Nicki Minaj, Cardi B and the Thucydides Trap
“What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” — Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War.
Nearly 2,400 years on, Thucydides’s ruminations on the Peloponnesian War, an ancient Greek War fought between Athens and Sparta, continue to occupy the pent house of modern international relations theory. In a book that would serve as a “possession for all time”, Thucydides asserts in History of Peloponnesian War that Sparta is driven to war because of the perceived threat of Athens’s burgeoning empire. The ‘Thucydides Trap’, a term later coined by political scientist Graham T. Allison, reflected the inherent tension that existed between inchoate and developed state powers. ‘When a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power,’ wrote Allison, ‘war is almost always the result’.
Allison is judicious in his analysis of the historical examples of the Trap and portends a similar outcome for China and the US today, but he neglects to consider a more salient case. It is a case whimpering for attention like a malnourished poodle, but it is not until we tiptoe from Allison’s realpolitik into the hitherto unexplored hiphopitik that we arrive at two new names: Onika Tanya Maraj and Belcalis Marlenis Almánzar, better known as Nicki Minaj and Cardi B. While these two figures may not be state powers per se, Ms Minaj and Ms B fit snugly into the paradigm of the Thucydides Trap. Just as Athens’s growing military strength threatened war with Sparta, Cardi B’s meteoric rise has created a deep rift with Nicki Minaj, the undisputed Queen of Hip-Hop. Over the course of 2018, increasing hostilities between the two Hip-Hop superpowers culminated in Cardi B throwing a missile in the form of a high-heeled shoe at Minaj during New York Fashion Week. Once again, a cold war turned hot and two mighty powers fell prey to the Thucydides Trap.
The deterioration in relations between Nicki Minaj and Cardi B is disappointing though not surprising. For the better part of decade, Nicki Minaj has dominated the female side of Hip-Hop, with over 3.5 million album sales in the US alone and a waterfall of number 1 singles. When she broke onto the scene in the late 2000s, Minaj’s venomous lyricism buttressed her confrontational style, which inspired a new generation of empowered female rappers. She was not the first, but Minaj broke into the mainstream like no other before her. Among this new cohort was Cardi B, a rapper of Dominican and Trinidadian descent from The Bronx in New York. Following a flurry of chart-topping singles, Cardi B capitalised on her success with a barnstorming debut album, Invasion of Privacy, which was met with universal acclaim. The album charted at number 1 on the Billboard 200 and, more impressively, set the record for the most number of weeks in the Billboard 200 top 10 by a female rap artist. The previous holder of this record was Minaj.
The overwhelming success of IoP did little to assuage the froideur in relations between the two rappers. Both artists adhered to a policy of containment, which limited exchanges to the infrequent barb in sporadic interviews, but this appeared antiquated in the face of social media. After IoP’s release, cyberwarfare between the two erupted: a like here; an Instagram story there; a sub-tweet yonder. Now, mis- and disinformation were wedded in a polygamous matrimony to the truth, and the propensity to misinterpret each other’s behaviour rose tenfold. In Ancient Greece, Thucydides elucidated that war between Athens and Sparta was triggered by a series of misunderstandings about each other side’s intentions and actions, but even he did not have to contend with the incertitude of social media. By August, any dovish proposition for peace was scorned as a vacuous compromise of a bygone era.
The onus now lay with Minaj. The 34-year-old released her aptly named album, Queen, but the results were disappointing. The album debuted at number two in the Billboard 200 and garnered 185,000 sales in album-equivalent units, 70,000 units fewer than IoP. Minaj’s response to the album’s underperformance was as explosive as it was unhinged, perhaps an early indication of her loosening grip of the throne. On her Apple radio show, Minaj took aim at Travis Scott, whose album Astroworld charted at number 1 and Spotify, which purportedly retracted a promotion of Queen prior to its release. It was an ugly bit of PR for Minaj, and her tweeted accusations sent the pop-cult media into a frenzy. Meanwhile, the Athenian clout of Cardi B was mushrooming: that same month, the Bronx rapper became the only artist to have three records sell over 500,000 units in pure sales in 2018. The Queen was outsold and outmanoeuvred. Three weeks later, the missile launched.
Readers will be forever robbed of the context as to what truly occurred on the day of the missile launch, but it is a tremendous pity that Minaj and Cardi cannot live peacefully coexist. Unfortunately, competition is the lifeblood of Hip-Hop and its cultural predilection towards the Ancien Régime runs strong: rappers want to be kings and queens, not presidents and prime ministers. There cannot be, at least in the medieval sense, two queens. Suggestions that the sun has set on Minaj’s illustrious reign as Queen are premature, but both rappers would be well-advised to heed the counsel of this author and substitute stilettos for the studio. It would be a catastrophic waste of two prodigious talents to not allow this rivalry to translate into music because it is the mic, not a red-bottom, that will decide Hip-Hop’s next-in-line. Indeed, Cardi B’s soaring popularity poses an existential threat to the supremacy of Minaj, but it was Athens, not Sparta who lost the Peloponnesian War. A quick word to Ms B therefore: if you shoot for the queen, you better not miss.