Hip-hop makes everything better

I don’t really like R&B that much. It isn’t that I have anything against R&B, but I don’t seek it out or follow developments in the genre. When I do encounter R&B in its purest forms, I tend to think it is more silly than anything, and I change the station or skip the track with a bemused shake of my head.

But then I listen to something like Harajuku R&Barbie, the new mixtape by Nicki Minaj, an up-and-coming female MC from New York, signed with Lil Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment label. It is a good album, filled remixes of familiar poppy tracks like “Single Ladies,” “Beautiful Nightmare” and “Shopaholic.” Many rappers, when they use a beat for a mixtape, will cut it down to the basic instrumentals. Nicki’s mentor Lil Wayne stripped all vocals but his own when repurposing well known beats for his 2009 mixtape No Ceilings. Nicki Minaj hasn’t done that here, though. Most tracks are full-bodied with original vocals and an added rap verse by Nicki. I got through half the album, happily bobbing my head while I work, before I take a closer look at the mixtape title and realise, “I’ve been tricked! This is all R&B!”

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I’m not particularly interested in motown, but I still swoon to the motown-sampling beats in Kanye West’s early work. In fact, that is one of the great strengths of hip-hop as a genre: it can repurpose and repackage almost any kind of music through sampling, and give those songs new meaning, both for their original fans and for a whole new audience experiencing those sounds for the first time. Hip-hop isn’t just a genre; it is a unique way of approaching the world’s musical heritage. You find a few perfect seconds of Mozart or The Supremes or Lady Gaga or tribal drumming, loop it, throw a beat over it, and rap. A delicate art, reaching ever higher from the shoulders of giants.

These remixes don’t sample R&B, but inject a little bit or rap into a different (albeit related) genre. The nuances of these sorts of relationships are quite variety. But the point is: because the album had Nicki Minaj’s stamp on it, and because it was labeled as hip-hop, I didn’t think twice about enjoying songs that I might have turned my nose up at a bit if they came on the radio. Funny that.

And of course, Nicki Minaj is very talented. Poly-ethnic from Jamaica, Queens, her voice and style oscillates between traditional New York she-gangster and a more ambiguous international accent, not unlike M.I.A. Her flow and lyrics are both excellent — expect Nicki Minaj to blow up this year when her first solo studio album hits. Perhaps most importantly, Nicki knows how to integrate her raps seamlessly into the R&B swerves she is working with.

If you like either R&B or hip-hop, you may enjoy Nicki Minaj’s new mixtape, Harajuku R&Barbie, available free at: http://rapradar.com/2010/03/28/new-mixtape-nicki-minaj-harajuku-rbarbie/.

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