Ideally, Sunday’s news that Nicki Minaj will join a new group of new judges for this season’s American Idol — along with Mariah Carey and country singer Keith Urban — might be the start of an improvement in the rocky relationship between hip-hop and reality television. Save reality satires like those produced by Ego Trip (The White Rapper Show and Miss Rap Supreme), hip-hop fans have endured a specific kind of exploitative, buffonish trash. Shows like Flavor Of Love (in which the greatest hypeman of all time makes every Public Enemy show since then seem slightly absurd), T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle, and Ice Loves Coco, seem intent on cutting some of rap’s most larger-than-life personalities down to size.
Nicki Minaj is the first rap star to be involved with American Idol and that, in and of itself, is a victory. Plenty of cranks out there will mention that Minaj also sings, and does pop songs like “Starships” (which has plenty of rapping on it), and therefore doesn’t count as a real rapper anymore, but that’s obviously bunk. She’s a creative MC who knows her way around even the most cloying of hits; she actually seems to get an extra boost out of candied EDM production. Embracing pandering pop has afforded her success that she couldn’t have attained as just a rapper, but there is also a sense that Nicki nobly sacrificed some of her integrity for a chance to break through and make a difference. Rappin’-ass Nicki hovering just below the radar seems far less appealing than eccentric superstar Nicki infiltrating the Billboard charts.
That’s probably just a roundabout way of saying she sold out, but Jay-Z’s “I do this for my culture…” explanation from “Izzo (H.O.V.A),” comes to mind, as well. Minaj has endorsement deals and she’s made it onto the cover of mainstream magazines like Allure, and even fairly tasteful rags like W, both of which aren’t always interested in finding cover space for black women. See, I buy into this “bigger than hip-hop” stuff quite a bit, and her appearance on arguably the reality show seems like one more way for rap to get away with smuggling bits of subversive attitude into the most middle-American — and middling — type of entertainment.
Keith Urban as the third judge, however, is the very conservative, very vanilla pick that will counter Nicki. And that’s a disappointment, because rumors that Pharrell Williams or Kanye West were in the running seemed like an actual possibility once Minaj was on-board. Positioning three artists of color as pop-music decision-makers could have turned American Idol into a genuinely important show. Still, Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj on American Idol seems like a bold-enough temporary fix for the frustratingly white television landscape, though.
And Minaj is perfect for the show. As anyone who follows her on Twitter may recall, she took to live-Tweeting Jersey Shore, like so many other trashy TV-loving Americans. Her enthusiasm and affability certainly puts her in a different category than Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, the two high-profile judges who left after last season’s Idol. Lopez and Tyler seemed to view the show as a springboard for a comeback, which meant they were painfully aware of how they came off and what they said. They were using the show; they weren’t really part of it. Contrast that approach with NBC’s Idol rip-off The Voice, which succeeds because the judges — Cee-Lo, Adam Levine, Christina Aguiliera, Blake Shelton — are very much invested in the show. For those four, The Voice is an interesting, high-paying, profile-raising side hustle, not the chance to get a Moombahton-ish single on the radio or appear in a Burger King commercial.
The decision to pick up Nicki Minaj for Idol seems birthed out of that Voice strategy to skip desperate, attention-starved megastars of the past and go right to the successful musicians of right now, whose opinions and presence carry some real weight. Somewhere, a FOX producer probably sold Minaj to a roomful of suits as “the female Cee-Lo,” which superficially makes sense, at least. Though we will have to see how Minaj approaches the show, Cee-Lo’s move to successful TV and pop musician came about by smoothing over his edges and playing the role of babbling, ridiculously-outfitted eccentric who can sing really well. He got his Goodie Mob buddies on television but he did it by dressing them like C3PO and making sure there was no rap involved. It’s doubtful that Nicki, a very famous, very strange, and very good rapper who can sing, who performed an exorcism on stage at the Grammys, who released a genuinely schizophrenic album this year, will temper her approach. We may finally witness reality television helmed by a hip-hop personality large enough to break the rules.