10:44 am Nov. 23, 2010
In the lead-up to the release of a rap album, it always helps, at least commercially, to have an opponent.
Nicki Minaj, whose hip-hop/pop hybrid debut Pink Friday is out this week, chose her one-time idol and fellow New York City female rapper Lil' Kim as her chief competitor. But Kim's latest album was released in 2005. Since, she has spent a year in jail and placed fifth on Dancing With the Stars. Minaj should know she needs no rival, especially not one so obvious, gendered and easily defeated. The attack is cynical and safe, but like everything Minaj does on the album, precise and well-executed.
The curiously targeted, sharply aimed aggression also gets to larger contradictions on the record—bubbling turmoil between Nicki Minaj and Roman Zolanski (one of her many alter-egos), Barbie and barbarian, man and woman. Pink Friday is a scattershot treatise on feminism, hip-hop culture and staying true to oneself, wrapped in pink and glossed with a pop sheen, but crushed under a Giuseppe heel, making a clear message hard to hear.
"I'm fighting for the girls that never thought they could win," Minaj explains triumphantly on the opening track "I'm The Best." But "bitches" everywhere better beware by track three: "If I had a dick, I would pull it out and piss on 'em." Who's who—girl or bitch—is hazy at best.
The clearest salvo against Lil' Kim comes on "Roman's Revenge," the first true rap song released from the album after a trio of pop-radio jingles, including the romantic, sing-songy "Your Love" and "Right Thru Me," plus the Fergalicious, will.i.am-assisted "Check It Out." Unlike in her more sellable moments, on "Roman's Revenge," Minaj shows teeth: "That bitch mad 'cause I took the spot?" she snarls over Swizz Beatz's blistering drum and bass production. "Well, bitch, if you ain’t shitting, then get off the pot."
If there's any question to whom she's referring, Minaj, a Queens girl herself, threatens the Brooklyn-born Kim by claiming dominance in that borough, too. (Jay-Z did the same to Nas in reverse.) Kim responded, not in song, but at a Queens club, a moment spread via YouTube. "I will erase this bitch’s Social Security number," Kim told the crowd.
But Nicki's problems with Kim go deeper than micro-regionalism. Perhaps the most iconic photograph of Lil' Kim features the rapper starring straight ahead, hair styled in a dark bob and wearing a leopard print bikini and matching jacket, fringed with red feathers. She is crouching on her toes, legs spread wide. In an early press photograph of Minaj, she is assuming the same pose, but licking a lollipop. The salute to sexuality in rap is not an accident, but it didn't last.
Minaj came to prominence as the first female member of Lil Wayne's Young Money crew and since Wayne is the president, Minaj called herself Nicki Lewinksy, hinting that her sexual prowess earned her her spot at least as much as her skill. Kim's first single from 1996, "No Time," has her demanding cunnilingus in the first verse. By the second, she's role-playing sex with her producer Puff Daddy. Kim's 1990s competitors like Foxy Brown, Trina and even Miss Elliott traded similar sexual currency. And Minaj followed suit on the guest verses that made her a viable star, from the remix to Yo Gotti's "5 Star Chick" to Usher's "Little Freak," in which Nicki's job is to select the club-going female for her and Usher to bring home.
But come Pink Friday and all overt sexuality is absent. "I made a conscious decision to try to tone down the sexiness," Minaj told Interview magazine. "I want people—especially young girls—to know that in life, nothing is going to be based on sex appeal. You’ve got to have something else to go with that." On the album's good moments she has more than sex appeal; on the album's best moments, she's struggling to reconcile this positive message with rap music's boys' club braggadocio, misogyny and homophobia. But when she avoids the issues altogether, the album suffers.
"Fly," for instance, has Minaj playing guidance counselor over bubbly electronics, citing her own achievements as reasons you too can soar. "I am not a girl that can ever be defined," she raps, later insisting, "I represent an entire generation." Blame the staid, all but recycled Rihanna chorus, but the song is too saccharine and its imminent commercial success already maddening because of its forced inspiration. "Dear Old Nicki," in which Minaj raps to herself about changing to pursue mainstream fame, is equally cheesy. Which isn't to say the pop positivity always fails. "Save Me" borrows bleeps and moans from Kanye West's 808s and Heartbreak and Drake's go-to producer Noah "40" Shebib for a brief, but touching ballad and the relationship empowerment of "Here I Am" works with a minor-key seriousness and melodic piano accents.
As a competitor to Katy Perry's "Fireworks" and other flimsy pop-poetry, Minaj wins easily, just as she does against a (non-rapping) rap rival like Lil' Kim. Minaj is a good enough pop star and a pretty great rapper, but she is a fantastic character. As a graduate of LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (the setting for Fame), Minaj is most gifted at conjuring insanity—batting her eyelids, cocking her neck and modulating her voice. The wilder the better, but it's there she runs into messaging issues.
Take the name of her character Roman Zolanski, for example, which features only a one-letter difference from a director best known to most potential Minaj acolytes as the sexual partner of a thirteen-year-old girl. On Pink Friday, it's ostensibly Zolanski who attacks Lil' Kim, just as it's Eminem's worse-half Slim Shady who rattles off invective like "slut," "dumb blonde white broad" and "faggot" on the album of a pro-woman, gay-friendly female rapper. (Minaj recently covered Out magazine.) The inconsistencies are glaring on "Roman's Revenge," and yet it's the album's most adventurous track.
Too rarely, she addresses the tough spot she's in, but when she does it's exhilarating. "I am not Jasmine, I am Aladdin," she insists, rejecting the Disney princess label it almost seemed she wanted. Upending gender roles again over a strange lurching siren sound and quick snares on "Did It On 'Em," she barks, "You bitches is my sons." And on "Blazin," another booming highlight, Kanye West pushes similar boundaries: "I think I'm Marc Jacobs, I think I'm Lagerfeld," he raps, questions of sexuality—too often looming in rap—be damned.
Back on "Roman's Revenge," Minaj inches toward the line: "I'm a bad bitch, I'm a cunt." Fact is, Minaj is giddiest (and best) when she's attacking, though no targets seem worthy, or when she's cursing, though her offensiveness often undermines her lessons. Hearing the sharp stumbles, like missing a step you thought was there, are jarring, but they're the result of walking in the dark—of doing something that's never been done all in one place and by one person, no matter how many characters she's pretending to be. Should she iron them out and own them all, she'll be just fine as both a role model and a rapper. But on Pink Friday she's already a star.