Not to say that Nicki Minaj’s talent as a rapper is worth dismissing, but if she attains the level of genius, it’s in the field of branding, rather than lyricism. Pink Friday…Roman Reloaded (Minaj’s sophomore LP) comes on the heels of a marketing campaign so beautifully orchestrated and assiduously executed that the album itself is almost an afterthought.
In the past few months, Minaj has pursued her full-court press with a Super Bowl halftime performance, guest spots on Madonna tracks, and a surprise appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Her protean public image has a uniquely broad appeal. If you want a teen-friendly pop star, Minaj offers a primary-colored wardrobe that looks like it was purloined from Katy Perry’s dressing room; if you want to please your suburban parents, Minaj has plenty of uplifting, “girl power” tracks at her disposal; if you want a hard-as-hell hip-hop star, Minaj is ready to offer Lil Wayne guest verses and off-hand references to relatives who met their end via shootout.
Minaj has gotten a lot of mileage out of portraying herself as an unhinged alpha-bitch, but I’m willing to bet that her deep, dark secret is that she’s a fundamentally rational operator. That’s a frustrating prospect, because Minaj is most compelling when indulging her wildest creative tendencies.
Minaj’s 2010 debut LP, Pink Friday, featured plenty of outstanding tracks (“Roman’s Revenge”, “Did it On’em”), but these were more than compensated for by the album’s latter-half embarrassments (“Dear Old Nicki”, “Your Love”). This dichotomy makes a frustrating reappearance on Roman Reloaded and while the “good” Nicki Minaj is certainly on hand, a preponderance of the album’s 22 tracks are misspent in making gluttonous grasps at a variety of demographic shards.
“Starships”, the album’s titanic club single, is one of the better employments of this principle. The thumping grandiosity of club music plays to Minaj’s extant strengths, and it’s refreshing to hear a dance track with the venom of Minaj’s lyrical “teeth”. It’s when she takes things down for a minute that the album wanders into unpleasant territory.
Sensitivity just doesn’t fit with Nicki Minaj’s character. Her attempts to paint herself as wounded and love-hurt feel about as authentic as a pair of Chinese Dockers. On “Marilyn Monroe” she croons, “I’m insecure, yeah I make mistakes”, which is a funny thing to hear coming from a woman who a couple tracks earlier was screaming, “Bitch, I’m winning,” and making a good case for the truth of that assertion. Nicki Minaj functions much better when letting her instinct for self-aggrandizement run rampant.
Thankfully, Roman Reloaded lets Minaj off of her leash long enough for her to offer a reminder of why she’s here in the first place. “Roman Holiday” makes good use of her whole “I’m talking in a crazy voice!” routine. “Stupid Ho” features Minaj at her most vehement and quick-witted, talking shit at a Mach-5 pace over a frantic series of 808 samples.
On “Beez in the Trap”, Minaj quips, “a hundred motherf***ers can’t tell me nothing”. With one platinum album to her name and another on the way, that boast is probably close to the truth. Minaj is nothing if not ambitious, and if the toll demanded by her success is occasionally having to pander to the masses, then that’s something she’s apparently willing to live with.