Review: Nicki Minaj, “Roman Reloaded”

I’m an occasional contributor to Third Way Magazine, a magazine of Christian comment upon culture which is available by subscription.

Here’s a review of “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded”, the album by Nicki Minaj, which originally appeared in the June 2012 issue. This is a slightly extended version. 

Let’s get it straight from the beginning – Nicki Minaj is not for everyone. Minaj represents the holy grail for teenagers seeking rudeness – a potty-mouthed rapper who happens to use her videos to showcase her fondness for provocative sexuality. She has said that she doesn’t make music for children and that, essentially, she wants to be judged on a gender-neutral scale against the most-accomplished rappers in the business. And yet, her fondness for pink wigs, video gurning, and perky pop production makes her catnip for younger girls, inviting the inevitable newspaper thought-pieces on her status as a role model.

On Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, her second studio album, Minaj is clear that she just wants to be one of the boys. The last words she says on the album are “I am the female Weezy”, after her Young Money stable-mate Lil’ Wayne. In fact, she’s a much better rapper than Wayne, with her creative rhymes and dynamic voice – sweeping effortlessly from squeaky bounce to growling panic – consistently more captivating than Weezy’s ugly, violent verses. But it’s this desire – not to be “a female rapper” but to prove herself worthy of her contemporaries – that dulls the sheen of Minaj’s talents. Rather than following her own idiosyncratic impulses, too much of the album is dogged by attempts to beat others on their turf.The album splits roughly into sections – the first nine tracks showcase minimalist production, with all pyrotechnics coming from Minaj herself, scrapping, scowling and yelling. Then we get five club-inspired tracks, followed by four bland ballads. It seems incredibly old-fashioned to complain about an album’s sequencing but it’s important. All three of these unofficial sections tail off in quality as they go on, and the homogeneity of neighbouring songs means that it’s a rather exhausting listen – like listening to three EPs, top-heavy with the singles.

The opening section gives the best sense of Minaj’s personality. For example, “Roman Holiday” starts with a strange cockney exhortation to “take your medication, Roman”, before this gives way to some pitch-bending Minaj rap, weird clicky minimalistic production, some apocalyptic dancehall toasting, and a brief appropriation of O Come All Ye Faithful. It is baffling, unhinged, and brilliant. Songs that follow feature ARP synth sirens, buzzing bass, and cavernous reverb, with Minaj’s raps confrontational, surprising, and too profane to print here. Guests like Cam’ron, Drake and Young Jeezy point up Minaj’s individuality through their gangsta saminess.

The second section – including the single “StarShips” – shifts into bright, multi-coloured pop with immense, over-produced Euro-club middle-8s. Minaj’s singing voice is often autotuned within an inch of its life, and these songs really could be sung by anyone.

Even worse are the ballads near the back of the album. “Fire Burns” is an Adele-esque breakup song, for goodness’ sake – she should be above that. These tracks feel like Minaj branching out into areas of inexpertise – studio experiments that neglect her genuine strengths.

Teasing any deeper, spiritual meaning from these songs is like searching for vitamins in candyfloss. Minaj is often speaking in character, with her multiple alter-egos all part of a complicated overarching history impenetrable to newcomers and tailor-made for internet messageboard discussion.

So, it’s a incohesive album, ham-fistedly sequenced, with some tantalising visions of an artist in development – there are glimpses of an individualistic creativity unmatched in rap since Andre 3000. This album doesn’t contain the crossover smash that takes Minaj into the mainstream – a “Hey Ya” or “My Name Is” – but then, I get the feeling that the mainstream is not where she wants to be. She might have been pulled in different directions by competing interests – producers, record labels, video directors, and her own restless creative desires. Or maybe she’s impatiently doing absolutely everything all at once, and waiting for the listening public to catch up.