In the 2000s, a trend arose where a few big-name rappers released double albums that flaunted different sides of the artist’s personality. This structure, which was thankfully short-lived, was best executed on Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/TheLove Below, most clumsily executed on Nelly’s Sweatsuit, with Ludacris’ Release Therapy somewhere in the middle (but definitely on the Nelly side of the divide). Rappers overreached for the sake of commercial breadth, the ability to be all things to all people, rather than sharpening one particular, well-seasoned style and tailoring their sound to their strengths while finding ways to understate their shortcomings.
Nicki Minaj’s first record, Pink Friday, was one of those seemingly focus-grouped records marking the entrance of the “Next Big Thing,” marrying high-gloss, almost robotic pop tracks like “Right Through Me” with shit-talk blacktop stomps like “Did It On ‘Em,” with too few songs like “Your Love” that really struck any sort of balance between those sides. It surely says something that the most memorable and best-selling single from that period –- “Super Bass” –- wasn’t even on the record and, rather famously, it took Nicki some convincing to even put that out. Purists called for more of the “spitter shit” that had so famously thrilled on “Monster” and less of the bubblegum, pop-world-obsessed “Barbie” Nicki. Peers did, too. Drake spoke to this in November:
Nicki told me she’s about to get back on some spitter shit. Which I’m excited for. One thing I don’t want her to do is ever like get lost in the pop world. I hear songs from people on the radio and I’m like, damn, that’s so and so? Really? That’s his new joint? She’s so good at it and it works for her, but she’s a fucking amazing rapper. When she told me that today, we’re talking and we’re working on a joint for her album, she just told me “I just want to get back on some spitter shit.” So I hope she goes in on it.
And, telling by the front side of Nicki’s massive new one, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, Nicki totally goes for it, assembling the most impressive run of rap tracks I’ve heard all year. “Roman Holiday,” which we heard during that awesomely batshit Exorcist-inspired Grammy performance, gives way to “Come On A Cone,” a track that absolutely snaps, a signature, swaggering shit-talking clinic; “When I’m sitting with Anna / I’m really sitting with Anna / Ain’t a metaphor punch line / I’m really sitting with Anna!” “I Am Your Leader” rides another big popstep beat in the vein of “Y.U. Mad,” where a choppy, resplendent Minaj goads the featured guests (Rick Ross and Cam’ron, who deliver) onto her level. “Beez In The Trap,” an easy standout featuring 2 Chainz, is pretty much everything, and more, the rap hordes of the Internet have been begging for since “Monster.” “Bitches ain’t shit, and they ain’t say nothing / 100 motherfuckers can’t tell me nothing,” seethes Nicki, at once terrifying and completely in control, calm and cool. The stuttering Jay-Z meditation “Hov Lane” leads into “Roman’s Reloaded,” which first emerged as underwhelming evidence that, yes, Nicki would actually be rapping on this album, holds up better here, if only because of the strength of the context.
After the anthemic group cut “Champion,” the album takes a jarring turn, where Roman Reloaded turns over to the Chris Brown-featuring “Right By My Side” (the WHAM! of Chris Brown’s role in this thud cannot be understated). And, with that, it’s over; the rest of the record dives into rave-pop, chasing big, auto-tuned hooks into hollow, paint-by-numbers breakdowns, perhaps following a formula perpetuated by the success of stuff like Talk That Talk era Rihanna and tracks like the big-but-kinda-formless “We Found Love.” “Starships,” a collaboration with Gaga producer RedOne, is a messy, schizophrenic ordeal that races toward a breakdown, and “Pound The Alarm” is full of that BLORK BLORK BLORK noise signaled by the hypothetical pounding of “the alarm.” RedOne, in total, produces four tracks, and Swedish hit factory Dr. Luke also had his hand in the process, and songs like “Whip It” or “Automatic” reflect that cold, calculated feel of hired guns and an artist not quite sure how to use them. The charisma is basically siphoned out. The second half is long, oversaturated, and much of it is pretty unlistenable, even as it works out of the EDM wormhole with ballads like “Marilyn Monroe.” Oh, and then it closes on a “Stupid Hoe,” something that would have made a lot more sense on the front end, a track that could have, at least, been enhanced by the reflective glory of the other brass raps contained on that side. Maybe some of these will pop, it’s hard to say, but there’s nothing that quite hits the confection of “Super Bass,” a track imbued by this bubblegummyness but still fostering one of Nicki’s cheekiest, most charismatic performances. Sigh.
“I am the female Weezy!” Nicki often boasts, and that’s probably more true than she’d like it to be; like her mentor, she’s an immensely talented, once-in-a-generation rapper who will be name-checked into eternity, stretching to be everything without an instinct for the balance of sensibilities (I’m guessing it’ll sell, though). When listening to Wayne’s “How To Love,” it’s hard to remember that the same artist that did “Get ’Em” — or any of the dozens of tracks from that torrid mixtape run, for that matter — is in there. On Roman Reloaded, the puffy sugar pop wave can easily make you forget that the year’s best rap album is in there somewhere, too.
“Beez In The Trap,” though. Damn.
Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded is out 4/3 on Young Money.