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Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj weave artistic weirdness with their music to stand out from their pop peers

Nicki Minaj performs at the 2010 Video Music Awards. Minaj recently released the music video for “Super Bass,” which features an ice sculpture motorcycle.
(MTV Press)

By Alex Goodman

May 8, 2011 11:15 p.m.

Last week, the two weird sisters of pop rode into town on the backs of motorcycles.

Nicki Minaj’s bike, in the video for her new single “Super Bass,” is an ice sculpture that doesn’t go anywhere, but she compensates by writhing upon it in a pink, leopard-print unitard. And Lady Gaga, in her video for “Judas,” hitches a ride with what appears to be the biker gang from “Sons of Anarchy” and crashes an ancient Rome-themed block party.

It’s tough to introduce these two women, who are each on the one hand very strange and on the other entrenched in the mainstream. Both of them are most daring when it comes the visual aspects of their careers, while sonically they work little flourishes into the templates already created for hip-hop, pop and dance music.

Minaj has steadily assimilated in the last two years, moving from attention-grabbing mix tapes and guest verses to the debut album “Pink Friday,” which revealed a penchant for lovely songs about romance. It was a surprising development, given how fond she is of morphing into strange accents and sounding psychologically unhinged.

That sense of danger earned her a spot at the big boys’ table, especially when she committed a verse to Kanye West’s song “Monster,” eclipsing the efforts of West, Jay-Z and Rick Ross.

Now she’s free to indulge her more agreeable impulses, and she only has to tap briefly into that old aggression to remind people she hasn’t gone soft.

“Super Bass,” a bonus track on “Pink Friday,” might be her most complete statement yet. The chorus is sugary delight, the kind you don’t mind getting stuck in your head.

But in the verses she still dips into a British accent and a deranged growl, playing with her words in a way that makes most male rappers these days seem boring. It’s the sound of an artist reconciling all her disparate parts, and it’s a wonderful thing.

Not to mention, she looks positively gorgeous. This being Minaj, though, she’s as comfortable flaunting unzipped jean shorts as she is a wig that appears to be made out of seaweed.

The video goes about being unabashedly sexual in a way that’s all her own. Granted, there’s plenty of gyrating, booty-popping and Minaj pouring pink liquid down her scantily clad chest ““ right in line with the status quo for pop sexuality. But there are also nearly naked men used as eye candy, the way women usually are in hip-hop videos.

And sometimes it’s just weird: For the final minute of “Super Bass,” Minaj and her backup dancers perform in the dark, done up in blacklight paint. The last shot is of Minaj flashing her eyes at the camera, like a twisted homage to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

Gaga, of course, has been angling for some time to be Madonna’s heir, and “Judas” should only reinforce her place atop the line of succession.

If nothing else, Gaga has perfected the art of the spectacle. She now seems to create them on an assembly line: the Grammy performance, the “Born This Way” video, the Ellen DeGeneres Show appearance, the “Judas” video.

The latest came on Saturday night, with the debut of her “Monster Ball” special on HBO. Gaga’s videos may be darker than Minaj’s, but during the special, which captured her final performance at Madison Square Garden, she reminded us that what she really wants to be is inspirational.

Gaga didn’t have anything new to say ““ there was a lot of conflating sex with religion, and plenty of talk about loving and accepting oneself. But now that she’s raised herself up to the heights of international stardom, she wants to turn the spotlight toward the audience, and bring all her “little monsters” along with her.

By the time the album “Born This Way” comes out on May 23, she’ll no doubt have devised some newly elaborate method for sharing those same feelings.

And therein lies the key difference between these two women. While Gaga is constantly searching for new ways to shock us and outdo herself, to reach more people and conquer more of the world, Minaj is moving toward a state of equilibrium. She staked out her own claim in the crowded landscape of pop culture and, for now, she’s holding her ground.

If “Super Bass” is your new jam, email Goodman at [email protected].

“Pop Psychology” runs every Monday.

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Alex Goodman
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