At some point during the past few years, the word petty underwent a makeover. Originally derived from the French word for “little,” the word had, for a long time, been purely pejorative. It was not the sort of word one applied to oneself: No one would call themselves small-fry, small-minded, an earner of petty cash, at least not with pride. Yet with no one knowing exactly why it happened (black culture and social media were surely the driving factors), petty became a socially acceptable, amusing way to admit that someone — including you, perhaps — held grudges. (A similar, related process occurred with the word savage, which transitioned from its original sense of “uncouth and uncivilized” to “heartless executioner [insert 3-20 cry/laughing emojis]” within the space of, it seemed, less than a year. What a time to be alive.)
Shortly after noon on Saturday, the Bronx rap artist Remy Ma tweeted a simple image of a multiple-choice option titled “Level of petty.” The three options were “Low,” “High,” and “Remy Ma,” with the third option selected. Though ostensibly tied to promotion of her recent Plata o Plomo tape with Fat Joe, the meme’s full meaning only came into focus an hour later, when Remy posted a Soundcloud link to “Shether,” a diss track aimed at her Queens rival Nicki Minaj, who had, in Remy’s telling, taken advantage of Remy’s eight-year incarceration to usurp the title of Queen of Rap. What the title of “Shether” promises it to be (the female successor to Nas’s notorious 2001 Jay-Z diss track “Ether”), the track itself delivers in full. In fact, “Shether” may well exceed its forebear in terms of lyrical savagery. The song is a blast furnace, a seven-minute-long dismemberment plan that scrutinizes every facet of Nicki Minaj and finds each of them sadly deficient. Financially, Nicki’s record deal has her handcuffed five times over: two-thirds of her income is siphoned off by a concentric series of label owners. Fashion-wise, she looks preposterous. (“You had a leopard beehive on your head.”) In terms of phrases, she’s a user of others’ lines, whether Remy’s or those of ghostwriters. Nicki Minaj, according to Remy Ma, is a terrible role model, a liar, and a harlot whose reputation is as artificially inflated and ready to burst as her ass; also, her brother’s a pedophile. With the possible exception of some prophetic passages of the Old Testament, a character assassination more vicious and thorough as “Shether” has yet to be recorded.
Will anything happen? Whatever she’s done to further her career behind the scenes, Nicki Minaj, like her label mate Drake, has been shrewd enough to cultivate a large pop audience who has no idea what Remy Ma represents or what “Ether,” the stigma associated with ghostwriting in hip-hop, and the history of beefs in rap actually are. Odds are that this won’t sink Nicki commercially, but it’s hard to doubt that Remy’s assault has left graffiti and scorch marks all over her image in hip-hop, and artists whose support from their core audience is weakened have been known to implode. At the very least, with its citations of liposuction and implants, “Shether” reminds us that, behind all its macho posturing, the diss track has always been a mode of plastic surgery, albeit a distinctly mean-spirited one. It’s a reminder, too, of the virtue of pettiness. Even now, there’s no need to stop holding grudges — provided that you keep receipts and write exceptionally well while your enemies don’t.