Monday, April 9, 2012

Point of Review: Nicki Minaj

Nicki Minaj has gone from Internet sensation to global pop star in a little more than two years. In that time, her image has transitioned from hypersexed battle rhymer to cartoonish button-pusher, with many of her critics deriding her stylistic schizophrenia and controversial performances as tell-tale signs of an artist more concerned with gimmickry than artistry.
On her second album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, Minaj doesn't exactly shatter that perception.
The album, divided glaringly between a hip hop-centric first half and a more dance-pop themed second half, showcases all that her fans love about Young Money's First Lady--and everything that her critics despise. On the positive side, her rhymes are as nimble and oddly quotable as ever--and when she's on, she's one of the more clever and inventive rhymers in mainstream hip hop today.
But when she's off?
Well...we'll get to that part later.
The Afrika Bambaataa-referencing "Roman Holiday," despite its famously-loathed Grammy performance, is an entertaining oddity that reintroduces Minaj's male alter-ego Roman Zolanski. Not that the character is as central to the album as the title suggests--'Roman' is barely a focus throughout the remainder of the album.
The bass-heavy "Beez In the Trap" is a banger and benefits from an appropriately loopy 2 Chainz appearance; and the frenetic "Come On A Cone" features Nicki at her most boastful and off-the-wall, rapping lines like "Put the bitches on lockout, where the fuck is ya roster?" and "Put me on ya song/But ya know it'll cost six figures long." It's easily the best thing on the album. "I Am Your Leader" re-treads similar territory as "…Cone" and suffers by comparison, with spirited-but-unremarkable guest turns by Cam'ron and Rick Ross.
The Lil Wayne-featured "Roman Reloaded" is fairly standard Young Money, seemingly echoing Weezy's own "A Milli" but without an ounce of that tracks infectiousness. Nicki attempts to remind everyone that she began as around-the-way-girl and gives shout-outs to the the Violas, Sherikas, Lauryns and Ieshas on the triumphant "Champion," one of the album's strongest, if somewhat formulaic, tracks.
The second half of the album sags considerably under the weight of Nicki's half-baked pop vocal aspirations. "Sex In the Lounge" is almost amazingly uninspired. A song about sex shouldn't be this unsexy and features far too much Bobby V. in what can best be described as a phoned-in performance.
Sadly, things go downhill from there. As hip hop's most high-profile female emcee decides to shoot for Katy Perry-ish Top 40 pop and Gaga-influenced dance grooves.
And she falls decidedly short of even attaining either of those fairly-modest ambitions.
Minaj is at her best as a fire-breathing bizarro wordsmith with idiosyncratic voices and references; so the generic material she's chosen to display her vocal 'abilities' comes as something of a disappointment.
"Starships" is sub-LMFAO dance pop, with its banal hook ("Starships were meant to fly…") and run-of-the-mill production. "Pound the Alarm" and "Whip It" both feature more of the same: bubbly Eurodance with generic hooks and none of the charisma or wit that Nicki displayed on the album's hip hop-focused first half.
The album closer, "Marilyn Monroe," is Minaj's heavily-AutoTuned attempt to ape the Clarkstons and Ke$has of the world, and is robbed of any emotional resonance by Minaj's cybernetic vocals and a cluttered production.
Nicki Minaj is one of the more polarizing superstars in music today, and Roman Reloaded is likely to be a polarizing album. Minaj should be applauded for her willingness to take risks, but the musical detours on …Reloaded feel so forced and phoned-in that its not a stretch to believe that not even Nicki believes in them. It's telling that the dance pop songs are herded to the album's second half, and she never sounds comfortable aping Madonna.
Its a shame, because if Nicki truly believed in her sound as much as she claims, she could've made quite a compelling album. Instead, Roman Reloaded stands as a half-baked miss that showcases an artist in the midst of an as-of-yet unrealized transition.

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