At the risk of waxing rhapsodic, Nicki Minaj is a hero — maybe not to everyone, but to many.
The self-professed/self-evident queen of rap closed out the second night of X Games Austin at Circuit of the Americas on Friday night with a greatest hits compilation that was, true to expectations, very pink and very … butts.
(There were a lot of butts.)
But decked out in a thematically appropriate checkered catsuit and a plume-like high ponytail that was essentially her co-star, Minaj projected the sense of “more” behind her pop show spectacle from the moment she strutted on stage. She flashed a naked ring finger and a knowing smile at the same time, alluding to (or trolling about) rumors of her break-up from rapper Meek Mill. That was merely a stray spark of empowerment. With the momentum of a Big Air skater, Minaj shot feminist rockets straight through a cloud of bro-centric adrenaline all evening.
Spitting lines like “ain’t gotta rely on top 40, I am a rap legend/Just go ask the kings of rap, who is the queen” on “Feeling Myself,” or like “I ain’t never need a man take care of me” on “Truffle Butter,” Minaj’s unimpeachable self-esteem became her audience’s. The camera panned liberally across the front row of the crowd, flashing the faces of young men and women throwing their heart into every word of Minaj’s lyrical braggadocio like they wrote it about themselves.
As cheesy as it sounds, an early set performance of “Moment 4 Life,” with its celebration of rising from humble beginnings and achieving your wildest dreams, seemed sincerely inspirational. That performance in particular showed a side of Minaj that we don’t see much of anymore, and that’s her multi-dimensionality. There’s the Nicki that barks orders to “SING” with an aggro-growl; there’s the Nicki that throws cute, cheerful waves to her fans in seemingly genuine shared glee; most thrillingly, there’s the Nicki with the hard-and-fast staplegun flow. It’s reductive to look at the many faces of Minaj as a frenetic gimmick. In the trappings of a Formula One track, an artist pointing out the simple defiance of being a confident, successful woman on loop seems satisfyingly political. Why choose a single version of oneself? Be all of them — in one song, if Minaj had her druthers.
Minaj further authored her guide to self-actualization as the night progressed: Growl through sneering, macho performances of “Did It On ‘Em” and “Beez In the Trap”; after that, throw yourself fully into the posterior celebrating abandon of “Dance (A$$)” and “Anaconda”; in between, sandwich a reminder of your own confidence by performing “***Flawless (Remix)” without Beyonce anywhere to be found. You an A-lister; you a paid sister.
The back half of the show bookended the gamut of Minaj’s versatility between two of her biggest pop hits. (The only way, frankly, to return from a break is with “Superbass.”) Bringing two young fans on stage to perform a number after that was reliably heartwarming. It was also heartwarmingly subversive, as she passed her mic to a young man and urged him to be “the male Nicki Minaj.” Minaj reserved her dance stylings, which turned out to be markedly Rihanna-esque, primarily for “Pinkprint” standout “Trini Dem Girls.” After burning through the forgettable “Va Va Voom” and a “Pound the Alarm” sadly plagued by technical problems, Minaj gave her fans what they always want more of, especially given her career-spanning predilection for relying on pop hooks: a lot of fierce rhymes. The night’s bucket list moment was definitely an a capella ride on her career-making verse from Kanye West’s “Monster,” for which she gave an elated audience ample opportunity to jump in. Featured flows from Drake’s “Up All Night” and “Make Me Proud” completed a trifecta of emcee perfection that cut through the show’s production so very satisfyingly. (And man, that Dolly Parton line from the latter song kills live.)
Bringing her show full circle by bringing Meek Mill out for “Ima Boss” (spoiler: Nicki is the boss, they both agreed), Minaj imparted parting advice on her audience before launching into an overtime set-closer. Now, there’s an excellent chance that the whole shebang is carefully scripted, as Minaj is a globally touring entertainer with a high production value shows. But to see an audience of younger people so obviously wearing her confidence as their own, it was hard not to feel like the girl from Queens who made good meant every word: Stay in school. Don’t have a job — have a career. And most resonantly: “If you’re a female, don’t ever depend on a man for (expletive).” She didn’t stop there. After a fluffy “Starships” that took on a little more meaning than it usually might, Minaj brought her backup singer out to belt the chorus of “The Night Is Still Young” and remind everyone of something important: “You’re worth someone that’s gonna treat you special.”
Is it any wonder that a mob of teenagers chased a black SUV into the dark of the Elroy night after the show, just on the off chance that the queen of rap might be inside?