Here’s a first — the three best songs this week all had one common denominator: Nicki Minaj. It was the week of “Anaconda,” of course, but Nicki also jumped in on tracks by Beyoncé and Juicy J, and she pretty much ran the damn table. So songs 1 – 3 are covered in one essay-length writeup by Tom. But tracks 4 and 5 are no slouches, and coulda claimed the top spot themselves in a different week. Check ‘em out, share your own essay-length thoughts on Nicki Minaj (or whatever else ya got) in the comments.
You know those movie scenes when a couple is embarking upon their first sexual encounter, and, having just disrobed, one of them smiles nervously at the other? Blush is what that person does, and “Blush” is what that moment sounds like. The sax-laden slow jam feels like a more satisfied, sensual counterpart to the now famously Kendrick-Lamar-sampled “Meet The Frownies.” Even without lyrics about dead leaves you could feel the autumn chill in that song’s depiction of a relationship in doldrums, whereas “Blush” is so languid you can feel the sweat. It is the sound of hearts, minds, and bodies simmering until everything boils over. –Chris
For those of you with bad eyesight, didn’t “Green Lady” and “Enemy” give you the same feeling you had the first time you put on glasses and saw 20/20? Everything is tightened into a focus so crisp it’s disorienting. Instead of the fuzzed-out blur that defined Merchandise’s early material, these new songs come with so many textures and details that it’s overwhelming to take in all at once. To be honest, I haven’t even been able to listen to After The End in one sitting yet. I’m inevitably left backtracking, replaying, starting over, to the point that I’m always a little surprised that the album’s only actually 45 minutes long. It’s tough enough not to just get stuck listening to “Enemy” but when I finally made it to track four, “Green Lady” provided a whole new challenge. From the second those synths slide in to the final relieved exhalation that blows in like a cool breeze, it carries you so smoothly, and when that distorted darkness from the band’s earlier records drips back in during the final section, it feels less like an aesthetic choice than the logical emotional conclusion. I’m taking my time growing into After The End, and “Green Lady” is one of the best ways to begin. –Miles
Nicki Minaj owned this week. Obviously. Duh. She’s owned this entire year, honestly, without releasing an album yet, but she especially owned this week. When her sugar “Pills N Potions” came out, people fretted that the fiery mixtape version of Nicki, the one who’d done “Chi-raq” and “Yass Bish!!!” had gone back into hibernation. When she coasted her way through a couple of random Future and Cam’ron guest verses, people worried that she’d blown all her creativity early in the year. This week, she proved that nobody has any cause to worry. She dropped her own much-awaited “Anaconda” single, the one with the cover art that provoked thinkpieces before anyone even heard the damn thing. But she did even more notable things while guesting on songs for a couple of other people: a long-running Memphis underground hero who somehow became a pop star, and a long-running Houston pop star who somehow became an underground hero.
First, there’s her song “Anaconda,” in which she surfs a nervous, jumpy, jacked-up beat and extolls the virtues of her own ass. The track, from Da Internz and faded hitmaker Polow Da Don, is a skittery thing, its nattering synth-line and restless bass building tension but never releasing it, its Sir Mix-A-Lot sample yelling at you from across the dancefloor. It’s a hectic, jumbled tune, a track that refuses to fade into the background. But on top of it, Nicki is all sleazy and nonchalant, idly flipping through the back-pages of her sex life while making plain, as explicitly as possible, how her human thickness kept her drowning in dudes. “He can tell I ain’t missing no meals,” she says, and you better believe she’s motherfucking bragging.
“Anaconda,” like “Stupid Hoe” before it, bridges that pop-Nicki/mixtape-Nicki divide by slamming you with so many effects, so quickly, that your brain stops trying to differentiate the two. Juicy J’s “Low” pulls off a similar trick, from a different angle. Its lush, widescreen beat comes from mega-pop architect Dr. Luke, who has assuredly never done anything with Young Thug before. But the track works because it elevates all the underground rappers on it, letting them rap hard but still placing them in a context of abundance. For Juicy, that means he gets to hammer those syllables the way he did on Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” while bringing that old Three 6 Mafia transcendent ignorance: “I ain’t even pack no clothes, nothing but rubbers in my suitcase.” (Think about that. He has a whole suitcase packed with nothing but condoms, which is several levels below Jay-Z’s “got a condo with nothing but condoms in it” but impressive nonetheless.) For Lil Bibby, that means he gets to lock into his double-time mutter while growling like an action-movie villain, throwing unprovoked shade at LeBron James in the process. For Young Thug, that means he gets to play the agitator, slip-sliding anarchically through the hook like a human sound effect. And for Nicki, who already is underground and pop at the same damn time, it’s a chance to flex both sides at once, casually creeping on dudes and then dismissing them with empress ease. Best song called “Low” since Cracker’s “Low,” or maybe since David Bowie’s entire Low album.
And then there’s Nicki’s team-up with arguably the world’s biggest pop star, or at least its biggest nonfictional pop star. (Princess Elsa from Frozen is probably really the world’s biggest pop star; I can’t wait for Nicki to work with her. Nicki already has princess-cut diamonds; she’s on her Disney.) As brand positioning for Beyoncé, “Flawless” is good fun, even if her dismissal of the Elevator Incident feels like emergency damage-control PR, complete with tortured syntax. (Shit should go down when it’s a billion dollars on an elevator, as long as that elevator is supposed to be going down and not up. Billionaires should only use functional elevators!) The song was already a highlight on Beyoncé’s self-titled album, and it’s fun to hear her go into half-rap purr mode, and to let those old OutKast horns creep into the track. But things get very serious very quickly when Nicki shows up in full “Monster” mode, roaring out her greatest verse of 2014. She raps in an Eastern European accent. She says “pussy served delicious” and makes it sound like a threat. She froths and snarls and screams. When it sounds like her verse is about to end, she takes it up another notch. And she gets the entire second half of the song to say that winning is her motherfucking protocol, and to prove it. –Tom