Nicki Minaj’s fourth studio album Queen is made up of many heterogeneous parts — there’s the stentorian, bold rap punchlines that comprise the album’s belly, then there are the avant-garde flows, callbacks to past artists, and various types of singing hybrids that make up the rest. The collective critical response to the album has been varied, ranging from the album being her career-best to the most forgettable. The sheer amount of conversation surrounding the album’s release and the dissection of every punch line and the possible women that she could be aiming her sharp lyrics at highlighted the precarious balance involving her evolution and her dormancy. Her stagnancy, or lack of musical maturity, has long been one of the knocks on her career. But in a rap industry that, due to sexism, only gives a select few women the ability to shine at a time, Queen shows that the drive to remain relevant is more important than critics’ wishes for maturation.

For an artist that gets cut no slack for criticizing women in the industry, Nicki has cosigned a lot of women. Although her and her obvious industry competition Cardi B. haven’t seen eye-to-eye for a little while, she spilled of her appreciation for the her in the past. In her April interview with Zane Lowe, she shouted out Ms. Banks, Asian Doll, Kash Doll, Maliibu Miitch, and Azealia Banks as women she considers to be up-and-coming inspirations to her. But at the same time, she’s made it clear that she holds herself higher. In her recent CRWN interview with TIDAL to celebrate the release of Queen, Nicki blatantly placed herself at the top of the ladder. “To me, it’s silly now to compare me to women. Because there’s no woman to come in right now that — not only cannot out rap me — but realistically can put up the stats that I’ve put up,” she said, confidently. She manages to balance her maternal, for-the-people persona as well as her boastful, confidence-in-abundance one as well.

The need for both personalities is because of the sexist, bullshit, music industry. Nicki delved into its problems late last year in a series of tweets after receiving praise from fellow rapper Russ. “In any field, women must work TWICE as hard to even get HALF the respect her male counterparts get. When does this stop?” she tweeted. She then continued on with some reflection on past collaborations with genre iconoclasts. “The greats collaborated with Drake, Kendrick, and Jcole b/c they’re dope MC’s. They collab’d w/ nicki cuz someone pulled a gun to their heads” she said before continuing on a new tangent. “Putting ppl in the same sentence as me after my 10 years of consistent winning. What are you teaching THEM? They’d never do this to a man.” The “ppl” she was probably referring to is none other than Cardi B. A relative newcomer to the rap scene, she’s been made to be Nicki’s equal, successor, and destroyer, even if she has no wish to be. But the industry refuses to let multiple women thrive at the same time, so narratives are created that ensure that a select few are in vogue at all times.

Nicki’s been in the rap game for over 15 years —  long before she became the Barbie that has continuously exercised control over pop culture. She started with the Brooklyn group Full Force and even recorded an entrance theme for Lise Marie Varon of WWE in 2004. She linked up with Lil Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment label officially in August of 2009, and, ever since then, she’s been one of the most iconic artists in the world. She’s a callous rapper, but also a deft singer. “Super Bass” is probably one of the best examples of her earliest pop outings. Over the course of her career, she’s experimented with a number of sounds — there’s the bubble-gum pop “Pills N Potions,” the hard-hitting nostalgic rap of “Moment For Life,” the sneaking trap sounds of “Beez in the Trap,” and the smooth in-between genre liminal space of “Bed.” Her power doesn’t come as just a rapper, but also as an all-encompassing artist that can tackle an array of fields.

Many of the women that come into the industry idolize Nicki’s domineering run. Asian Doll proudly exclaimed that she was the first to do it — even if many of rap’s current cast of up-and-comers give praise to her pioneering run. Their styles often fall under an umbrella of something that Nicki’s already done. The exaggerated caricature of craziness that Asian Doll does, Nicki’s early career was comprised of. The sneaky, mature brilliance that Maliibu Miitch’s quiet raps brings to the table, Nicki’s current music already imbues. Those quick to dismiss these artists as Nicki clones aren’t truly seeing the bigger picture. It’s not that Nicki’s influence is infiltrating the air, it’s smothering it. With her hand in every creative avenue, it’s harder for up-and-comers to commandeer the spotlight.

Cardi B, for all intents and purposes, is focused on rap and rap alone. In her social media rise and splendor, she’s managed to become a central figure of rap’s female conversation. In a rare turn of events, she’s been able to exist with Nicki as one of female rap’s current elite. Amidst the constant barbs that the media places between them, both women are able to thrive despite Cardi’s style holding some spiritual similarities to Nicki’s. This is a rare instance of an artist slipping out from under a main artist’s shadow and existing independently. Nicki’s panic could come from the fact that she knows that the industry won’t allow this to continue; this subtle shift must mean that her relevancy must be waning. So, for her fourth studio album, she had to show the fans, and the industry, more of what they know.

Queen’s rollout has been like the album, focused on delivering shocks. There’s the charged interview with Funkmaster Flex that throws fresh shots at other female rappers’ writing accusations to guard her relevancy. Then there’s the attack on Safaree that generated more conversation about Tyga’s hairline than the former’s revelation of domestic violence. But the album’s first week sales, the lowest of her career. The decline of interest in her fourth studio album comes in the same year that Cardi’s debut Invasion Of Privacy sold 103k, coincidently following Nicki Minaj to become the fifth female rapper to top the Billboard 200. Nicki’s narrative seems to be on the way out.

Perhaps, that’s what makes Queen both a thrilling album to fans looking for more of the same, and depressing for critics that were expecting some kind of growth. In her attempt to continue commanding all lanes of music and give something that rekindles fan fascination that existed with her earliest work, she’s on the precipice of delivering some discouraging numbers. She’s shown, throughout her career, that she’s far from stagnant. She knows the ins and outs of the game so well that she can confidently call out the industry on its bullshit. Her music is a reflection of the industry’s attempt to control the flow of women that it allows in and out. But over time, growth becomes a factor in an artist’s evolution — one that relevancy is nearly always at odds with. Maybe the sales of Queen indicate that growth is really what the public wants to see from her. They could also indicate that the public continues to buy into the “one woman at a time” narrative that the industry pushes, meaning that Nicki’s fighting a losing battle. Or maybe, just maybe, Queen just isn’t that good of an album.

If one thing can be taken from this fiasco of a year involving Nicki Minaj’s name in near every headline involving another female rapper, it’s that the title she holds is still firmly hers. The possible dangers that come with the passage of time and perceived quality of music may be threatening to destabilize her empire, but she doesn’t appear to be alarmed, publicly at least. But let the numbers tell it, Nicki has to figure out something — fast. If she wants to bust this industry’s feminine blackball wide open, she has to figure out the way to make all sides happy.

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