It’s 2012 and it’s Nicki Minaj’s world to make, but this album is not going to make it
Some are too smart to be beautiful, and some are too beautiful to be smart, but every woman in the public eye must deal with its gaze and make the call on how to be in it.
Nicki Minaj, the 29-year-old Queens rapper who dropped her second album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, today (sort of, it leaked last week) has sidestepped the 2000s strategy of playing the hyper-femme, fairytale pop star for something decidedly more '90s: the crazy bitch. Her innovation in this venerable pop tradition: becoming the gaze and making funny faces. And because she's fierce and spits rhymes like fire, she has somehow managed to escape the cries of shrew that are usually applied to such a character, and obtained a coveted place very few female pop stars ever do: she may just be on her way to being an Acknowledged Great Musician (no modifier).
Her talent as a comedy rapper is the equal of Ludacris', her use of voices recalls Slick Rick, whose storytelling (of grown-up stories) and use of childhood vocal games was wickedly clever and infectious. Her rhymes are simple, and she avoids that backpacker-rap tendency to impress with the internal and enjambed, either because it's the end of hip-hop history or because it's simply not her style. Minaj tends to inhabit the short story and boast well, but she's really known for her 21st-century-style free association, which some call innovative, others lazy. Her lines sometimes end in the lyrical equivalent of hashtags, and her couplets often seem unrelated, like so many Tweets sent out with no need for reply. Sometimes she quits cadence altogether and just talks, blurring the line between hip-hop theater and song. Whatever it is she's doing, it's weird and it gets people talking.
What she is not is a great R & B star, and the curse of this new 68-minute not-concept album is that someone—she or management or the label—wants her to be the girl with the most cake, and rather than choose to be a rapper, R & B star, pop star, or dance-music singer, she simply goes for it all. More than most times, it doesn't work. Still, it makes sense, given that Minaj's ability to assume so many different voices, even within one song, makes her incredibly versatile. But while the first half stakes out Minaj as a serious rapper, the second half of this album offers such a mishmash of tracks that it feels like a demo reel made public, sort of how, when it leaked in December, “Roman in Moscow” at first seemed unfinished, random, and leaked. What it had going for it was the whiff of comic genius. A half hour of the stuff does not have that.
Is it the result of a struggle over how to negotiate Minaj's appeal to discerning rap fans with her overwhelming appeal to fresh-eared tweens? That her fanbase is mostly young-adult men and younger girls is astounding, especially given how each group is partially defined by not being the other. It could explain why the album took two months longer than promised, and why in 2012 there are 19 songs on an album. Maybe no one won the argument, so the fans have to take sides.
It could explain the biggest red flag on the album: Minaj duets with just plain distressing R&B singer Chris Brown, and in the song she plays a character who is an unwinking damsel in hetero distress. If Minaj was serious about the promise she made to be responsible to her young women fans in Pink Friday's “I'm The Best,” to be “here to reverse the curse that they live in,” she would not work with a known abuser.
For better or worse “Right By My Side” features a cooed chorus of “I can't eat / I can't sleep” that harkens back to a tradition deep in Black women's blues, specifically Mamie Smith's world changing 1920 hit “Crazy Blues,” the first vocal blues by a black artist and the beginning of race records in America. Back then such a melodramatic cliché of a song might have been just the ticket for a strong talented woman to flatter her male audience into staying and paying. Like Smith, Minaj fevers the world with her words and gets that money, from women and men alike. Smith's hit prompted a whole spate of male musicians' taming or shaming the “crazy woman” and the “evil woman” in response songs, perhaps even being an ur-text for a pattern that still exists (umm, thanks . . . Buckcherry?!).
On Roman Reloaded, Minaj mostly articulates her own internalized male gaze as a twisted, racist bigot she calls Roman Zolansky who, in his madness, still finds time to hype Minaj while saying all kinds of nasty shit she wouldn't say. It’s like her own response song. Roman's mom makes worried appearances too, her stuffy British accent delivered with a wax-cylinder warble. Suckers fall for it, calling Minaj's switches, and her Roman persona specifically, “sociopathic,” “wild,” “schizophrenic,” and the tracks spastic, frenetic, twisted. Of course, plenty of people said the same of Roman's friend Slim Shady, but lots of folks forgave him because that sociopath could really rap.
In this case, the repressed ego is not a white man's burden but that of a young black woman for whom the odds were stacked high and who, in spite of that, made it to number one. Her Roman might just say the things she needs to tell herself to succeed in Shady's world: make enemies with women rather than allies, stick close to male power, and only show weakness in your female character, a.k.a. the second half of the album. When not rapping as Roman, Minaj talks about her period, abortion, and self-intitated sexual curiosity openly in song, meaning that there's room for her rap game to include the realities of being a woman, even if the territory is uncertain since it is so underdeveloped.
The first half of the album gives Minaj a chance to flex her rap skills. In these songs she moves backwards from in-character vigilante, earning that Bad Bitch title from its former Queen Bee, to keepin'-it-real gracious Young Money crew member, with a corresponding fade of musical innovation, fun, or display of skill. And then the second half, signified by the dubstep RedOne-produced now-core pop tune “Starship” becomes a totally different album, and one I am not going to fully address here (but it seems to have a lot to do with Minaj's ability to cross over—as did Rihanna—to non-rap daytime ubiquity, not least because she can voice Rihanna's Caribbean lilt.)
“Roman Holiday” is by far the most comic-opera track this side of Bat Out of Hell, with Roman's mom coaching her son out of his psychosis through the chorus, only to orchestra-stab into Roman's verses, and somewhere in the middle drop an epic interpolation of “O Come All Ye Faithful.” It's the track she debuted to Catholic cries of “controversy” at the Grammys but it works much better here. It would be appropriately blasphemous to point out that part of the reason is that although Minaj does costuming and character well, her relative lack of stage craft, gestural sophistication, or dancing skills make it pretty hard for her to command a big budget post-Gaga pop spectacle. Maybe she should just be, like, rapping. And that should be, like, enough. On the album it is just the story, and it's great.
“Come on a Cone” is all Kanye vowels and that egregious flow Minaj gets away with better than anyone, where her incredible pitch control allows the end repetition of words to somehow seem fresh several times (Actual line: “When I'm sitting with Anna / I'm really sitting with Anna / Ain't a metaphor, punchline / I'm really sittin' with Anna.” Later on the album she rhymes bitch with itself four times). On this, as in several places, Minaj can seem at once the breathless celebrity noob and the hardcore rap lifer, making it the perfect sophomore track. It, like the rest of the album, formally eschews the funky, jazzy, and classic hip-hop sounds for old-school beats, Southern stunting, and plain cheesy Euro keys dashed over digi-Carib beats and that drawling snare pattern Drake's driven into our heads the last few years. (Something like: “I've . . . Done It. Again.”)
The conceit of “Hov Lane,” a Jay-Z genuflection, is pretty lame, as are the verses, and perhaps this most counts as another of Minaj's growing list of driver's-seat metaphor rap tracks. In the song Minaj disses the sons around her with no nanny, emasculating male rappers while placing herself in authority over them. The women she competes with (mostly Lil Kim and unnamed haters) are not infantalized, but rather equals who happen to also be bitches and hoes. Never for how they dress or play, mind you, but for disrespecting and falling off. (Lest you forget the couplet: “Yeah, I said it / Has been. Hang it up/ Flatscreen”) And, usually it's not Nicki but Roman saying such sexist things, as in the final track, “Stupid Hoe,” on which producer / BET star / touring mate Diamond Cuts fashions a claustrophobic track from claps, twerps, and whistles strikingly similar to Beyoncé's “Single Ladies,” for an extended brag and diss session. It's also a completely odd track that sounds like a 2012 pop laboratory bubbling over. The diabolical mix of Minaj's playground taunts, demands, handclap games, and an "American Idol"-audition-level bad melismatic middle eight somehow makes song science.
While Minaj might be mother to a new generation, she is still the protégé of another: Lil Wayne. His appearances here are rather lamely framed as hetero come-ons rather than giving her props for keeping Young Money fresh in 2012. His attitude in “Sex In the Lounge” is parodically dumb, and the sex talk on his “Roman Reloaded” verses feels played out. No twist of fantasy on her character’s last name is ever clever, even from Weezy's virtuosic tangle of language. But there is something kinda fantastically queer about his suggesting a _____-à-trois with Minaj given that she verbally waves her Roman-sized dick around quite a bit throughout the album.
“Roman Reloaded,” like a few other tracks, bears lyrical evidence of having been at least partially re-recorded after Minaj's appearances at the Grammys and the Super Bowl in February. These were major international television spots for a person who one year prior was best known for providing the best verses on a Kanye West track. That seems pretty incredible, and in that light the mismanagement of this album seems particularly bad. Did Minaj's wooden Grammy performance freak out her team? Did bird-throwing M.I.A. overshadow her so badly at halftime that it was necessary to up her anti- ante? Or perhaps the album had been more pop all along and they realized the thing that actually makes Minaj different and better than Madonna is that she can rap, and what makes her more lovable than M.I.A. is that she has a sense of humor. Whatever the answers are, they are going to color her European tour and likely bring her back to New York in need of new tracks that refine and push her forward not on sheer charisma and new kid braggadocio, but by showcasing her already trademark flow to better benefit.
It's 2012 and it's Minaj's world to make, but this album is not going to make it. She is already beyond some of the identity branding black women have to do to make it in pop: she is already done with “the Black Barbie,” but she still gets shine from saying “I am the female Weezy.” Other women have done the simile before—Yo Yo with Ice Cube, Lil Kim with Biggie, Remy Ma with Fat Joe—but Minaj is already there on an artistic level. Her flow, including the corny hashtag raps and the growls and all the other forms of play that make her simultaneously so old school and so fresh, have already shifted the zeitgeist and inspired a new generation of pop lovers in one short year. Now it's time for her to figure out how to step up to sound like she what she says on the album’s third track: “I Am Your Leader.”
An earlier version of this article stated that Remy Ma was an affliate of Big Pun; she was more closely associated with Fat Joe, as now corrected.