Last month, a YouTube video surfaced from an unknown Baltimore rapper. Identifying herself as Keys, the 20-year-old rapper took lyrical shots at Young Money recording artist, Nicki Minaj. Since the video’s inception, the Web exploded with criticism and praise for an obscure rapper bold enough to go for Minaj’s by-default crown.
Beyond Keys’ striking audaciousness, the rapper presents a significant contrast to Minaj’s now controversial image. Keys is understated and raw, reminiscent of female rappers proceeding her. Proclaiming an anti-commercial stance, backdrops to her posted videos reveals a gritty scene, ordinarily local as a gas station accompanied by the sonic howls of police sirens, symbolic of her devotion is to the ‘hood’. Keys’ strength is presented in the attention given to her witty lyricism. This is welcomed in an industry tormented by its chronic obsession with image.
On Sunday, Keys posted another lyrical attack in reply to Minaj’s “haters” video. After implying Minaj was a coward for referencing her without stating her name, Keys commenced into a freestyle now highly regarded by a slew of hip hop heads.
Keys’ stinging verbal threats at Minaj laden with profanities and insults stirs up a painful nostalgia of rap battles turned tragic, stripping the fun out of what used to be a light communal amusement. The kind of cultural performance art that drew crowds of spectators in anticipation for the next rhymes champ.
One of Keys’ largest criticisms suggests she is an unknown street rapper with no record deal in search of attention. But what makes Keys any different from male emcees who used lyrical attacks as strategic tools to secure notoriety and lucrative record deals? We can trace rap battles down to the very birth of the culture. Hip hop beef is precisely what put KRS-One among other early rappers on the map.
The Boogie Down Production’s duo, KRS-One and DJ Scott La Rock’s “South Bronx” and “The Bridge is Over”, a diss at DJs Mr. Magic and Marley Marl is considered one of the greatest records in hip hop history. Not only was KRS-One praised for his rhyme skill, his ability to battle single-handedly placed him on the map. Rapper 50 Cent got his come up by slamming established rappers like DMX and Jay Z on his underground track, “How to Rob.” In 1999 at Hot 97’s Summer Jam, Jay Z’s notorious response,”I’m about dollars, who the f*ck is 50 Cent?” was supportive in galvanizing exposure for the now widely successful Queen’s rapper. In the documentary Beef, 50 Cent admits to later sending Jay Z a bottle of champagne, grateful that a concert of nearly 30,000 people was introduced to his name.
Like it or not, beef is unofficially hip hop’s 10th element. Key’s attack on Minaj falls in the tradition of hip hop. Although many of us become bothered at the thought of hip hop beef due to the murders of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G followed by several violent incidents involving different rappers. Nas and Jay Z have demonstrated that no matter how vicious content becomes on wax, beef has the ability to end peacefully.
Let’s remember that rap battle is one of hip hop’s rawest features. Nicki Minaj’s opposition is only fair. Not because of Nicki’s often contested appearance and content, but because its proven to be a natural occurrence in hip hop. Every emcee has a nemesis.
Could Keys become the next female emcee?