"Barbie Dreams": Nicki Minaj
Production: Tumblin' Dice and Mel & Mus
With Nicki only recently cleared of copyright infringement over an unreleased interpolation of a Tracy Chapman track, it feels like a pertinent time to reconsider sampling's role in hip-hop. Often considered the bedrock of a genre marked by intertextuality, sampling provides the artist with an opportunity to re-contextualize, re-voice, and re-possess. In the case of female rap, there is often a more powerful undertone.
"Barbie Dreams" (off the same album that spawned this copyright case) is as good a place to start as any. Based off Biggie's 1994 track "Just Playing (Dreams)", Nicki starts off by paying homage to the track's original narrator - "R.I.P to B.I.G" - before then adopting his template by listing the rappers in the game she would like to "give some babies". That is where the comparisons between the two songs end. Where Nicki's version is witty and playful - "Drake worth a hundred mill, always buying me shit/but I don't know if the pussy wet or if he crying and shit" - Biggie's original is offensive and downright vile - "Make Raven Symoné call daterape...smack Tina Turner give her flashbacks of Ike" (Raven Symoné was 9 years old at the time). After a similarly unpleasant hook - "Dreams of fucking an RnB bitch" - Biggie covers his tracks with the sample "I'm just playing/but I'm saying". Effectively the 90s version of "boys will be boys", this line acts to excuse him for his language, whilst the sampled effect provides a further layer of distance.
Nicki, though, is keen to stress that she too is 'just playing'. Since the song's release she has reiterated her respect for Biggie as a rapper who "had a sense of humor", deflecting from questions that imply that her music has any deeper message. Her playful attitude, together with her brash personae, often conceal the layers of wit and subtlety that underpin her art. Sampling and interpolation are skills that she has returned to frequently in order to subvert the hypermasculinity that frequently enshrouds hip-hop, and tribunals attempting to stifle that artistic freedom in this climate are straightforwardly dangerous. Where Biggie's samples act to distance, Nicki (and her more recent pupils Cardi and Megan) use interpolation as a site for sexual repurposing, as they give new voices to old phrases.