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[Review] Nicki Minaj – Pink Friday

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When Nicki Minaj out-best rap hard hitters Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Rick Ross on “Monster” (which appears not on Pink Friday but on West’s MBDTF), that stand-out performance alone had hip-hop heads and critics rank Minaj’s debut album Pink Friday as a serious contender for album of the year. And it wasn’t because she was mouse in a room full of elephants. It was Minaj’s spitfire cadence, scathing and clever lyrics, and schizophrenic vocalizations that demanded respect from even the most skeptical listeners. Nicki Minaj proved the girl can rap, and she can rap hard.

During the promotional campaign of Pink Friday, however, it was rarely discussed how Pink Friday would stand up musically as a hip-hop record– a hip-hop record from one of the most talented, creative, and exciting new artists in the rap world. Rather than focus on her capabilities as an artist, which are plentiful, Nicki was instead pressed as the Female–with a capital F–hip-hop messiah here to “represent an entire generation” as she reminds in “Fly” ft. Rhianna, one of the many girl anthems on Pink Friday. Rather than just do her thing (which basically involves rapping circles around everyone in the rap game) on her highly anticipated debut, Nicki Minaj the rapper has been suffocated by Nicki Minaj the woman to an unbalanced degree in Pink Friday. And the result of this attempt is not only musically unfavorable, but has reverse than intended cultural consequences: the extent to which Minaj uses the pronoun “we” rather than “I” and hails her “girls” rather than just relying on herself is not only exhausting, weak, and unnecessary, but will surely alienate the rest of the male-dominated hip-hop world.

In her defense, Minaj found herself in a pressure cooker after she became the first female to clock seven hits on the Billboard Hot 100 at once, suddenly making her the most successful female rapper in history. Nicki (and associates at Young Money/Universal) has rightly acknowledged the historical weight of Pink Friday’s success: “I hope the female rappers will understand how big it is, just for our culture, that the album does well,” said Minaj in a recent interview. Indeed, its success was and is important. Yet crossing over from the underground into the mainstream pop market as she does with Pink Friday does not come without successions; in this case, Nicki’s artistic rein. For those who have rooted for Minaj since she first burst on the scene as a tough and seemingly unstoppable Trinidadian rapper discovered by talent magnet Lil Wayne, the most outstanding shame of Pink Friday is not necessarily that this debut album isn’t a hip-hop record, but that it actually is some of the most boring and unimaginative music Nicki has released to date.

Cases in point are the formulaic and predictable love songs “Your Love” and “Right Thru Me” which are not only cliché laden, but genuinely fail to showcase any of Minaj’s idiosyncratic abilities as an MC. What would have been red-hot 16 measure verses elsewhere appear on Pink Friday as less than interesting melodies hacked with poor singing. In “‘Moment 4 Life”  after being outperformed by Drake, Minaj insists “in this moment I just feel so alive” repeating the forgettable phrase as if she is trying to convince herself. Its just so hard to believe her when she sounds so extremely bored. Truly sad, is “Dear Old Nicki”, where Minaj confides she is weary about leaving behind the hard nosed emcee she was for the sake of making history. It’s extremely odd to include an apology and excuse (thankfully they are wrapped into one track) for sucking on your debut album.  Though it’s clear she sees her sell-out as a necessary evil because elsewhere, like on the album opener “I’m the Best”, Nicki seems confident she’ll wash out as, well, the best, even if she leaves behind the “It’s Barbie Bitch!” sass and awe of her mixtape days: “I ain’t gotta get a plaque / I ain’t gotta get awards / I just walk up out the door and all the girls will applaud” she boasts over hitmaker Kane Beatz’s cheesy synth laden beat. She’s probably right, but that doesn’t make Pink Friday any easier to listen to, particularly not from a feminist perspective, as Minaj blasts through watery rap versions of banal and meaningless girl power statements she opts to retort through a forced, obligatory even, sense of feminist allegiance rather than more effectively exercise them with her skills.

The album’s only shining tracks are “Did it on ‘em” and “Romans Revenge”, the latter which features an off-kilter and suspenseful string-driven production by Swizz Beatz and an effective back-to-back collaboration with Eminem who appears here as his alter personality Slim Shady–and brings with him his fraught history as a mouth-running homophobe and misogynist– to battle it out with one of Minaj’s gay alter egos, Roman Zolanski.  It’s a glimpse of Minaj at her best, aggressively rapping through unpredictable rhythmic structures with lengthened and heavy handed pauses, juxtaposing esoteric imagery with lively onomatopoeias, “I got ‘em scared, shook, panickin’/overseas, church, Vatican/you at a stand, still, mannequin/you wanna sleep on me? overnight?/ I’m the motherfuckin’ boss, overwrite/and when I pull up, vroom, motorbike/now all my niggas’ gettin’ booked, overbite”.  That’s not only good writing, but phenomenal showmanship.

Unfortunately, this lyrical feast is a diamond in a sully ruff. Look to “Save Me”, a pop ballad in which Minaj sings that she is “giving up” well over twenty times, for a more adequate idea of what type of record Pink Friday is–an attempt at settling into some of the more tried and true formulas that have worked in the Hot 100 pop charts, not to bring along something new. That Pink Friday has taken shape as an utterly middle-of-the-road pop record from someone as unique and creative as Nicki Minaj, has made this album one of the most dissapointing releases of the year.

What is a foiled Nicki Minaj album, however, is actually a pretty decent pop record, and an effective one, too. Scan comments on youtube for evidence of how Minaj’s generalized and relatable songs, and let’s not forget the album’s pungent aftertaste of self-sacrifice that reinforces Pink Friday’s messianic essence, have moved thousands to tears and fanatic adoration. As Minaj hoped it would be, her debut is for many an inspiration. But if we can call it one, the victory of Pink Friday is not her own. Instead, estranged and dispersed, the victory is reigned by millions of blank faces who in the name of something larger and equally ambiguous, call themselves Team Minaj. Which is what makes Pink Friday, and everything it has come to stand for, so sad. What was poised to become a new symbol of female victory, of independence, strength, self-integrity, and a sense of “fuck ya’ll, I’mma do me!” has only manifest as an antiquated reminder of the woman’s ability to forsake her own creative abilities and ambitions in order to make what she sees as a utilitarian concession.

6.5 –Kara-Lis Coverdale, Wednesday, November 24, 2010.