Since her sudden rise to prominence, Nicki Minaj has been the subject of constant debate: depending on who you ask, she’s a talented and refreshing voice or the “worst thing to happen to hip hop this year.” Even her popularity is uncertain: she has who-knows-how-many featured singles floating around the Billboard 100, but as to how many actual copies her album will push, no one seems to have a clue. As a matter a fact, fans have been baffled as to what the album would actually sound like: the pop singles were far removed from the Nicki presented on her mixtapes, but when “Roman’s Revenge” was dropped as a promo, along with clips of the entire album, she still seemed intact.
The answer to the mystery is quite simply that, no, this is not the crazy MC Nicki some of us fell for on tapes like Beam Me Up, Scotty, but rather an aspiring pop icon. Is there necessarily something wrong with that? Minaj seems to take herself relatively seriously as a woman: despite the shots delivered back and forth, she’s no Lil Kim, or, for that matter, Foxy Brown. Those women, along with many of the few successful female MC’s in history are sex toys, presenting little more in their music than placating, sensual noise. Mind you, Nicki’s no Lauryn Hill either: she does the sexy thing, but when she drops a line it isn’t subjecting herself to anyone, it comes across as more, “I do whatever the fuck I want, and you happen to be that tonight.” It’s the kind of female empowerment bitties nationwide salivate over, positioning Nicki as a bizarre feminist icon.
Perhaps due to the crazed reactions at her shows (girls commonly ask her to sign their tits), Nicki seems to have finally figured this out on Pink Friday. Opening track “I’m the Best” finds her trying reconcile with the “importance” she feels was placed on her, and the groovy beat along with her signature goofy flow make for a fine song, but if anything, trying to “be” something is slowing Nicki down. It’s the same old story: writing just anything allows freedom, perhaps especially in rap, and “really talking about something” can be limiting. Nicki’s lyrical skills shine through the most, more often than not, on the zany tracks: put up against the crazed Slim Shady on “Revenge” she spits fire, is amusing as can be on the gloriously stupid brag track “Did It On’em,” and so on. To those not familiar with earlier Minaj, it will probably be rather jarring to hear her spitting about pulling out a hypothetical dick to piss on her detractors, but these goofs make for the best “rap” moments.
Outside of those, this is a pop album, something Nicki’s fans would probably deny, something Nicki would probably deny. That’s perceived as “bad”: hip hop heads are up in arms as soon as an artist expands beyond what they perceive as “real” rap. Kids, Ice Cube lived in a classy neighborhood while he recorded his most provocative albums and Talib Kweli attended prep school. Pink Friday is the natural evolution of where hip hop’s been headed for years. As radio rapidly lost patience for rapping, artists have scrambled to adjust. The schlock of T.I.’s “Whatever You Like,” the arty messes that constitute Kid Cudi’s albums, the confused lack of balance of Drake’s debut: no one’s quite figured it out yet. This album hasn’t quite gotten there either, as exemplified by “Check It Out,” which sounds like it should be a Nicki feature on a Will.I.Am album rather than the other way around, and lines like, “Die Hard for your love like Bruce Willis,” but it may well be the closest shot.
On her poppiest of songs Nicki is still Nicki, “Right Thru Me” may sound sweet, but pay attention to those verses, it’s not all roses. Even on the entirely popped out “Save Me” (which also happens to be among the album’s best tracks) Nicki drops, “It’s not your fault, I’m a bitch, I’m a monster / yes, I’m a beast and I feast when I conquer.” Forget the whole obsession with what rap is “supposed” to sound like: this is real music made within a pop context. On the heels of the brilliant My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the misunderstood Recovery Minaj follows in style by putting out an album interested in both hip hop and music that simply sounds great. This is new territory, and little Nicki Minaj probably doesn’t even fully realize she’s forging it, and gets a little lost amongst it all. Her presence contains the music as always, but her wordplay is a bit slowed by her focus on the sound. Yet, this is album #1, and if Nicki figures out how to balance her insanity with the music next time, we’ll quite possibly have a classic on our hands.