Nicki Minaj’s sophomore effort, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, is the type of record that will inspire a thousand think pieces about hip-hop gender roles and schizophrenia, vanity and celebrity. Many of these will even be warranted, as Minaj is undeniably a fascinating personality. But her personality isn’t half as fascinating as the aesthetic that it’s birthed. All of the quirks of identity and character that come embedded in Roman Reloaded seem quaint in comparison to the actual sonic qualities of the album’s peaks. Quite simply, it sounds unlike anything else being produced in popular music right now.
Or, at least, the brilliant first-third of it (along with straggler street single-cum-bonus track “Stupid Hoe”) does. This segment apparently represents her angry male alter-ego “Roman Zolanski” run wild. The reasoning behind this alias (or what, if anything, it has to do with long exiled filmmaker Roman Polanski) is immaterial. What’s important is that it lets Minaj go crazy in the best way possible. As per the Young Money coda, most of her writing is sloppy, built around puns that are usually either awkwardly constructed or logistically flimsy (“I travel more than you walking with a basketball”). But meaning is beside the point. Minaj is of a generation that has mutated rapping to a point where language is no longer its primary currency. Performance is. And truthfully, there’s nobody in rap who offers a more aggressive display of vocal theatrics. She purely unhinged, ricocheting between sex kitten and lunatic in a way that could inspire a thousand analogies. She’s a violent hummingbird, she’s a valley girl and a vampire, she’s exorcising demons at a tea party. At one point she breaks out into song just to announce her plans to put her dick in the face of her unnamed foes. We don’t need named alter-egos to tell us how schizophrenic she is — it’s self-evident in her style.
“More than any other mainstream rapper, Minaj’s sound is roughly representative of what a large and underrepresented segment of Black American party music sounds like at the moment.”
Crucially though, she never lets her eccentricities overwhelm her actually rapping ability. Minaj can rap her ass off in the most classical sense, with or without the decorative flair. She clings to rhythms with an almost inhuman ability, giving her producers the freedom to indulge in their own insane experiments without ever making her vocals sound slight or sloppy. And indulge they do, giving her an appropriately spastic spine that does absolute justice to the album’s Pollock-splatter artwork. Everything is densely arranged at a stop-and-go pace that lands somewhere between drumlines and hopscotch. The snares sit aggressively high in the mix, the kicks are punishingly low and all seem to decay in perpetuity. Trails of 808 claps dance around everything, dancehall sirens swell, dubstep wobbles wiggle, gunshots fire. Hit Boy, the architect behind Jay-Z & Kanye‘s “N*ggas In Paris,” introduces a barrage of acid squelches halfway through his “Come on a Cone” while Kenoe turns a barrage of Neptunes water droplets into a near drone with “Beez in the Trap.” These soundbanks are simultaneously familiar to the past thirty years of hip-hop and yet ominously alien in their structure. It’s as if they stripped the genre to its barest essentials, and then built something enormous and spastic out of just those essentials.
None of this is completely unprecedented. Minaj’s own 2009 mixtape cuts “I Get Crazy” and “Itty Bitty Piggy” set the early standard for spazz-clap rap while other rappers — spiritual predecessors like Outkast and Missy Elliott, contemporaries like Wayne, Travis Porter and Meek Mill – have all hinted at similarly jittery directions previously. But these have always been delivered in comparatively small doses. The madness that opens Roman Reloaded is only magnified when presented in a solid six-track clump and, on an album that will inevitably be a commercial triumph, this seems like a purposeful mission statement.
“It turns out her split personality schtick isn’t so much a product of schizophrenia, but of cowardice.”
It’s a bold one too. More than any other mainstream rapper, Minaj’s sound is roughly representative of what a large and underrepresented segment of Black American party music sounds like at the moment. While the Drake generation was smoothing out and spacing up hip-hop radio, many localized styles that have either evolved out of or parallel to hip hop – New Orleans Bounce, Baltimore/Philly/Jersey Club, Chicago Juke, DC Go-Go and Los Angeles Jerkin – were making strides towards anxious maximalism. While her producers only occasionally nod in the specific direction of these genres (and truly, that might only be because they nod in every direction) their motives seem to overlap. They all squeeze as much audio data as possible into a short space, they twist and stack rhythms with reckless abandon and tend to decimate vocals until they’re nearly meaningless. (“Stupid Hoe” producer DJ Diamond Kuts serves as a Philadelphia radio mixshow DJ and her sets might make the best case for at least some of these seemingly disparate bursts of chaos — Nicki, Meek, Bounce, Club — representing a more unified emerging aesthetic in urban music.)
Which is why it’s so disappointing when this stretch of the album ends so abruptly. After “Champion” — a generic Drake-ish posse cut in which Drake himself Drakes it up while Nas and Young Jeezy just sound tired — that’s it for Roman Reloaded, the rap album. Roman takes his medication and Nicki, the subdued and autotune songstress from her debut, takes over. Lady Gaga producer RedOne reprises his role as lobotomized and, rather than try to rationalize the two sides of her identity (like she did quite effectively with last year’s “Super Bass”) our lunatic genius once again succumbs entirely to the comparatively dull standards of pop radio. When raps do occasionally claw their way out of the Rihannic soup of euro pop, context places them closer to Fergie than Missy. Not to devalue the craft of a good pop song — more than a few of these are well refined and will no doubt dominate radio this summer — but it’s difficult to take them seriously as art immediately after experiencing the madness that is the Roman stretch of the record. It’s like stepping out of a spaceship and getting into a well-constructed go-kart.
It’s obvious why Minaj and her team thought these pop tracks needed to exist. Pop music tends to be popular, and, thus, it makes for a more reliably bankable investment than erratic claps and grunts about shoving dicks in the faces of imaginary foes. But if anybody in popular music has a strong enough personality and fan base to make the latter work at radio, it’s probably Minaj. Had she stuck to her guns, it’s entirely possible that records like “Super Hoe” could’ve just bullied their way to market. (And they might still.) It turns out her split personality schtick isn’t so much a product of schizophrenia, but of cowardice. Hip-hop artists used to routinely change the pop music landscape, now they change themselves to fit into the existing one.
Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded is out tomorrow, April 3.