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What Makes Nicki Minaj’s Music Fun and Smart

Nick Minaj performs in New York City, April 2011

Listen to “Super Bass”, the Pink Friday bonus track turned victory-lap single, and for a few minutes, try not to think about about Nicki Minaj’s breathless rapping ability, weirdo vocal tics, funny faces, and visionary fashion sense (yes to long-sleeve spandex dresses, yes yes yes to late-’90s Aaliyah swag). Simply focus on her singular ability to make genuinely joy-filled pop music.

The production on “Super Bass” is the same as everything on the radio (shiny, loud-quiet-loud dance), but Nicki has surrounded that signature style with palpable emotions and, of course, a shit ton of attitude. And that goes a long way. This is an experience-based song about a rote topic: Really being into a guy and feeling like he could change your world. “Super Bass” easily could devolve into subservient cheese, but Nicki’s up to the challenge of expressing it maturely.

Both verses on “Super Bass” follow the same structure: First, there’s a detailed dedication to a certain male “type” (“this one is for the boys…”), but it’s like she’s admiring him from afar. Outward appearances — clothes, cars, etc. — take precedence, but then she switches and directly addresses the guy(s), as if she’s walking up to him to run some game, only her game is sincere, charming, even a little silly, and sometimes in a British accent. “You’re slicker than a guy with the thing on his eye,” she raps, like Annie Hall “la di da”-ing her way through an awkward moment. Right before the lovestruck chorus hits, though, she saves a few lines to assert her own awesomeness (“Yes I did, yes I did, please tell him who the eff I is…”), because that is equally important.

The most telling lines in “Super Bass” arrive in the second verse: “He ain’t even gotta try to put the mack on / He just gotta give me that look / When he give me that look / Then the panties comin’ off.” That’s the sort of thing a smarmy rapper would boast that his girl does for him, but it has a confessional charm here, because Nicki’s established such a strong, complex personality in the previous verse, but also in her varied body of work overall. What could come off like third-rate Trina instead feels earned and intimate — something unspoken between lovers.

Pink Friday is full of smart, unabashedly catchy pop-rap songs like “Super Bass,” and perhaps that’s why the album was viewed as something of a disappointment; It wasn’t a straight-up rap statement. Also blame the fact that it shared a release date with Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and, you know, sexism, but indeed, Pink Friday is a knotty album that’s expressive and girly-in-a-good-way. Meaning, only a woman can access these emotions and turn them into art quite like this. “Super Bass” reminds us of that almost seven months later.

Who else so casually and playfully unleashes their personality onto an audience like this? We have plenty of conflicted rap and R&B stars, with their anguished heads up their asses, making a handful of masterpieces, and way too many mindlessly inspirational fist pump pop throwaways, but who’s communicating the feeling of being in a healthy relationship? “Your Love,” like “Super Bass” is a celebratory love song that never fully bows down to the man in the relationship. “Right Thru Me” flips the “angry girlfriend” song: “How do you do that shit?” she asks, with a tinge of awe in her voice, shocked by a partner’s capacity to care so much that he (or she) knows her better than she knows herself. Even “Dear Old Nicki” — which isn’t a love song, but a conversation with her pre-fabulous, “underground” hip-hop self — references Morel Inc.’s cathartic house classic, “Why Not Believe In Him,” retaining this strand of appreciation for the person she’s dating.

Nicki Minaj’s actual love life, though public, remains mysterious. Yet, perhaps it’s key to why she can cram such specific emotions into such superficially conventional pop songs. Pretty much always by her side — at signings and interviews — is SB (a.k.a., Safaree Samuels), her boyfriend,or if some sources are to be believed, her fiance or husband. SB is just kinda there without any context, which is ideal for Nicki’s special brand of romantic rap. This is quite different than, say, “Ain’t No Other Man,” Christina Aguilera’s very public dedication to then-husband Jordan Bratman; that connection was on-the-nose and, as a result, perhaps too attached to real life for anyone to really take it to heart. Nicki’s songs are still accessible to others even though they’re clearly tied to her life. She’s penning secret, public love letters to the dude (“Super Bass”=SB?) and that’s just really, really touching.

Towards the end of the “Super Bass” video, SB even makes an appearance doing a goofy-ass robot dance (it looks like the sort of thing one would do in private to make your significant other laugh). He shuffles and locks and shift his joints next to Nicki. They’re both on a pedestal, lit in black light, and isolated from the video’s choreographed histrionics. The moment is quirky and touching, every bit as cutesy as Zach Braff and Natalie Portman doing whatever cute things they did in Garden State; or if you’re a little too cool for that flick, let’s go with All The Real Girls‘ Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel hugging in the middle of a bowling alley.

Nicki and SB are, of course, a real couple, so this isn’t some quirky cracker fantasy with nothing at stake, but a living, breathing relationship translated into a universal, specific pop song and a glowing pop-art video. The last thing we see in the video is a medium close-up of Nicki holding SB’s chain, and then a shot of her leaning across his lap, butt in the air. She gives the camera a sexy but also silly, knowing sneer. She looks comfortable — and she’s the only pop star truly expressing that emotion right now.