Nicki Minaj is fed up. It’s 2010, six weeks before the release of her debut album, Pink Friday. She’s working on the album’s finishing touches, though it’s just gone up for presale on Amazon, and people are blowing up her phone, asking for favors. She’s pissed, but she composes herself for the camera crew—they’re in the studio shooting footage for a documentary MTV will premiere a few years later, called “My Time Now”—to explain. She’s wearing a goofy, cotton-candy beehive wig, but her tone is serious. “When you’re a girl, you have to be, like, everything. You have to be dope at what you do, but you have to be super sweet, and you have to be sexy, and you have to be this, and you have to be that, and you have to be nice—it’s like, I can’t be all those things at once!” She pauses for a single dramatic blink, and for a moment, she goes somewhere else: “I’m a human beiiiinnnnngggggg!” She draws the word out for three full seconds, the same way she would a year later in her song-stealing verse on Big Sean’s “Dance (A$$)” (“In the islands of Waikikiiiiiiiiii…”). It’s sort of a joke—her inflection is completely alien, or like a robot malfunctioning—but nobody laughs, and she quickly apologizes for ranting and goes back to fixing her eyeliner.
Until this year, that side of Nicki didn’t get out much, at least on record. Over the course of three official mixtapes, two studio albums (plus one Re-Up), and countless features, we’ve been acquainted with Nicki Lewinsky, Roman Zolanski, the Female Weezy, the Harajuku Barbie, and most of all, with Nicki Minaj LLC (“I’m a brand, bitch! I’m a brand!”). But we know surprisingly little about Onika Maraj, the 11th-highest paid rapper in America according to this year’s Forbes list, whose first and second platinum-selling albums were critically panned for appealing more to teenage girls than middle-aged guardians of Hip-Hop Culture. Onstage at 2012’s Summer Jam, Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg openly trashed Minaj, the headlining act: “I know there’s some chicks here waiting to sing ‘Starships’ later: I’m not talking to y’all right now, fuck that bullshit. I’m here to talk about real hip-hop shit.” Minaj dipped out; today, “Nicki Minaj controversy” is one of four sub-categories of the “Career” section of Rosenberg’s Wikipedia page.
Minaj entered 2014 with an agenda. She toned down the technicolor costumes and wigs, making headlines when she debuted her natural hair at the premiere for The Other Woman, her first film role. She spent the winter unleashing a string of remixes hard enough to re-invigorate the “Best Rapper Alive” claims sparked years ago by her “Monster” verse and subsequently abandoned by rap fans whose delicate sensibilities were no match for glossy RedOne beats and Bud Light plugs. She railed against “non-mogul ass niggas” on the snarling misandry anthem “Lookin Ass”, toting twin machine guns in the video; she recruited Lil Herb, Chicago drill’s rookie of the year, for gritty loosie “Chi-Raq”, where she promised to “smack bitches, no Smack Cam, closed fists, no backhands.” Longtime fans, and those freshly back on the bandwagon, postulated that third album The Pinkprint would be a return to “Mixtape Nicki,” the one from Southside Jamaica, Queens, who had more substantial concerns than pink wigs and global entrepreneurship.
Of course, then came “Pills N Potions”, a simpering Dr. Luke piano ballad, and “Anaconda”, by Minaj’s own admission a novelty song and perhaps her most explicitly girl-oriented single to date. There was that confusing anecdote tucked into her BET Awards acceptance speech that almost felt like a cry for help: “The other day, literally I didn’t tell anyone this, I really thought I was about to die. Like I was saying my prayers to die. And I didn’t even wanna call the ambulance because I thought, well if I call the ambulance, it’s gonna be on TMZ.” Months later, TMZ alleged that Minaj had smashed the windows of maybe-fiancé Safaree Samuels’ Benz; their exceedingly private 14-year relationship seemed to be over. Whether her jarring 2014 trajectory was an elaborate scheme to dangle a “real hip-hop” carrot in front of naysayers only to yank it away, or a plan gone awry as her personal life imploded, The Pinkprint defies expectations from both poles of her fanbase. It’s not a return to Mixtape Nicki, or a third round of Nicki The Brand’s world-conquering dance-pop. It’s an album by Onika Maraj. And it’s a serious album, in the sense that it asks to be taken seriously. If that seems audacious, consider that most rappers don’t have to ask.
If there’s anything The Pinkprint makes clear over its sprawling 22 tracks (six of which appear only on deluxe editions), it’s that Nicki Minaj is exhausted. On intro “All Things Go”, her delivery is pointedly plain as she reflects on her cousin Nicholas Telemaque’s 2011 murder, for which she blames herself, and references what may have been an abortion 16 years ago. “I Lied” grasps despondently at the loose ends of her unraveled relationship over Mike WiLL Made-It’s most haunting production of 2014. Later, Minaj convincingly paints her ex as an opportunistic scrub: “You can never make eye contact, everything you got was based off of my contact,” she snaps on “Bed of Lies”. The closest thing to the carefree rave of Roman Reloaded here is “The Night Is Still Young”, but even there she’s consumed with creeping nostalgia for a party that has yet to end. It’s impossible to ignore her frequent mentions of pill-popping. “I popped a perc and I said thonk youuuu!” she crows on “Want Some More”; it’s the most fucked up Minaj has sounded on wax, and she used to rap from the perspective of the lunatic child that lived in her brain.
As with Drake and masculinity, Minaj’s music has long centered around the performance of femininity. On her first two albums, that performance centered around femininity as a spectacle: the elaborate costumes, the affinity for lurid Barbie pink, the cartoonishly exaggerated “SIGH” on “Super Bass”. For an artist repeatedly defined by her gender in an art form historically biased against it, the preoccupation made sense. But on The Pinkprint, Minaj addresses a different performance: that of the “strong woman,” the self-sufficient bad bitch role model who works twice as hard as her male peers and looks good doing it (in other words, the performance of the “only rap bitch on the Forbes list”). This, Minaj declares, is what the weight of your expectations has wrought, as she emerges from underneath them for the first time, as a heartbroken 32-year old who has sacrificed having a family to become the best rapper alive.
Which raises the eternal question: is she, though? Minaj’s rapping on The Pinkprint is hardly a revival of her Smack DVD days, but the long-upheld fallacy of Mixtape Nicki as the gold standard against which her raps must be measured was due to be put to bed anyway. Under scrutiny, the habit of neatly dividing Minaj’s music into “rap” or “pop” doesn’t hold up. Few songs from her mixtape era can hold a torch to her bars on Re-Up bonus track “The Boys”, the verbal acrobatics on “Starships” B-side “Stupid Hoe”, or the upper-handed smirk of her “Boss Ass Bitch (Remix)”. Though they might be delivered over sparkly pop synths, her rap skills have only sharpened over the last five years, and on The Pinkprint, they change form constantly. You want punchline-oriented Mixtape Nicki? She’s right there on “The Crying Game”: “Blood dripping out your arm, on my Asian rugs/ We was just planning a wedding, Caucasian doves” cribs a flow straight from 2009. More impressive is “Feeling Myself”, a show-stopping Beyoncé duet that reads as a divine premonition of Bey’s eventual Gangsta Grillz installment. “Bitches ain’t got punchlines or flow; I have both, and an empire also,” Nicki repeats slowly and emphatically, as though she’s speaking to an idiot; they’re lines from Re-Up bonus track “Up In Flames”, but maybe you didn’t hear her the first time.
Then there’s “Four Door Aventador”, an uncanny Biggie impression slipped in between twisted Atlanta homage “Want Some More” and R&B floater “Favorite”, with what feels like a knowing wink towards Rosenberg’s legion of “serious hip-hop” proponents. Rosenberg atoned for his remarks on air when Minaj returned to Hot 97 last year, but his apology (the “sorry if you were offended” type, peppered with qualifiers like “underground” and “mainstream”) only amplified the source of the problem. Of course he only came at Minaj because, as a believer in her potential, he expected more from her. “I was a women’s studies minor in college,” he stressed. “I’m the antithesis of that dude!” His language will sound familiar to any woman who has been patronizingly told, “I’m not sure if you have the capacity to understand what you’re doing the same way I do” (presumably, then, to every woman on earth). On The Pinkprint, Minaj inches closes towards her goal of not just destroying the rap/pop binary, but smashing sexist challenges of her agency along with it, deading any lingering questions as to whether the most objectively successful female rapper of all time truly understands where her strengths lie. “THIS is The Pinkprint,” she declares on “All Things Go”, and it’s loaded beyond a simple introduction a la “This Is the Carter”. It’s an outright rejection of any authority besides her own: “No, THIS is what my music sounds like.”
For an artist repeatedly accused of pandering to the unrefined palates of teenyboppers, The Pinkprint’s production and feature roster is surprisingly sophisticated, if a bit scattershot. The crew of collaborators ranges from trap innovator Zaytoven to casual diva Jessie Ware to house producer Maya Jane Coles to someone credited simply as “The Mad Violinist.” Though she hasn’t always worn it on her sleeve, Minaj has always had an acute understanding of what’s “cool” in rap and beyond, and it’s finally started to click. She slips sly contemporary references into The Pinkprint as little gifts for those paying attention: a quick nod, on “Feeling Myself”, to O.T. Genasis’ viral hit “CoCo”, or the built-in inside joke of “Want Some More”, its title a riff on Metro Boomin’s producer tag.
Still, The Pinkprint’s singles underwhelm, even in proper context. “Pills N Potions” is cute but hollow, its sentimentality trumped by the album’s deeply personal opening triptych. “Anaconda” makes more sense recontextualized as post-breakup stress release, but that doesn’t make it much more listenable. “Only” remains vile, a jizz-fest masquerading as an unfunny in-joke over a photocopy of a photocopy of a trap beat.
But they’re redeemed by the bonus tracks—a thrilling, confounding six-song set that elevates The Pinkprint from an occasionally transcendent, if unbalanced, break-up album to something far more intriguing. On “Shanghai”, Minaj barks red-blooded bars, the kind “real heads” froth over, on a beat that could’ve been an outtake from Fatima Al Qadiri’s Asiatisch. Sequenced differently, “Win Again” may have been the album’s triumphant centerpiece, simultaneously a mission statement, victory lap, and warning shot (and there should be no confusion as to whom Minaj is inferring with “Don’t write they raps and plus they flow shitty”). Stream-of-consciousness Auto-Tune freak-out “Mona Lisa” might be Minaj’s most bizarre album cut to date, gurgling “I’ll fuck around and shoot youuuu” through a Detail-produced benzodiazepine haze. “Truffle Butter” with Drake and Lil Wayne is such a lay-up of a radio hit, instantly 100 times more likeable than “Only”, that it’s hard to understand its bonus track placement as anything other than mischievous trolling—Minaj giggling to herself as she tosses off precisely what her critics craved as little more than an afterthought. It’s the ultimate statement as to whether anyone but Minaj herself understands what’s best for her career. When many thought they’d had her pegged—as a New York battle-rapper, a predictable pop diva, a brand—The Pinkprint presents Minaj in her most unexpected role yet: a human being.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/130xy6C