For months now, for the whole leadup to the release of The Pinkprint, the question surrounding the album has been this: Pop Nicki or Mixtape Nicki? Earlier in the year, Nicki absolutely cut loose on a few songs — “Chi-Raq,” “Yasss Bish!!,” the “Boss Ass Bitch” remix — as if to remind everyone that she could run starling technical circles around just about everyone else in rap. So some of us have been wondering whether The Pinkprint will be an album from that Nicki or whether she’ll instead lean toward the catchy-if-you’re-honest-with-yourself candyfloss-rave of hits like “Starships.” Now that The Pinkprint is finally here, though, that question turns out to be a red herring, a false binary. The Pinkprint isn’t an album from Pop Nicki or Mixtape Nicki. It’s an album from Nicki Minaj, a human being with stuff going on in her life and things to say. It’s an intimate, personal album about heartbreak from one of pop music’s few massive global celebrities who’s mostly succeeded in keeping her private life private. It’s a breakup album, just like Here, My Dear or 808s & Heartbreak or Blur’s 13. And while it’s a long way from being a perfect album, it’s the most complete full-length statement Nicki Minaj has ever made.
Some backstory: For years, Minaj has been widely rumored to be dating (and possibly engaged to) Safaree “SB” Samuels, her assistant and hypeman and general right-hand man. She’s mostly kept quiet about this. Samuels shows up in her videos sometimes, dancing or mugging, and she’s shouted him out in her lyrics a few times. He’s listed as an executive producer, a largely ceremonial title, on her last album, 2012’s Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, and it seems like he’s been one of the main forces pressuring her to stop making pop songs and go back to spitting raw shit. A little while ago, TMZ reported that Minaj and Samuels had broken up, and there have been plenty of indications that Minaj is, at the very least, going through a tumultuous personal period with him. (This Carrie Battan Grantland piece serves as a great rundown of everything that’s been happening between the two of them.) Still, it’s a bit of a surprise to hear The Pinkprint for the first time and to realize that it’s a grand, theatrical public bloodletting, the sort of this-is-where-my-life-is-now album that Mary J. Blige used to make. Minaj has always taken the (perfectly reasonable) position that her fans don’t need to know the particulars of her personal life, but listening to The Pinkprint, we learn things. On opening track “All Things Go” alone, Minaj mentions someone, presumably Samuels, proposing to her in 2006, as her career was beginning: “I looked down: ‘Yes, I suppose.'” She also makes veiled reference to an abortion she might’ve had when she was a teenager (“my child with Aaron would’ve been 16 any minute”), the hope that she’ll be out of the game with kids in a few years, the distant relationships she has with people in her family. It’s heavy.
The grave emotional hits keep coming. “I Lied” is about missing someone terribly but knowing that you’re better without him. “The Crying Game” enlists Jessie Ware to sing peacefully on a song about emotional chaos: “Ain’t no smiling faces here, we slamming doors and dishes / Saying we don’t miss each other but it’s all fictitious.” On “Bed Of Lies,” she straight-up tells a dude that she’s been paying his bills for years and that everything he’s ever had comes directly from her. “Grand Piano” is a weepy rap-free pianos-and-violins ballad about feeling stupid and played. On two songs, “Buy A Heart” and “Big Daddy,” Nicki and the furious Philly rapper Meek Mill flirt with one another so hard and so charmingly that I’m tempted to hear The Pinkprint as a concept album about breaking up and then falling in love with Meek Mill. I’m probably misinterpreting things there, but I would be so happy if that speculation turned out to be true. Meek and Minaj are both great rappers, and they deserve to be happy together, especially since Meek made it home from prison in time for the album release.
One of the interesting things about the whole breakup-album sweep of The Pinkprint is the way it recontextualizes the early singles that, in some cases, have been out in the world for months. “Pills N Potions,” the album’s first single, was a love song about a difficult and druggy relationship when it first came out. In the context of the album, it’s a last flutter of a dying flame. When she sings “I still love, I still love, I still love, I still love you,” she doesn’t sound hopeful anymore. She sounds regretful. “Anaconda,” meanwhile, isn’t a goofy fuck-romp anymore — or, anyway, it isn’t just that. It’s the blowing-off-steam song, the song about realizing the best way to get over how sad you are might be to go out and have some random meaningless sex with strangers. “Only” is still trash, but it’s slightly more interesting trash now. When Drake says that he wants to be next in line to fuck Nicki, or when Lil Wayne says that whoever’s fucking Nicki isn’t fucking her right because she acts like she needs some dick in her life, it’s gross — workplace harassment, not flirtatious celebrity-rapper banter. But at least now I get to imagine Minaj telling the two of them, before they recorded their verses, that it’s open season on SB now. (At the risk of running this into the ground: Especially in the wake of “Only,” it’s fun to hear Meek on “Buy A Heart,” treating Minaj like an actual human being, fondly remembering the time she shot him down years ago and moving on with his life afterward.)
The Pinkprint, for all its personal disclosure and resonance, still has a lot of problems. There are bad songs here, songs that make it seem like Minaj doesn’t always understand what she’s good at. “The Night Is Still Young” is bland and character-free conspicuous-consumption bullshit. There’s subtext, sure, but the subtext doesn’t stop the song from being boring bottle-service music. “Get On Your Knees” should be a blast, with Minaj and Ariana Grande singing about getting head, but instead it’s soft and uncommitted and nowhere near as nasty as it probably should be. The album’s musical tone leans a little hard on streaked, expensive-sounding synths, and Dr. Luke gets way more production credits than you might expect. (So, weirdly, does the mostly-forgotten Chicago pop-rapper Yung Berg.) The emo power-ballad impact of “Grand Piano” is more interesting theoretically than it is musically; the Adele/Evanescence torch song is not really a weapon in the Minaj arsenal.
Some of the musical choices are smart. Minaj mostly stays away from EDM this time around. When she makes club songs, which she still does often, she draws instead from the bleepy push-pull of Jamaican dancehall, and Nicki sounds much more comfortable on that type of track. (It makes sense; she’s a Trinidadian-born girl who grew up in Queens, and she probably grew up hearing more dancehall than any other genre of music.) The syncopation on “Four Door Aventador” and “Buy A Heart” and especially “Trini Dem Girls” just sounds better than the oontz-oontz thump of something like “Starships.” And Nicki’s EDM insticts are stronger now, too. The bonus track “Truffle Butter” is a tastefully glimmering clipped house-music track that once again enlists Drake and Lil Wayne, and it’s about 80 bazillion times slicker and more confident than “Only.” (“Truffle Butter” doesn’t really fit within the context of the album at all, but someone at Cash Money is crazy if they don’t make it a single. It’s the catchiest song without a chorus since “Hot Nigga.”)
Most importantly, Minaj still sounds confident when she needs to. There are moments on The Pinkprint where she sounds like she wants to crawl under a blanket and hide from the world, but there are just as many where she’s ready to slap the face off of your skull. On an album like this, a song like the superhuman Beyoncé team-up “Feelin’ Myself” becomes even more important, and Minaj sounds like an unstoppable badass while that song is playing. “Four Door Aventador” is a haughty strut. And even if they don’t get married and have a million kids, Nicki and Meek sound great rapping next to each other: Two strident, precise Northeastern voices who have strong pop instincts but who still have more than a trace of SMACK-DVD defiance in their voices.
One day, if she feels like it, maybe Nicki Minaj will make the rappity-rap masterwork that so many of us wish she’d make. But The Pinkprint isn’t that, and it doesn’t need to be. Minaj has too many personal things going on to give in to other people’s demands about what she should sound like. And anyway, she’s done something more complicated and maybe more difficult. After all these years publicly living in private, she’s let us in and added all these layers to her formerly brassy and fun public persona. She’s letting herself become a three-dimensional human being in front of everyone. The Pinkprint has its problems, but its great moments are triumphant, and its weak ones are still somehow revelatory. It’s a pop album that demands serious thought, one made with serious feeling. It might not be the Nicki Minaj album we wanted, but it’s the one she needed. Maybe it’s the one we needed, too.