engaged in an endless game of press statements, threats and the exposing of apparently damaging secrets.

When Minaj and Cardi collaborated on the Migos track MotorSport in October of 2017, fans believed the pair were sending each other subliminal threats in their respective lyrics, claims both parties denied. Complex Magazine went one further: alleging that the pair did not know they were both going to be featured on the song, and that it may have been a deliberate, publicity-seeking set-up orchestrated by none other than Kanye West.

“The conspiracy theories are just so tired,” Minaj tweeted in response. “These are men in our culture who simply refuse to let it go. They don’t do this to male MCs.”

Cardi added in a separate interview: “I feel like people just want that drama because it’s just entertaining… People constantly always want to talk about how in our community—in the urban community—how we need to get along with each other. But these are the same people who want to see minority women against each other. They don’t do that s--- in pop music.”

But by April the mood had shifted. When the timing of Minaj’s involvement in MotorSport was called into question, with Cardi indicating that Minaj had changed her verse once she learnt of her own involvement in the track (which fans took as Minaj wanting to up her game around a newcomer), Minaj told Beats 1 Radio that she was hurt.

“I kind of felt ambushed,” she said. “All of them allowed me to look like I lied. Y’all still jumped around that just to paint Nicki as the bad person so that you could play the victim. That really, really hurt me. I really, fully supported her, and up until this recent interview she did, I had never seen her show me genuine love in an interview and I can imagine how many girls wish they could’ve been on a song with Nicki Minaj.”

On the heels of the fashion event brawl, Cardi took to Instagram with a message in which she detailed the behind-the-scenes conflict between the pair, and indicated that the fight began when Minaj insulted her baby daughter Kulture, and liked Twitter messages from fans poking fun at her parenting.

“I’ve let a lot of s--- slide,” Cardi wrote. “I let you sneak diss me, I let you lie on me, I let you attempt to stop my bags [money], f--- up the way I eat. You’ve threaten [sic] other artists in the industry, told them if they work with me you’ll stop f------ with them!!”

In an episode of her Beats 1 show Queen Radio, Minaj denied insulting Cardi’s daughter, but claimed that her rival had only achieved success through “sympathy and payola”, implying that Cardi’s record company had essentially paid radio stations and streaming services to play her music. She also added that the fashion week fight was particularly “mortifying” as it occurred “in front of… [the] upper echelon”. “Get this woman some f------ help,” Minaj concluded.

Minaj’s Queen Radio shows have been a hotbed of volatility since August, with Minaj ranting about music industry failings amid a cacophony of cartoonish sound effects and meme-able screaming. Much of it has made some kind of sense - such as the star railing against the dark, inner workings of Spotify and YouTube, the over-representation of white hip-hop artists on the charts, and artists inflating music sales via unfair merchandise tie-ins. But Minaj is also an unreliable narrator, given that her opinions are largely guided by her own ego. She also fails to express self-awareness about her own failings or some of her more problematic collaborators, among them the controversial SoundCloud rapper 6ix9ine.

Minaj's vocal support of other women in the industry has also been deemed vaguely hypocritical – she reportedly sent abusive private messages to a young female journalist who expressed criticisms of her music on Twitter, and used Queen Radio as a platform to spread misogynist conspiracy theories about Cardi B, using much of the same language that has been unfairly sent her way over the years.

With Minaj so often being the victim of similar narratives, including accusations from her ex-boyfriend Safaree that he was responsible for writing many of her early raps (accusations he later took back), it was particularly shortsighted for her to then use the same accusations against Cardi. That she has largely dismissed Cardi’s accusations with repeated mirth, including releasing official merchandise bearing the slogan “Nicki stopped my bag,” a reference to Cardi’s initial Instagram message, further reflects poorly on her judgment.

Roxanne Shanté Credit: Twitter

When legendary rapper Roxanne Shanté took aim at a number of her female contemporaries, including Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Salt N Pepa, on her 1992 track Big Mama, it was a necessary evil – proof that female rappers can be just as explicit, comedic and brutal in their put-downs as their male counterparts, clearing a pathway for songs including Remy Ma’s Shether (a headline-grabbing decimation of Minaj released in 2017) and Minaj’s own Barbie Dreams, a zinger-filled female spin on The Notorious BIG’s iconic diss track Just Playing (Dreams) from 1994.

But the landscape is different today, particularly with so many voices championing the need for greater female representation in fields largely dominated by men. On the heels of the internet reacting with hilarity to 50 Cent buying out the front three rows of a forthcoming Ja Rule concert, purely to mean he’ll play to what appears to be hundreds of empty seats, a call for female rappers to get along reads as little but a double standard. And it is a double standard, but one that speaks to culture at large.

When hip-hop has always refused to grant any of its biggest female acts the commercial longevity of their male counterparts, from the short-lived mainstream success of Lil Kim and Eve, to the perplexing vanishing acts of Shanté and even Lauryn Hill, it is unfortunate that two women who have experienced unprecedented long-term mainstream success in hip-hop have become so embedded in a rivalry at the expense of anything else.

Rap beef still has its place on wax, the act of trading barbs in an endless lyrical death-match as built into rap mythology as a Clyde Stubblefield sample. But when it begins to eclipse the individuals involved, overshadowing the comedic cockiness and tender vulnerability of Cardi’s debut album, or the triumphant, often ingenious cool of Minaj’s most recent record, it does both women an enormous disservice. And the next time a marketing executive in a Manhattan penthouse cooks up a new feud between two A-list black women pouring their hearts out in the recording studio, few will debate its usefulness as a way to get headlines.