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Maintain the Throne: Madonna and Nicki Minaj’s ‘I Don’t Give A’

Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

MDNA is Madonna’s modern day EDM exploration, past-present meta-pop career summation, and Lady Gaga beef record. Pitting female pop stars against each other is what goofy white males like myself seem to do often, and though I hesitate to continue such a dopey tradition, the annoying presence of Lady Gaga does hang over much of MDNA. Most explicitly on “I Don’t Give A,” a rap track that positions Nicki Minaj, not Gaga, as the brash, pop subversive in the tradition of Madonna. The song also finds Minaj testifying to Madonna’s significance, twice: “Ay yo Madonna, you the original: Don Dada,” Nicki shouts mid-verse; she ends the song declaring, “There’s only one Madonna, bitch.”

“I Don’t Give A” is Madonna’s rap song to all the “haters,” and addressing “haters” has become rap’s predominant narrative. The more explicitly pop hip-hop becomes, the further it shifts away from violence and hustling to a more generic sort of upward mobility filled with adversity, struggle (not “the struggle” which is sorely lacking in current rap), and people in your way. The less lived-in the narrative, the broader its appeal. Anybody can turn anybody else into a hater. It took some imagination to relate to say, 50 Cent’s Queens rap woes. So, Madonna applies the “haters” song formula to ex-husband Guy Ritchie and the tabloids, and allows guest rapper Nicki Minaj to slyly dismiss Gaga. Besides, Gaga’s a hammy vocalist and coffee-shop pianist in a superficially subversive package, while Nicki’s polarizing natural rapping talent and loopy theatricality feels Madonna-like.

This song sounds like the result of Madonna carefully observing current hip-hop and realizing that it’s now become acceptable to bemoan one’s fairly awesome life and remind listeners of how much money you have, at the same time. We’re in Drake territory when Madonna refers to the helicopter she takes instead of an elevator and the song exudes Sex & The City vibes instead of Entourage vibes. If I must choose, I prefer the former, and Madonna revealing that she didn’t have a prenuptial agreement, and beginning the song with “wake up, ex-wife, this is your life,” are both fairly devastating. The rapping here is pretty bad, but there’s a person, not a celebrity, rapping those lines, which is nice. And though her MC voice is weak and silly, it’s admirably her, which is impressive now that the the feigned “hood” accents of Iggy Azalea and Kreayshawn are in vogue. I would favorably compare Madonna’s verses to the much-maligned Uffie, who was also brave/stupid/smart enough to just rap about her annoying, first world problems with no pretense to being down.

Nicki Minaj’s verse improves upon Madonna’s in every way, as it should. The wealth boasts are witty, rather than priggish (“See, I really can’t relate to your Volvo / And you can’t get these shoes at Aldo”). And there’s a sharp contrast between Madonna, who is in the midst of chaos and adjustment, and Nicki, who oozes confidence and declares ownership of her career and love life: “When I let a dude go, that’s his loss / I was cutting them checks, I was his boss.” Nicki’s a female, pop provocateur with her shit together. Perhaps, there’s an instructive tale about the fate of females in popular music here, and that Nicki will eventually find herself in the creative bind Madonna’s in right now. But Nicki’s confidence and comfort and passive-aggressive Gaga barbs, function as a “thank you” to Madonna, who has made it that much easier for a transgressive oddball like Nicki Minaj to obtain pop star autonomy.