Sorry I’m late to the party, guys. I went through a few pesky, problematic drafts of this thing, but each seemed to be a pithy little assassination of this record as some kind of post-millennial pop-rap zeitgeist. And I think the reason I had so much trouble painting it out to be one is that it isn’t. Oh, Roman Reloaded wants to be the sign of its times, clawing desperately at the coattails of a relevance just barely out of its grasp, but it never quite catches. Like Jay-Z’s In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (an infinitely more accomplished record. Save your comment section shots.), Roman Reloaded is plagued by dueling objectives. On the one hand, we have Nicki Minaj, breakout star of the 2010-11 season hellbent on cementing her star status. On the other, we have Nicki drunk on newfound fame and ready to take a few chances. But God MC, she ain’t, and so we’re left with this ghastly, conflicted beast of a record to contend with.
Rather than concentrate on making Nicki’s experiments poppy or forcing pop to accept her experiments, Roman Reloaded splits the difference quite literally down the middle between wigged out theatrical rap excess and more mannered pop radio fare. RR’s pulled punches and hedged bets are especially a shame considering the way Nicki’s labelmate Drake remade urban radio in his own navel-gazing, insular image just six months prior when faced with the same sophomore album dilemma. Roman Reloaded peeks out of the bushes with the manic Lil Kim taunt “Stupid Hoe” and the spooky minimalism of “Beez in the Trap” as well as less outre numbers like the title track and “Champion”, which favor straight spitting over Minaj’s trademark batshit chicanery. But for every singular bit of gruff hip-hop swagger on RR’s front end, there’s a shameless grab for chart dominance on the back end.
Roman Reloaded vaults past its aggressive portion on a glut of RedOne-produced dance pop tunes that, surprising no one, mine the same territory as RedOne’s ace boon and Minaj’s direct stylistic antecedent, Lady Gaga. RedOne’s pop machinery is so well oiled that we scarcely see anything resembling Minaj for the four tracks he helms. She melts into these productions with the anonymity of another one of his trance-lite synths, surfacing for the odd vocal tic or spitfire verse but otherwise playing Robin to his Batman. It isn’t until Vanessa Hudgens’ boy Dreamlab comes through with the spacious, piano-laced “Marilyn Monroe” and Dr. Luke tosses her the dubstep inflected “Young Forever” that the X’ed-out-in-Ibiza haze clears. Jilted lover’s anthem “Fire Burns” ditches Red’s hospital room sterility for a vocal performance that prizes emotion over hitting the right notes. They’re not great, but they’re godsends, marshmallows in a vat of nondescript electro-pop molasses.
So we have half an album of bravely unusual (sometimes awful, it must be noted) free-associative smack talk and then the 2011 edition of Now That’s What I Call Music tacked onto the end. It’s progressive and regressive in equal measure, a schizophrenic listen aimed solely at the kind of fan who loves Britney Spears AND Lil Wayne, which, friends, is not me. My appreciation of this record is further complicated by my lack of a vagina and the fact that the last time I was 15 was 15 years ago. (If it’s sexist to say this album is aimed squarely and blackheartedly at little girls, I’ll own it.) I never had a snowball’s chance in hell of enjoying this thing, and, big shocker, I don’t. So let’s just give it a noncommittal but actually quite shitty score, delete it way the fuck off my iPod, and never speak of it again. Maybe the next time I’m forced to endure “Beez in the Trap” in a social situation, I’ll compliment 2 Chainz’s verse and make some mid-level esoteric remark about Kenoe’s beat sounding like oddball 2006 Neptunes that no one will agree with, and I’ll tiptoe further into my disconnect with the youth, all the while stroking the prickly new grays in my goatee. I can’t wait.
I will say this, though: I find it disconcerting that the biggest female rap star to come along since Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott took hiatuses and Lil Kim went kabuki feels the need to pump out this male alter ego drivel in order to express her assertive side and relegates most of the emotionally resonant material into a studiously girly alcove at the back of the album. You can rap with emotion. You can sing with authority. You don’t have to split yourself in two to express your artistic versatility. Listen to fucking Ghostface wince on “I Can’t Go To Sleep” and then cut ass on “Gravel Pit” on the same album. Listen to Missy asking to cuddle on “Friendly Skies” and then kicking dude to the curb two songs later on “Don’t Be Commin’ in My Face”. Own your persona, all of it. Fuck outta here with this parlor trick split personality bullshit. That’s all.