Truth over friendship

Recent tweets by Nicki Minaj and Meek Mill (both left) have drawn responses from fellow artists Taylor Swift (top) and Drake (above).
Recent tweets by Nicki Minaj and Meek Mill (both above) have drawn responses from fellow artists Taylor Swift and Drake.PHOTOS: REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Recent tweets by Nicki Minaj and Meek Mill (both left) have drawn responses from fellow artists Taylor Swift (top) and Drake (above).
Recent tweets by Nicki Minaj and Meek Mill have drawn responses from fellow artists Taylor Swift (above) and Drake.PHOTOS: REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Recent tweets by Nicki Minaj and Meek Mill (both left) have drawn responses from fellow artists Taylor Swift (top) and Drake (above).
Recent tweets by Nicki Minaj and Meek Mill have drawn responses from fellow artists Taylor Swift and Drake (above).PHOTOS: REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Hip-hop's Nicki Minaj and Meek Mill have no qualms speaking their minds

NEW YORK • Last week was a week for rumbles, for striking back at unchallenged wisdom.

Sometimes the desire to speak truth to power is so strong, it outweighs any backlash that such interjections might cause. Sometimes that is exactly the point.

Witness the recent conflagrations initiated by Nicki Minaj and Meek Mill. They have been an item for months and are on tour together.

Last Tuesday, both took to Twitter with fast, feeling-motivated fingers. She was concerned about how the media normalises and rewards certain types of beauty above others; he was focused on preserving truthfulness in a genre that has long prized it.

As the smoke cleared, it became evident that hip-hop's most prominent new couple are also the new ethics police, animated by principle and standing firm and tall.

Minaj went first. On Tuesday, after not receiving an MTV Video Music Award nomination for Video of the Year, she underscored what she believed was a persistent bias in the kind of videos that receive attention.

"If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year," she wrote on Twitter.

She was aggrieved but cool, reasonably assailing the ways in which the mainstream often diminishes the work of black women.

One of the nominated videos was singer Taylor Swift's model-filled Bad Blood - Minaj did not mention it directly, but Swift did the work for her.

Shortly after Minaj's tweet, Swift, seemingly in a spasm of if-the- tweet-fits pique, replied: "I've done nothing but love & support you. It's unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot."

Cue earthquake.

Swift was quickly given a lesson in intersectional feminism, which highlights the fact that women of different backgrounds experience oppression differently.

Minaj had not been pitting woman against woman - she had been highlighting the failures of an ostensibly fair system.

By framing Minaj's critique as an attack only on her own success, it was Swift who ended up causing friction.

Again, in response, Minaj was cool, reasonable: "Huh? U must not be reading my tweets. Didn't say a word about u. I love u just as much. But u should speak on this."

This was an invitation, not a provocation.

Swift's gaffe underscores the limitations of public displays of affinity as compared with public (or private, for that matter) challenges to systems that exist to further privilege for those already in possession of it.

Even her follow-up mea culpa, telling Minaj: "If I win, please come up with me!! You're invited to any stage I'm ever on" - relies on that same currency (and also on Swift's victory). Friendship has value, but it is not a panacea.

Later on Tuesday night, Meek Mill decided he did not have much use for friends. In a hail of tweets, he accused rapper Drake of relying on a ghostwriter for the verse he rapped on Meek Mill's latest album, Dreams Worth More Than Money.

"He ain't even write that verse on my album and if I woulda knew I woulda took it off my album... I don't trick my fans! Lol," he said on Twitter.

Ghostwriting has a long and semi-secretive history in hip-hop. It is still largely perceived as taboo, even if some of rap's biggest stars rely on collaborators for lyric ideas.

In this case, Quentin Miller, the rapper Meek Mill identified as the behind-the-scenes assister, is a credited songwriter on several songs on Drake's recent album, If You're Reading This It's Too Late.

By Wednesday night, Meek Mill had apologised to Minaj onstage at their tour stop in Virginia - she and Drake are friends and labelmates. There they were, two lovers answering to each other and no one else. She petted him eagerly, like a hungry cat.

Unsurprisingly, Swift and Drake are similar targets. They are widely admired and commercially successful, and also loathed in some corners for what might be termed an excess of sincerity.

Each has turned that earnestness, which could be a liability, into an asset.

Drake weaves it into his music; you (generally) cannot reveal something about him he has not already revealed himself. Swift never appears anything less than enthused and gracious in public.

For both of them, friendship - or the appearance of it - is essential to the expansion of their empires.

Swift has lately publicly embraced supermodels (Karlie Kloss, Lily Aldridge), other singers (Selena Gomez, Lorde), actresses (Hailee Steinfeld, Sarah Hyland) and even hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar.

A cynical read is that these connections have been a way to shift conversation away from her relationships, which for a few years drowned out most other public discourse around her. Alternately, it is not inconceivable to believe that all those people (and millions more) would jump at the chance to be her friend.

Her alliances are social and Instagram-friendly.

Drake's, though, are professional and sonic. Several times in the past few years, he has identified impressive young artists early and found a way to collaborate, either by bringing them into the studio or by offering his services for a remix, as he has done with Future, iLoveMakonnen, Migos, Fetty Wap and others.

If Drake and Swift excel at currying favour and finding common ground, Minaj and Meek Mill have walked bolder, at times lonelier, paths.

Collecting friends far and wide is not their goal.

Minaj has long pointed out what she perceives as mistreatment or hypocrisy in the music business. Meek Mill, one of the last remaining mainstream rappers still loyal to the street rap of the 1990s, has barely tweaked his approach in search of wider acclaim.

Those principles serve as nourishment, and also as weapons - compromise is the enemy.

Drake has hit back at Meek Mill by releasing a song, Charged Up. "Wow, I'm honoured that you think this is staged," he raps.

As for Swift, she took to Twitter last Thursday to apologise for her misstep.

"I thought I was being called out. I missed the point, I misunderstood, then misspoke. I'm sorry, Nicki."

Maybe she will get her friend back or maybe she will get schooled on what friendship could really mean.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2015, with the headline 'Truth over friendship'. Print Edition | Subscribe