Paper Magazine has broken the Internet yet again with Nicki Minaj as its cover star in a bold display of self-love and sexual liberation. Three Nickis—Harajuku Barbie, Nicki the Ninja, and Nicki the Boss—are captured in the nascent stages of a ménage a trois against a saccharine rose backdrop.
The cover is a paean to black self-love and a rejection of the politics of phallocentric sex. It’s of Nicki, by Nicki, and for Nicki. But, it’s also for women. Paper’s concept of a triumvirate of bad bitches reminds readers that Nicki, like all women, contains multitudes. The abiding ideal of a corporatized, interview-ready pop star with only 2 inches of depth feels stale in this cultural moment. Social media has democratized pop culture. The grass roots’ ability to influence, and oftentimes dictate culture, has forced many in the establishment media to reject the obvious.
Nicki, a multifaceted artist that continuously subverts gender norms—you can hear the testosterone oozing through her pores when she raps as Roman—is anything but basic. From referring to her female would-be usurpers as her sons, to donning the accouterments of a king, Nicki has thrown a gauntlet. The cover is a tactile extension of her music. From the outset, she rejected the well-trod path of many women in hip-hop. She refuses to play the role of anonymous sexual prop for male rappers. She is subject, not object.
Thus, Paper’s art direction is fresh in this age of women gathering in digital spaces to reclaim the cunt from the suffocating male gaze. The selection of Ellen von Unwerth to photograph the spread further promotes the ascendancy of pussy dominated media spaces. For decades von Unwerth has used her photography to fête female eroticism. First, through fashion photography, then music videos, and now through the ubiquitous squares of Instagram. Nicki and von Unwerth are a powerhouse collab. Nevertheless, criticism has bubbled up from certain corners of the industry.
Rapper turned talk show host Eve was among the first to throw shade at the cover. She couched her criticism in bland mentions of the responsibilities of a female role model. Her concerns were stale and smacked of hypocrisy. At the apex of her rap career, Eve pimped her sexuality to sell Ruff Rider albums. The overarching implication is that a woman should preserve her sexuality for a man. Her body and desires should be cossetted and denied until a worthy guy comes along to instruct her in unpacking who she is as a sexual creature.
It’s a patriarchal throwback that rejects the legitimacy of female sexual agency. Providing young girls and women empowering content that can enrich their sexual imagination is a public service that Paper has deftly provided.
The cover also stands apart for offering an unapologetic celebration of the black female body. The black body in the American imagination has always been at once hypnotic and transgressive. Since our nation’s bloody inception, the black woman’s body has been publicly derided as hypersexual, and thus sinful and unfit for public consumption. Full lips, ample asses and round hips were the hallmarks of a Jezebel.
Subjectivity, and thus sexuality, was long denied women of color. With the exception of the Black is Beautiful movement of the 60’s and the current #BlackGirlMagic narrative, the American public has been conditioned to reject the notion that blacks have any aesthetic value. Paper’s cover subverts that narrative and forces the reader to acknowledge, and stand in awe of black beauty.