"They be like 'What you doin' Nicki?' Branding."- Up in Flames

There’s a blurry clip from “The Come Up” DVD series on YouTube where a younger, wavy-haired Nicki Minaj clutches a Baby Phat purse with curved acrylic tips and tries to rap her way out of a project staircase. You can’t see her ass or her chest. Her clothes (and door knockers) were the same as any other Queens girl. What you can see is the same talent that attracted the eye of Deb Antney and, later, Lil Wayne. If you can’t see that talent, you’re blind—and this is coming from someone who is often conflicted about whether or not I am a Nicki Minaj fan. Turns out a lot of people are, too. Scroll down the YouTube page and you’ll see a bunch of comments like “RIP old Nicki :'(” and “Where this girl go?”

I was wondering the same thing.

After doing a double-take on Nicki’s early Young Money verses, I, like many, became a Nicki Minaj supporter. Then, out came the vinyl costumes and pounds of fluorescent make up, along with songs like "Starships" and "Superbass." The excitement I felt about a new female rapper quickly disappeared, and I wrote Nicki off as another chick passing off as an artist trying to make a quick buck. I couldn't knock her, but I lost interest. Recently, however, just as quickly as Nicki flipped that pop switch, she's washed off her face paint and replaced the costumes with couture fits. Just like that, she's a rapper again.

From jump, Nicki has been criticized for swiping multiple pages out of Lil' Kim's book. When those comparisons wore thin, everyone decided it was Lady Gaga she was biting. But the mark of any great artist, and intelligent business person, is the ability to adapt. Just look at Jay Z.

In the '90s, Kim's lisp-like flow and eagerness to talk about her pussy were accentuated by her colorful oversexed style. As far as post-modern rap is concerned, Kim represented women by empowering them through her giving a remarkable lack of fucks—whether it was through her music or her neon wigs or her nipple stickers. She took a stab at pop with "Lady Marmalade," and despite being the first female rapper to have a No. 1 song on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, she never completely crossed over into the mainstream. Maybe that’s why she decided to chisel her cute Brooklyn-girl face only to end up with a grill people now have a hard time looking at. Instead of doubling down on her core fanbase she jumped off the deep end.

Lady Gaga, like Nicki, is lambasted for a lack of originality. But Gaga's over the top, alien-like fashion sense was all her own. She caught everyone's attention by wearing everything from floor-length wigs to ass-out leotards. Her timing was perfect. Her success seemed unattainable by any other female artist save for Adele. Then I realized that she absolutely sounds like Madonna, and I got tired of hearing about that damn meat dress. Turns out I wasn’t alone. How did Gaga attempt to stay relevant? She became an almost unrecognizable man at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards and a couple years later, birthed a giant bubble. 'Lame,' I thought, along with everyone else, as her career took a nose dive.

And just when it seemed like everyone was tiring of the antics, the voices, and the ultraviolet wigs, and it looked as if Nicki was going to fail in the same way Gaga has, she morphed back into herself—a gutter, black-haired chick from Queens who raps her ass off. Except this is not the old Nicki. She's in a new movie with Cameron Diaz. She's more mature, more rich, more stylish, and more interesting. That plasticky Barbie persona, the annoying Roman character, and her American Idol bid, may have disappointed rap fans, but it made her a fucking household name. And now that most of America—or the world, rather—is in her vortex, Nicki is going natural and is back to scoop up her original fans. In a short time, Nicki achieved the versatility that took Queen Latifah over 20-some odd years. Nicki can literally do (and wear) whatever the hell she wants. We should all be thankful that she's decided to come back to rap. —Shannon Marcec (@HailNails