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Cardi B vs. Nicki Minaj: The truth about hip-hop's most colorful female rivalry is more complicated than it looks

While the comparison may seem obvious, it’s actually an unfair one.
Cardi B and Nicki Minaj
Heavy lies the head that wears the (hip-hop) crown.Franziska Barczyk / for NBC News

On July 11, artist Cardi B and husband Offset, part of the hip-hop trio Migos, publicly welcomed their first child together, daughter Kulture Kiara Cephus. News of the Bronx rapper’s delivery, which actually occurred the day before, spread fast; in just 12 hours it racked up nearly 6 million likes on Instagram and trended on Twitter for hours. As far as major releases go, it was yet another success for the stripper-turned-social media personality-turned-reality star-turned-rapper-turned-national treasure.

Increasingly, days like these are becoming the norm for the 25-year-old star. Consider this: Within a 10-day span this month, Cardi B (real name: Belcalis Marlenis Almanzar) scored her second Hot 100 chart-topping hit (becoming the first female rapper to achieve the feat) while on the internet, a baby picture of her sparked the incredibly viral “My Momma Said” meme.

Professionally and personally, it’s good to be Cardi B right now.

This feels especially true when compared to Nicki Minaj. The burgeoning rivalry between the two women, whether real or exaggerated, has consumed the music community for weeks. Although Cardi B’s single “I Like It” may be flooding the airwaves right now, Minaj has been hip-hop’s leading lady for the better part of the past decade. The veteran rapper is also currently promoting her upcoming album, “Queen,” which is set to be released on Aug. 10. The title is revealing — expectations for the album are sky-high. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, indeed.

Minaj’s new singles, “Chun-Li” and “Barbi Tingz,” trended on impact in early April but both plateaued early, resulting in only tepid success beyond digital platforms. (To be fair, “Chun-Li” was a Top 10 hit but lacked the long-tail ubiquity of her past bangers; her latest single from “Queen,” the Ariana Grande-assisted “Bed,” is still bubbling but has yet to break through on the charts). Meanwhile, a recent scandal involving Minaj and a critic has attracted more bad publicity for the rapper. (In response to a blogger’s tweet that Minaj should seek out more mature subject matter, the artist sent the woman angry and obscene private messages. When those DMs become public, Minaj’s virulent fan community of “Barbz” attacked the blogger online, and she ultimately lost her job.)

So why exactly have things been so hard for Nicki and so seemingly gilded for Cardi?

There’s something particularly frustrating about the current attempt to pit these two talented women against each other.

While the comparison may seem obvious, it’s actually an unfair one. This country loves binaries, whether it’s in politics (Democrats or Republicans), sports (LeBron or Kobe) or entertainment (Kim Cattrall or Sarah Jessica Parker). Forget shades of grey, a color neither Minaj or Cardi would be caught dead in anyway. But there’s something particularly frustrating about the current attempt to pit these two talented women against each other.

Historically, there hasn’t been the fan (or critical) bandwidth to accept multiple female lyricists at one time. As much as we compare Drake with Kendrick Lamar, plenty of other male artists, including J. Cole, Nipsey Hussle, Kanye West and Pusha T, among others, have all enjoyed their own time in the sun this year. For men in hip-hop, it seems there is plenty of room and critical attention to go around.

To be clear, there’s many talented women in hip-hop right now: Minaj, Cardi, Rapsody, Stefflon Don, Saweetie, Rico Nasty, etc. — they just aren't getting equal attention. And those who do break through are to often treated as rivals from the jump. Indeed, the Minaj-Cardi narrative has gotten so intense that fans now pick through their lyrics looking for subliminal disses, even after both have issued denials and even praise for each other. Add in the peanut gallery of social media and the rise of urban gossip blogs, and the shade feels never-ending.

If, though, there was ever a moment to pinpoint when the dueling narratives of Cardi B and Nicki Minaj were solidified, it was after the pair’s only music collaboration. As featured artists on Migos’ track “MotorSport,” the two supernovas finally collided for the first time in both the song and music video. The collaboration wasn’t supposed to be a confrontation, although many people read it that way anyway — sparking a whole new wave of speculation about the pair’s relationship. It was a monumental moment, to say the least.

Cardi’s boisterous verse bolstered her momentum as she headed toward her debut LP. It positioned her, at least for the song’s five minutes, as an equal to the queen. Minaj, meanwhile, solidified her reputation as a song-stealing superstar. What could have been a win-win for both, however, quickly turned into controversy and confusion in the aftermath of the single’s release. Were they purposefully dissing each other? Had they seen each other's verses beforehand? Was this an indication of bad blood or was it all just a misunderstanding?

Cardi was candid. Minaj was defensive.

It was, in some respects, a snapshot of the pair’s fundamental personality differences. Whereas Cardi wears honesty well and oozes charm, Minaj can come across as petty when she engages in fights that feel unbecoming, especially considering her stature. In this case, Minaj ended up looking like the more accomplished rapper, perhaps, but one visibly uncomfortable with the thought of another planet entering her previously empty solar system.

Whereas Cardi wears honesty well and oozes charm, Minaj can come across as petty when she engages in fights that feel unbecoming.

The two have patched things up, by all accounts. However in the wake of the kerfuffle, their paths diverged.

Cardi has capitalized on the narrative of the new, rising underdog, championed in countless profiles for her scrappy personality and screwball seduction. Her success is still shiny and increased scrutiny hasn’t led to much meaningful backlash, despite her omnipresence and periodic lack of a filter. And to be clear, Cardi has taken advantage of every opportunity afforded her, displaying a talent for getting along with pretty much anyone. Just ask John Mulaney. It helps that her debut project, “Invasion of Privacy,” is legitimately among the year’s bests.

Meanwhile, Minaj has had an uneven couple of years. After three multi-platinum albums and seven consecutive wins at the BET Awards for Best Female Hip-Hop Artist, Minaj took a break at the end of 2017. The sabbatical came in the aftermath of her high-profile break-up with the pugnacious Meek Mill, which followed the implosion of her relationship with her former hype man, Safari. (She rapped about the latter split on 2014’s “Pinkprint.”)

Just in time for Cardi B’s ascendance, Minaj is back, with mounting expectations. Some of these are warranted — Minaj is an institution unto herself and has for many years doubled as the primary foundation for women’s hip-hop. She’s also judicious with her appearances. She doesn’t need to court the media because the media already scrutinizes her every move. But this scarcity also benefits Cardi B, who has moved into the vacuum left by Minaj’s relative absence.

Ultimately, it’s always harder for the person already at the top than the one still climbing the mountain. The criticism can be cutting. The judgment unforgiving. But remember this: Without Nicki Minaj, Cardi B likely wouldn’t be able to flow so effortlessly between her colorful personas: one minute raunchy and the next charmingly proper. And without Cardi B, Nicki Minaj would have no one to compete against but herself, forever haunted and restricted by her past body of work.

For now, Minaj's Aug. 10 album release looms large. Perhaps the title of Queen of Hip-Hop really is about to move zip codes. Or perhaps there’s room for more than one crown in this kingdom.

Jayson Rodriguez is a veteran hip-hop journalist who has held staff positions at XXL, Vibe, MTV News and freelanced for Rolling Stone, Complex and others. Currently, he is a video producer at Vevo. He tweets at @jaysonrodriguez.