Along with the meteoric Kanye West, Nicki Minaj is arguably the most polarizing figure in hip-hop music. Some listeners see her as a guiding light for the current crop of female emcees, while so-called purists hope for stronger lyricism from the Young Money member. With West, the nuance and sheer brazenness of his art has catapulted him to an iconic pedestal, even if his Twitter rants and interview antics obstruct his path to unrelenting adoration. For Minaj, the pint-sized spark plug from Queens, N.Y., there is no denying her strong work ethic, having appeared on songs with the aforementioned West, Ludacris and Mariah Carey, among several others.
On “Monster”, for instance, Minaj clearly outshone her male counterparts and aggressively addressed the vast perception that she’s fake and lyrically inept (“So let me get this straight, Wait, I’m the rookie?/But my features and my shows 10 times ya pay?/50K for a verse, no album out.”) That proclamation, supplemented by other respectable guest verses, makes Pink Friday a perplexing album, especially for a person with such a magnetic flair and unquestionable grind. We’ve all heard Minaj’s capabilities with others, but her debut album sounds safe and somewhat conflicted, leaving me to wonder if she put too much energy into her peers’ projects, and not enough into her own.
On Pink Friday, Minaj seems stubbornly determined to shrug off hip-hop’s constraints and indulge her pop influences, as evidenced by the album’s heavy reliance on singing. On the surface, it also sounds like Minaj wants to distance herself from the persistent Lil’ Kim comparisons that begrudgingly follow her career. Aesthetically, the similarities center on the artists’ materialistic affinities—from the florescent wigs they sport, to the eccentric costumes they wear. Musically, however, there aren’t any similarities between Pink Friday and Kim’s debut—Hardcore—released thirteen years ago. While Minaj sounds more Rihanna than rap, Kim’s album was unabashed hip-hop, with plenty of sexual and monetary references throughout the vulgar recording.
Minaj mostly harmonizes her way through Pink Friday, but not without referencing Kim on “Roman’s Revenge”, featuring rapper Eminem. “Look at my show footage, how these girls be spazzin’/So fuck I look like giving back to a has-been,” Minaj rhymes over a spacey, energetic instrumental. She doesn’t let up on the condescending “Did It On ‘Em”, a methodical and blatant diss to female emcees looking to capture her crown. But then there’s “Right Thru Me”, a stilted love song that disturbs the album’s flow and drifts Minaj far from her comfort zone. The same goes for “Save Me”, which finds the artist paying homage to her role models, even if Minaj’s off-beat stacato stifles the song’s positive message.
As legend has it, Minaj would live life through created characters when times got rough. There was “Cookie”, an alter ego she created to deal with her parents’ incessant fighting. Then there’s the “Roman Zolanski” image she used to deliver an animated verse for Trey Songz’ “Bottoms Up” song. With the over-reliance on multiple personalities, it’s almost impossible to find the real Nicki Minaj behind the voices, staggered faces and artistic petulance. Perhaps the schizophrenia is done on purpose to shield the public from emotional scars. Maybe it’s done to hone the dramatic education she received at LaGuardia High School in Manhattan. Ultimately, Pink Friday is left to suffer because of it, as an uneven recording with few highlights and blurred musical vision. There is true talent in there somewhere, hidden too far beneath the layers.