Back in 2007, around the time she joined Lil Wayne on Young Money Records, Nicki Minaj released the mixtape track “Dreams (2007).” The concept was pretty simple. She was freestyling over the beat from the Notorious BIG’s “Dreams,” the one where he graphically fantasized about having sex with different R&B singers. Over that same beat, Nicki disclosed her plans to fuck various mixtape rappers. It’s a fascinating time capsule, a reminder of a time when anyone, let alone one of the most famous rappers on the planet, would publicly discuss the possibility of having sex with Hell Rell or Mims. And it’s a proof of an old truism: Any rapper who’s trying to drum up attention should just say a bunch of other rappers’ names. It’s the old 50 Cent “How To Rob” playbook in action.
The most-discussed track on Nicki Minaj’s new album Queen is “Barbie Dreams,” and it’s pretty much the same thing, over the same beat. This time, though, Nicki’s not wasting her time with New York mixtape-rap footnotes like Red Café. Instead, she is exclusively going after the dudes on rap’s A-list. (This includes her “Fefe” collaborator 6ix9ine, who would’ve been a New York mixtape-rap footnote in a more just world.) And rather than fantasizing about fucking these guys, she’s playfully describing all the reasons why she would not fuck them.
The jokes are all pretty obvious: Young Thug steals dresses, Drake cries, Eminem lives in a trailer park, etc. And the idea is stale; it is, after all, a slight mutation of something Nicki already did 11 years ago. But it’s also an example of Nicki Minaj having fun rapping. These days, I wish we had more of those.
Things have been rocky for Nicki Minaj lately. This is not entirely the fault of Nicki Minaj. The world has never been an easy place for female rap stars. The world has especially never been an easy place for female rap stars who have been stars for more than a year or two. Nicki has been in the public eye for the better part of a decade. And she has been walking an extremely thin line between pop stardom and rap stardom — flexing over sugary EDM tracks while also doing snarly and intense street records. Her albums have always felt vaguely schizophrenic, and she’s found ways to make that work, largely by introducing her own cast of alter-ego characters. At her best, as on singles like “Super Bass” or “Truffle Butter,” she’s been able to make her pop side and her rap side live in harmony. But that hasn’t always been the case, and it’s not getting any easier.
But there’s been other stuff, too. Not all of that has been Nicki’s fault. It’s not her fault, for instance, that the public knows way too many details about her noisy breakup with Meek Mill. It’s only partly her fault that, as I’m writing this, she and another ex have been airing out dirty laundry (including her ex’s allegation that she once cut him badly enough for him to be hospitalized) on Twitter all day. It is her fault that she launched a nasty and one-sided feud against a blog intern who suggested that maybe she should try making some more mature music, sending her fan army into torches-and-pitchforks mode. It’s her fault that she rhymed “Chyna” with “China,” “China,” and “China” on Yo Gotti’s “Rake It Up,” and that she rhymed “face time” with “hate crimes,” “FaceTime,” and “FaceTime” on Playboi Carti’s “Poke It Out.” It’s her fault, mostly, that the advance singles from Queen felt flat and mechanical upon arrival.
Queen is a better album than those advance singles suggest, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a good album. It’s the first Nicki Minaj album with no silly EDM tracks, so that’s something. For years, we’ve been wondering how a straight-up rap album from Nicki Minaj album might sound, and Queen is mostly that. As a rapper, she’s still commanding and precise. Her voice still has force and presence, and she’s versatile and technically gifted enough to handle a wide range of circa-now beats. Her sneer still weighs a ton, not just when she’s lightly poking at her male peers but also when she’s tossing out unnamed subliminals at obvious targets (“I ain’t ever have to strip to get the pole position”). “LLC” is hard but playful. “Chun Swae” is playful but hard. The album-closing “Coco Chanel” is a total neck-breaker, and with its guest verse from ’90s Brooklyn OG Foxy Brown, it’s also a too-rare example of Nicki sharing a track with another female rapper. There are signs of life on this album.
But that’s not enough. Even when she spends a whole album in rap mode, Nicki devotes way too much real estate to gooey radio-bait fare like the Ariana Grande collab “Bed” or the Weeknd collab “Thought I Knew You.” The mostly-sung “Come See About Me,” which has nothing to do with the Supremes song, is genuinely emotional, but the production is so light and insubstantial that the whole song evaporates upon impact. When Nicki does attack, say, a Metro Boomin beat with Future, everyone involved seems to be on complete cruise control. There’s a sense of lifeless detachment to too much of the album, as if Minaj is simply going through the motions of rap stardom without investing the full force of her personality.
That personality used to be the thing. When Minaj showed up on our radar, not that long after “Dreams (2007),” she had technical chops, but that wasn’t all. She also had a level of giddy theater-kid charisma that felt entirely new in rap music. She was hard and showy at the same time, and she used that performing-arts demonstrativeness to help assert her rap bona fides and to run down her adversaries. But she can’t do it if she’s going to make rote, obvious boilerplate rap, and that’s mostly what she’s done on Queen. The summer of 2018 has given us way too many albums from rap A-listers who are increasingly and depressingly getting further away from what everyone loved about them in the first place. With Queen, Nicki Minaj joins that sad parade.
1. SOB x RBE & Shoreline Mafia – “Da Move”
Sometimes, you can just hear the energy exploding off of a record. This one basically sounds like all of young California coming together and going the fuck off. SOB x RBE have achieved full hero status in the Bay Area, and Shoreline Mafia are well on their way to doing the same thing in LA. On this one song, the two armies converge, and the exhilaration crackles in the air like ozone before a downpour.
2. Ghostface Killah – “Saigon Velour” (Feat. LA The Darkman, Snoop Dogg, & E-40)
Ghostface’s new album is called The Lost Tapes, but it’s a new album, not a collection of unreleased leftovers (which could be great, if one like it ever comes out). Still, this song had me wondering for a couple of seconds. Ghost hasn’t sounded this vigorous in a while, and this kind of charged-up horns-rolling beat is exactly the type of thing he should be using. It’s hugely heartening to hear a bicoastal squad of veterans coming out with this much fire, even if the sleepwalking Snoop verse doesn’t really need to be here.
3. Young Nudy – “Right Now”
Young Nudy, from Atlanta, isn’t a terribly distinctive rapper, though I like the back-of-the-throat croak in his delivery. But what he has working for him in an ear. On Slime Ball 3, the impressive mixtape he released last week, Nudy goes in over a long parade of gooey, aqueous beats like this one. I practically chose this track at random; the whole tape sounds like this.
4. Lil Durk – “Do The Most” (Feat. Valee)
One cool thing about Valee’s ascent is hearing him on tracks with established Chicago drill guys, where the light-dancing impressionism of his delivery can nicely contrast against something like Durk in full hammerhead mode. Also: “I spent $1400 on a yorkie doggie!”
5. Young M.A – “Car Confessions”
The ecstasy of “Oouuu” is fading further and further into the rearview, and Young M.A is just now getting ready to release her proper debut album. That’s a bad sign. Still, we already know that M.A can flex, and here we get to hear her get intense and introspective in that perfectly grimy mixtape-rapper way. That’s a good sign.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
what idiot named him G-Eazy instead of Slender Mane
— Philip Streetwear Hoffman (@broazay) August 13, 2018