Review Summary: Mirror mirror, who’s the fairest?/"You the motherfucking fairest, Nicki."
It has been nearly eight years since Nicki Minaj set the world on fire with her seminal verse on Kanye West’s “Monster” in 2010. A lot has changed in hip-hop since then, and something that is often forgotten is that Nicki’s debut full-length Pink Friday
came out on the same day as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
. If there is anything symbolic to be found there, it only highlights the wasted promise of a talented rapper who often sank beneath the surface of gimmicks. Nicki had the bars but chose to mask them with silly voices and outfits. Then came two more studio albums, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded
and The Pinkprint
. She got a little better each time, but nothing thrilled the way that “Monster” did. Back then, in the days before Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow”, Nicki could afford to take her talent and success for granted.
That’s not the case anymore. While it seems a bit silly that it took just one
other female rapper hitting the big time for Nicki to regain her hunger, these sorts of media-manufactured pop feuds are decades-old at this point, and Queen
makes it clear that they’ll have to find their Minaj-killer elsewhere.
Okay, first thing’s first, the hunger is here, yes, but that doesn’t mean that Queen
is uniformly excellent. Although every reviewer has pointed it out, the album, at over 66 minutes, is way too long. Its 19 tracks could easily be pared down to a more manageable number. And while the music is extremely well-produced, the beats are too often hampered by a lack of variety. If every track that featured a four-minute piano loop was cut, then critics wouldn’t have to complain about the album’s length. Lastly, not every feature works out. The Weeknd shows up to give the same performance he gives in all his features, throwing out some bored ooh yeah, ooh yeah
s on “I Thought I Knew You”. Lil Wayne’s mush-mouthed verse on “Rich Sex” highlights the distance between today and his last good album, Tha Carter IV
, released seven long years ago. And Future’s lethargic style simply doesn’t gel with Nicki on the otherwise enjoyable “Sir”.
’s greatest asset is Nicki’s dual propensity for virtuosic verses and catchy pop elements. She skillfully blends them on the album’s best tracks. The unfairly maligned “Bed” does sound a little out of place, but it deserves to be here more than several of the other songs. Ariana Grande and Nicki have always complemented each other well, and every time I hear Nicki’s mid-tempo verses bleed into Grande’s dreamy chorus, I wonder how the song only peaked at #43 on the Hot 100. Perhaps the answer lies in those changes that hip-hop has experienced since Pink Friday
. Nicki doesn’t rap in triplets, nor does she mumble or disappear beneath hazy beats. And these days, rap verses in pop songs sell better than pop choruses in rap songs. Rappers often pull double-duty, auto-tuning their vocals to negate the need for a pretty voice to sing the hooks. “Work hard, just to get half back,” she raps on “Hard White”, before clarifying, “Used
to work hard, just to get half back.” We’ll see if that boast is true when the streaming numbers come in.
Not that she’s immune to trends. She has always mixed her own poppy singing into her songs, and Queen
has plenty of that. But unlike many of her previous attempts at mixing pop and hip-hop, which were often generic and pandering, the songs on this album that do something similar, like “Nip Tuck”, “Run & Hide”, and “Come See About Me”, improve the formula and could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any of the current pop queens. Diehard hip-hop fans will likely count those songs among their least favorites, but Nicki often sounds the most honest when she cuts loose and sings over a trashy pop beat. The veil of her attitude – so vital to her harder songs – falls away, leaving something polished and joyful behind.
But those pop songs, as much as I enjoy them, aren’t going to raise Nicki to her rightful place near the top of the hip-hop totem pole. Queen
could do that, too. Smooth-as-hell opener “Ganja Burns” is a tad too lengthy, but Nicki expertly takes her competitors to task without naming names. When she sweetly sings, “Every time I get high, I just think about you,” we’re left to wonder if she’s singing to a boyfriend or issuing a masked warning to her would-be challengers. By the time the verses of “Barbie Dreams” end – in which Nicki lampoons her male contemporaries – the message to rappers not
mentioned by name becomes clear: watch out. Eminem brings some of his waning “Rap God” magic to “Majesty” and fellow Trinidadian-American Foxy Brown goes off in “Coco Chanel”, but the best feature goes to Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee on “Chun Swae”. Lee, who already has some of hip-hop’s catchiest hooks under his belt, slows the track down for the album’s best chorus, contrasting Nicki’s carefully enunciated verses with his singing, which sounds almost improvised and free-form.
After her last verse on “Chun Swae", Nicki helpfully informs us that we are now halfway through the album’s absurd runtime. She also tells us that we are starting to realize why she called the album Queen
. The reason being, of course, that “…this bitch really is the motherfu
cking queen!” It’s a bold move, and it would have more meaning if the album hadn’t already been playing for more than 30 minutes at that point. Some of Queen
’s weakest tracks follow that declaration, but in the age of streaming, skipping the bad songs and making playlists out of the best ones is easier than ever. It is up to us, then, to dole out the titles and crowns. So perhaps Nicki isn’t the queen, but she has proven, at the very least, that some of that old monster is still inside her.