The union of hip-hop chart-toppers Nicki Minaj and Meek Mill was practically anticlimactic. Despite months of frenzy-fueling Instagram interactions and verses traded on Minaj’s The Pinkprint, the relationship’s official confirmation appeared in the form of a lone Instagram post on Mill’s feed in April. “Find you a woman that you think is strong enough to help you take over the world,” Mill exclaimed, and has since taken his own advice. Barring one engagement ring “controversy,” the relationship has produced intimate backstage shots, a summer single on Mill’s new project, Dreams Worth More Than Money, and a supporting spot for Mill on the North American leg of Nicki’s Pinkprint tour. Despite rumors of the contrary, it's even managed to outlast a beef with once-close collaborator, Drake.
It’s hard to believe that something so benign could stir up negativity. Perhaps the most expressive amongst all of hip-hop’s famous couples, Minaj and Mill still toe the line of privacy, opting most often for coy Instagram shots rather than any other display of intimacy. But when they appeared at the 2015 BET Awards sporting matching smiles, New Jersey native and Slaughterhouse member Joe Budden took to the “I’ll Name this Podcast Later” podcast to deliver a scathing take on the two’s public affection, citing Meek’s music as “too hard” for him to engage in “sappy f-ck shit” with Nicki. “Be the hardcore guy that I’m sure she was attracted to at some point,” Budden challenged, then later rescinded the comment after both Nicki and Meek responded on Twitter.
One could only wonder, then, what Budden thinks of two of the hottest singles on the charts right now: Omi’s horn-studded ”Cheerleader”—which peaked at the No. 1 spot earlier this month—and “ignorant R&B” connoisseur Fetty Wap, whose recently released “Again” marks his third love-tinged trap ballad to take the charts since 2014’s “Trap Queen.” The two songs differ greatly in style, but tie together ruminations of love and sometimes loss with pop sensibilities. Combined with Minaj and Mill’s fledgling summer smash, “All Eyez on You,” the singles point to a curious rise of the “Girlfriend” as both subject matter and contributor in contemporary hip-hop music.
The ever-popular “Sidepiece” or still-controversial “Hoe” remain current placeholders in today’s hip-hop music, but we’ve heard very little from the “Girlfriend” since the early 2000s. Then, it seemed impossible to hear of a hip-hop song without your favorite R&B songstress brandishing the role to regale tales of love and loss, and a duet could almost guarantee a hit. There was the steady-buzzing Jay Z replacing Jada on a Mya remix; Ja Rule sidled up to Ashanti and later J.Lo; Busta Rhymes and Janet Jackson (and later Mariah); and Nelly and Kelly Rowland, to name a few. Unlike today’s rap/R&B collaborations, rappers and R&B divas of the 2000s brought balanced relationships and heartbreak woes to the center stage for some of the decade’s biggest hits. “All Eyes on You” tentatively joins this legacy with a little help from Chris Brown, whose silky-smooth runs on the chorus bring home Meek’s ultimate claim: “All these bitches [in the club], but my eyes on you.”
What makes these songs so dynamic lies partially in the role of the “Girlfriend”: She raps, sings, and most importantly, tells her side of the story—sometimes directly to her partner. What results is a more complex representation of love, but also a collaboration based on both performers’ ability to bring a quality verse to the table. On “All Eyes on You,” Nicki and Meek recount finding each other while on top of their already-established pedestals. It’s not a hackneyed retelling of finding a baddie to “toot and boot” after the club so much as it’s an engagement built on mutual attraction and trust. Nicki pulls her weight in chinchilla furs and Maybachs, rapping “Now it’s all eyes on us/And this all lies on trust/[…]I put him onto that new new/Now he only rock exclusives.” Partly responsible for Mill’s glo-up, Nicki is clearly not a bystander in her own love story, but an equal participant and commentator, deserving of Meek’s love and—more importantly—his respect.
With this in mind, it doesn’t seem out of place to find a grinning Meek on Nicki’s arm. He’s dating one of the hottest and most successful rappers in the game right now and, underneath it all, a genuine, hardworking woman. Yet his unfiltered appreciation for Nicki is seen to many as “corny” at best, and a gaping weakness at worst. It lies in the midst of Meek’s recently-emerged beef with Drake, who delivered a soft jab via his “Charged Up” diss track, saying “No woman ever had me star struck/or was able to tell me to get my bars up,” as if we forgot that he admitted to being played by Rihanna in the New York Times. For his second diss track to Meek Mill, “Back to Back,” Drake again brought Minaj into the fray, using her massive success as fodder, going so far as telling Nicki to get a prenup.
Ironically, public affection for Nicki is one of the many threads connecting the two together. As of this summer, they both have starred as her love interests in videos, and have laid eager verses about her to tape. However, Drake’s subtle dig comes with the blow of hip-hop’s hypermasculinity attached: the idea that any woman—even powerhouse Nicki Minaj—could make more money than meek, or have Meek “slipping” is apparently enough for ridicule.
Budden’s opinion and Drake’s taunts are unfortunate in both stance and timing—maybe now, more than ever, we need Fetty’s “trap queen” and a grinning, crazy-in-love Meek Mill. So much about hip-hop’s look and sound has collectively changed since the early 2000s, including the way it views and speaks upon women: She can be, and often is, the muse for your favorite strip club smash or party fodder. But who says there can’t be a trap love song (or that there isn’t one out there already) full of booming 808s or shuttering snare drums? Each in their own way, Omi, Fetty, and Meek have tapped into a market that makes it “cool” to be in love again, and proves that there’s just enough room in hip-hop for your favorite gal by your side.
Michelle Ofiwe is a writer living Houston, Texas. Follow her @pettypizzapapi.