Nicki Minaj will not be contained. Not to 16-bar verses. Not to one persona. Not even to hip-hop. Brought up in Jamaica, Queens, and taught to be a star at New York City’s “Fame” school (LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts), the MC born Onika Maraj has more alter egos than most pop stars have nicknames. With three promising mixtapes and a streak of spotlight-hogging guest verses, she’s established herself as the best (avowedly bisexual) female in hip-hop’s “no homo” boys’ club. But anyone who comes to her official full-length, Pink Friday, expecting more of the raw, terrifically unhinged rhyming that stole Kanye West’s “Monster” will be disappointed. Rap’s most hotly anticipated debut works best if you don’t think of it as a rap album at all.
That’s no accident. No shame, either. Like fellow Young Money sluggers Lil Wayne and Drake before her, albeit with less Auto-Tune and a lot less innuendo, Minaj turns toward frothy, hooky pop on her new album. That means you’ll hear her singing, which is nothing exceptional, as well as rapping, which is still spectacular: cartoonish, clever, and endlessly flexible. This move to the mainstream has led to speculation about dark corporate shenanigans. But it’s really nothing more — and nothing less — than Minaj’s latest reinvention, one she agonizes over here from start to finish. With savvy ’80s-tinged samples, simple but convincing emotions, and a feature list that reads like a Billboard chart summary, Pink Friday is as self-aware is it is fiercely entertaining.
As an MC showcase,though, the album falls short, with no verses as memorable as those she dropped for Robin Thicke, Usher, Trey Songz, Ludacris, or Mariah Carey. But this self-styled Harajuku Barbie certainly can compete with the big boys, and she doesn’t let anyone forget it. “I am not Jasmine / I am Aladdin,” Minaj declares over pulsating Swizz Beatz strings on “Roman’s Revenge,” employing her Roman Zolanski alter ego to try and out-nasty Eminem. Slim Shady lands a knockout blow with an epic metaphor involving “two pees and a tripod”; his use of an anti-gay slur on gay-friendly Minaj’s track signals the bout is no-holds-barred. But she proves almost as twisted, brashly reclaiming another derogatory slang term (“cunt”), before veering off into an outlandish British accent. Minaj’s best rapping comes over the whirring synth drone of the Bangladesh-produced “Did It in On ‘Em,” where she pulls out an imagined “dick” and pisses on a washed-up rival.
But Pink Friday makes a point of shifting the terms of engagement to less-macho terrain. Opener “I’m the Best” floats on triumphant synths and snapping drum programming from “Bed Rock” hitmaker Kane; it’s at once origin myth and glass ceiling — “I’m the best bitch doin’ it” lacks the oomph of boss Weezy’s “best rapper alive” boasts. Minaj appends a possible clarification: “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.” In other words, if male hip-hop heads don’t clap along, that’s okay; Minaj is poised for something bigger: the pop realm.
“You sing along with a pop song, you turn into a girl,” Rob Sheffield writes in his recent book, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran. On “Your Love,” Minaj’s highest-charting single, she basically does just that. Goofily doo-be-doo-ing along with Annie Lennox’s “No More I Love You’s,” Minaj redirects her own absurdist elan into uncomplicated bubblegum: “When I was a geisha, he was a Samurai / Somehow I understood him when he spoke Thai.” Yup, Thai. Ballad “Right Thru Me” winningly reveals this brain-eating rapper’s vulnerable side, though she’s no Stephin Merritt when it comes to pop songcraft: Check the rote inspirational platitudes on Rihanna-assisted “Fly,” or Natasha Bedingfield’s forgettable hook on finale “Last Chance.” Still, even the corniest tracks — take will.i.am’s Buggles-sampling “Check It Out,” which could be second-tier Black Eyed Peas — have her charismatically colorful, larger-than-life personality all over them.
Pink Friday directly addresses the gap between Minaj’s present and past selves on the beguiling “Dear Old Nicki,” acknowledging, “In hindsight I loved your rawness and I loved your edge…but I needed to grow.” And grow she has. Ultimately, the album is a budding artist’s love letter to pop — well-wrought and exuberantly penned, with skulls and crossbones in the margins and little pink hearts over the i’s. Maybe the divide between underground rapper and pop starlet will be her most compelling split personality yet. The men don’t know, but the little girls understand.