Nicki Minaj: Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded (Album Review)

After serving up endlessly ferocious features on tracks like “Bottoms Up” by Trey Songz, Usher‘s “Lil Freak,” Jay Sean‘s “2012 (It Ain’t The End)” and her grand triumph, a spotlight stealing verse on Kanye West‘s star-studded “Monster,” Nicki Minaj‘s 2010 debut Pink Friday should have been a roaring proclamation that the new face of female rap had finally arrived.

Instead, the album turned out to be a plodding series of motivational cliches and lukewarm midtempos about overcoming obstacles, following your dreams and rising above. And that’s fair–after all, she managed to defy expectations, skyrocket to the top of the charts, reinvent the boundaries of female rap (and rap in general) and ultimately became the most important thing to happen to female rap since Lil’ Kim and Missy Elliott in the span of about two years.

Still, the album equivalent of one Taylor Swift surprise face after another about being on top wasn’t nearly as captivating as the fire she was spitting on everyone else’s songs. By the end, the album barely showcased why her star rose so quickly in the first place.

Two more years have passed, and Minaj is back for another solo round–Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded–and this time, she’s actually packing some heat.

Not, however, that her latest campaign has gone off without a hitch: After teasing out tracks like “Roman Reloaded,” “Roman In Moscow” (which didn’t even make the record) and the slap-happy “Stupid Hoe” over the past few months, Minaj faced a barrage of criticism for her seemingly rush releases, cheap production style and basic rhyme schemes. (The chorus of “Stupid Hoe” is literally the phrase “You a stupid hoe!” repeated ad nauseum, for instance.)

Added to that, there was that throw-anything-at-the-wall-until-it-sticks performance of “Roman Holiday” at the 2012 Grammy Awards earlier this year, which was something like an interpretive dance between The Sound of Music and The Exorcist. Then came the album artwork, which featured a paint slathered, whitewashed Minaj (and her Illuminati rumor-sparking Eye of Horus makeup) with a sloppy finger-painted title slathered across the bottom. It was all one big mess.

And that’s exactly what this album ultimately is: a mess. But a mostly good kind, if you can believe it.

At first, Roman Reloaded–which is focused around her gay boy alter-ego, Roman Zolanski–plays like an identity crisis happening in real time. Rap? Ballads? Drunk-pop anthems? Where is she on the map? Really though, Reloaded represents exactly what Nicki is right now: A smorgasbord of sounds to appeal to the broadest base possible. As she rapped in her feature on Madonna‘s “I Don’t Give A” (which she borrowed from Jay-Z): “I’m not a businesswoman, I’m a business, woman!”

Nicki Inc. includes the silly accents, explosive energy and alter-egos of Mixtape Minaj and her numerous features, the pop radio-friendly hooks of “Super Bass,” the dance floor queen on David Guetta‘s club smash, “Turn Me On.” She’s a wackjob of all trades, and her success has come from a variety of noises and sounds. A “sell out”? I guess. But as she astutely raps on “Roman Reloaded”: “I guess I went commercial, just shot a commercial/When I flew to the set though, I ain’t fly commercial.” The woman knows how to get money.

“Authenticity” aside, Roman Reloaded has plenty to offer.

The rap section at the forefront of the record (there’s a clear division between rap and pop-dance midway through the album), sees Minaj at her most playful mentality since her mixtapes: The Ryan & Smitty-produced “HOV Lane” is a thrilling burst of cocky energy: “I’m in the HOV lane, and you? Y-you? Y-you? Soul train!” she taunts. “Beez In The Trap,” on the other hand, floats atop drippy, atmospheric electronica and a beat that sounds like fingers snapping in an empty auditorium. “Bitches ain’t shit and they ain’t say nothing/A hundred mothafuckas can’t tell me nothing,” Minaj boasts on the Kenoe-produced minimal beat. Apart from an embarrassing guest verse from newcomer 2 Chainz (“True religion trousers”–oy!), the song might be one of the most inventive moments production-wise for Minaj.

It can all become a bit much: Apart from “Stupid Hoe,” the punchy Hitboy-crafted “Come On A Cone” (her ice is so cold, it should come on a cone…like ice cream, I guess?), Minaj takes her rhyming skills to another level: “When I’m sitting with Anna, I’m really sitting with Anna/Ain’t a metaphor punch line, I’m really sitting with Anna,” she raps, reflecting on her Fashion Week experience dressed as a giant 3rd grade art project next to Anna Wintour. Later, she operatically croons the phrase “Put my dick in yo face!” for a good 30 seconds. Who says artistry is dead?

Aside from the self-glorification, a majority of the record is devoted to dancing up in the club: Tracks 10-13 on the record essentially congeal into one mega-marathon of thumping RedOne-produced pop radio anthems, as each track borrows from about a dozen songs you’ve already heard on the radio.

Her current single, “Starships,” most notably cribs from at least three major ’10-’11 anthems, including Rihanna‘s “We Found Love,” P!nk‘s “Raise Your Glass” and Britney‘s “Till The World Ends.” Still, it’s a thoroughly amazing pop song–from the rollicking, mile-a-minute power pop verses (“Fuck who you want and fuck who you’d like!) to the surging beat breakdown.

If “Starships” is Minaj’s equivalent to Lady Gaga‘s “Just Dance” for this era, then “Pound The Alarm” is Nicki’s “Poker Face.” Borrowing from the same winning formula (which, lest we forget, is already based on winning formulas), the track sees the bewigged rapstress popping bottles in the club and dancing around once again. “Pound the alarm!” she declares before the foghorn from Britney’s “Stronger” ushers in another explosion of beats.

The slap-happy “Whip It” follows suit: “Whip it, whip it!” she yells, before a quick moan and a whip crack leads into–you guessed it, another explosion of beats, albeit more in the bubbly ’90’s direction of Aqua or Vengaboys. And “Automatic”? “It’s automatic-ic-ic-ic!” Minaj happily sing-songs across–shocker here!–another bouncy breakdown of beats. They’re all terrific tunes, and if you’re not paying attention, you’d never even know you’ve just listened to four separate songs.

By the end, Minaj begins to flaunt a more vulnerable side, as with “Fire Burns” and the album’s incredibly catchy power-pop ballad “Marilyn Monroe,” which centers around one of Monroe’s most famous quotes and contains one of the album’s hook-heaviest choruses: “Is this how Marilyn Monroe felt?” Minaj sadly ponders aloud. To answer that question: I’m not sure how often Marilyn Monroe felt the need to put her dick in anyone’s face, but if she did, then yes–it probably is, Nicki.

Other sweetly sung songs are less successful, like the plodding “Right By My Side” featuring misogynist Chris Brown. And speaking of assholes, the standard edition’s second-to-last closer “Gun Shot,” includes some truly cringe-worthy crooning by Minaj (there’s one whining note at 1:35 that literally sounds like a cat being set ablaze) as well as a feature from the homophobic Beenie Man, who at one point almost faced charges after calling for the death of gays in his lyrics. An interesting choice for a collaborator, given that the album is supposedly from the point of view of Roman. Wonder how Nicki’s Ken Barbs feel about that one?

But much as with Pink Friday‘s “Super Bass,” the album’s (arguably) greatest highlight is featured on the deluxe version: “Va Va Voom.” Produced by Dr. Luke and Cirkut, the insanely infectious bout of seduction finds Minaj playing the temptress atop some delicious dub-lite pulsations a la Britney’s Femme Fatale sizzler, “Seal It With A Kiss.” “I know that he got a wife at home, but I need just one night alone,” Minaj slyly croons. Throw in a very “You Da One”-esque breakdown (again, Dr. Luke), and you’ve got an unbelievably sickening (in the good way!) pop tune.

Roman Reloaded is a lot of things: sophomoric, derivative, explosive, ridiculous–but above all, it’s just a frivolous good time. The album’s essentially the perfect party playlist, as there’s enough to whet anyone’s appetite in a 2-hour stretch: bouncy Euro club cuts, ‘tude-heavy rap offerings, slow dance sections and off-the-walls pop corkers.

Sure, she might be more of a novelty act than a rapper or a singer at the moment, but the trick is not to take any of this too seriously. After all, Nicki clearly doesn’t.

Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded was released on April 3. (iTunes)

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