Whether you want to bow down and call her a “Queen” or not, there’s simply no denying that Nicki Minaj is one of the most technically accomplished rappers of all time. She came to most people’s attention via her guest spot on Kanye’s “Monster”, a jaw-dropping display of virtuosity, proficiency, acrobatic flow, and dynamic performance, which not only outshone Ye and Jay-Z on the same track but stands as perhaps the greatest rap guest spot of them all – in its own way, every bit as exciting, multilayered and ingenious as a John Coltrane sax solo.
It was a truly great, original musical moment, and one that she’s only matched in spurts ever since. Her albums have mixed her stellar rapping with less-than-stellar singing, aiming for a synthesis of rap and pop, with muddled effects on pretty much everything except the glistening “Super Bass”, a perfect pop single where her subpar singing is poignant rather than tiresome because of the innocence of its subject matter.
She’s never quite lived up to her promise at album-length then, despite many brilliant moments where she gets down to it and raps hard, and a whole lot of devious fun to be had trying to prise apart her alter egos (Roman Zolanski may be the funniest and most easily misunderstood rap “character” since Slim Shady).
Like many, I’ve long wished that she’d release a straight-up rap album and ditch the pop-ballad-stuff she’s not nearly so good at. And Queen is the closest she’s come to this wish since 2010’s Pink Friday. She drops ferocious bars worthy of her regal self-assignation on over half the tracks here, which inevitably leads to several all-time classic Minaj moments.
“Barbie Dreams” is wonderful: a cheeky rip-off of The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Just Playing (Dreams)”, which roasts a series of male music stars in a sequence of zingers worthy of Biggie himself, the very funniest of which being: “Used to fuck with Young Thug, I ain’t addressin’ this shit/Caught him in my dressing room, stealin’ dresses and shit” and “Drake worth a hundred milli, he always buyin’ me shit/But I don’t know if the pussy wet or if he cryin’ and shit”. These lines should let you in on the fact that this is all a little tongue-in-cheek, and her delightfully tossed-off “I’m just playin’, but I’m sayin’” in the chorus seals the deal. It’s hilarious, and not remotely bitter; she clearly likes the men she’s roasting. She deals with them with all the danger of a kitten playing with a toy mouse.
Elsewhere she’s more like a tiger, obviously. She opens up the album with “Watch them cunts learn” on the vicious “Ganja Burns”, where she proceeds to straighten out all the bitches with one perm, before insisting “I could wage war or I come in peace like Gandhi”. She’s rather more convincing on the follow-up line “All my powers back now I’m scary to zombies”. Yet no matter her message, how confused or convoluted it gets, her language is often absorbing and her rhymes are frequently inspirational. Even on a musically unengaging track like “Hard White”, which plods along to a sodden trap-inspired beat, she zaps your cranium into action when you realise that she’s somehow managed to pull off rhyming “Jean Paul Gauthier” with “gold chair” and “go cheer”.
These are the sorts of delights in store for those of us who like Nicki Minaj: strictly surface ones. Anyone who thinks modern pop music is all shallow garbage won’t find much to change their minds here – Queen’s all about sex, money, petty feuds with fellow celebrities, and relationship troubles, none of which are explored in very much depth. I suppose lines like “ain’t such a thing as broke and handsome” (from “Rich Sex”) and “never trust a broke hoe” (from “Coco Chanel”) could be used as evidence against her ever being a reliable source of insight into the human condition.
If you were daft enough to expect anything of the sort from Minaj. She posits herself as a superhuman, and as such isn’t really concerned with our daily problems; they would bore her to death. She’ll carry on rapping about her sex life and material goods, thank you very much. Her rapping is certainly forceful and confident enough to persuade us of her superhumanity for the length of a song, which is probably why Eminem felt he had to deliver a (pointless) lightning-speed rap on “Majesty”, for fear he would be outdone by her sometimes bewildering abilities.
But it doesn’t hold up for the length of an album, which is her usual problem, and Queen is no exception. The thing’s too long, it’s sequenced badly so some of the slower patches drag on insufferably (“Bed” to “Run & Hide” should be excised completely), and even with the singing reduced from The Pinkprint there’s still too much of it.
Nicki said of this album: “I know it’s going to be my best body of work. That’s next on my bucket list – to deliver my fourth album and make sure that it’s a classic hip-hop album that people will never forget”. Classic pre-release hype, of course. But it makes you wonder, can she ever really release a classic, an album of near front-to-back solid material like The Marshall Mathers LP or Ready to Die?
On the evidence so far, I’d say that she doesn’t quite have the discipline. But I’d love to be proven wrong.