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It’s been three years since Nicki Minaj released The Pinkprint, a comprehensive, often contemplative album which saw the artist bare her soul more than ever before. In the time since, fans have waited impatiently for a follow-up, one which was finally introduced last week; taking to social media for the first time in three months, Minaj announced the new singles “Chun-Li” and “Barbie Tingz” as well as a rare feature-length interview. #NickiDay immediately began trending worldwide, demonstrating an international hunger for new music. Luckily, Nicki didn’t disappoint.

“Chun-Li”, named after Street Fighter’s trailblazing martial arts expert, is a shit-talking masterpiece which draws parallels between Minaj and the iconic character. This a statement in and of itself: Chun-Li is often cited as one of the first video game heroines to avoid the stereotypical roles of girlfriend, onlooker, and wallflower. Instead, she kicked, chopped and grappled her way to legendary status, all the while seeking to avenge the death of her father.

Minaj is equally legendary, rising from unknown protegé to international star in the midst of a commercial drought for women in rap, most of whom have only been taken seriously with a high-profile co-sign. Despite coming up under Lil Wayne, Minaj has undeniably exceeded expectations and gained a reputation as one of the best in the business, regardless of gender. She proved this once and for all back in 2010 with her seminal “Monster” verse, which saw her annihilate a track which featured the likes of Kanye West, JAY-Z, and Rick Ross.

As well as name-dropping other fictional bad bitches – including Storm and Lara Croft – Minaj also spits: “They need rappers like me / So they can grab their fucking keyboards and make me the bad guy / Chun-Li.” This is a clear, unambiguous reference to the ‘Nicki hate parade’ she discusses openly in the aforementioned interview. Amongst expected conversations about the new record (which she describes as “the best of her life”), her own record label, and an upcoming documentary, the star speaks in detail about the media beatdown of her character and, more specifically, her alleged beef with Cardi B.

In an uncharacteristic display of raw emotion, Minaj tears up while explaining the controversy surrounding their recent Migos collaboration, “MotorSport”. Speaking candidly, she describes feeling hurt by an interview Cardi gave after the track’s official release: “She looked so aggravated and angry, and the only thing she kept saying was ‘I didn’t hear that verse.’”

A leaked snippet of Minaj’s initial lyrics revealed a complementary reference to Cardi, which, she later claimed online, was removed at the request of Cardi’s label, creating a drama which Minaj said left her feeling burned. She does repeatedly state that the duo have since made amends, but her disappointment was exacerbated by Quavo’s subsequent refusal to defend her online. “It hurt my feeling to know that people would watch me be slaughtered and not one person will step in to say the truth. They will allow people to run with that lie because it’s entertaining to make Nicki seem like the bad guy.”

The last few years in particular have seen Minaj subjected to a media-led character assassination, which is unsurprising given the industry’s misogynistic tendency to pit women against each other. She’s been described as ‘rude,’ ‘bossy,’ and a ‘bitch,’ all of which are laden with gendered connotations she famously underlined in her iconic ‘pickle juice’ monologue. Over the last year, coverage has escalated further thanks to her well-documented Remy Ma beef, involvement with H&M, and controversial – but entirely true – comments on white rappers, all of which stoked the flames of an anti-Minaj fire.

These conversations too often overshadow discussions of her skill and unprecedented success, a fact she highlights on “Barbie Tingz”. Sounding hungrier, more confident and more self-assured than ever before, Minaj flexes and taunts both her haters and her imitators: “Want the Nicki cheat code? Come on bitch, nice try.” It’s a seemingly effortless return to the minimal beats and hard-hitting rhymes of her early mixtape days, recently forecasted by her scene-stealing features on remixes of Farruko’s “Krippy Kush” and A$AP Ferg’s “Plain Jane”.

Although it’s common practice for artists to hype up their new projects, it’s hard not to believe Nicki when she says this upcoming work will be her best – especially now that “Chun-Li” and “Barbie Tingz” have given us hard evidence. Better still, she now has a truly redemptive arc. It may have only been a few years since her last full-length release but, despite sporadic tracks appearing, this gap in time has seen focus shift from her musical abilities to her character and reputation. On numerous occasions, she’s been branded as arrogant and confrontational for simply owning her achievements and demanding her worth, both descriptors laced with misogyny, as detailed in a recent in-depth piece by writer Killian Wright-Jackson.

These claims also gain new weight in the context of hip-hop’s erasure of women; recent Netflix documentary The Defiant Ones briefly brought this to light, highlighting that JJ Fad, an all-woman rap group, essentially bankrolled N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, yet they’re rarely discussed or acknowledged as truly influential. Minaj breaks with this tradition. Not only has she paved the way for a rap renaissance led by influential, groundbreaking women, she has waded through the bullshit levelled at her by press outlets and contemporaries determined to undermine her. Not only are “Barbie Tingz” and “Chun-Li” an undeniable return to form, they’re a timely mission statement conceived to crystallize Minaj’s reputation as one of the best to ever do it.

For more like this, read our break down of why the days of women needing a co-sign in rap may finally be ending here.

Words by Jake Hall