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Nicki Minaj, ‘Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded’ (Cash Money)

Nicki Minaj / Getty Images
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: April 03, 2012
Label: Young Money/Cash Money/Universal Republic

“This is for the hood / This is for the kids,” offers Nicki Minaj on “Champion,” one of her second album’s half-dozen tracks of rap perfection. She also suggests that it’s for “single moms” and “niggas doin’ bids,” which still leaves out her various other constituencies: pre-tween girls blinged up in Silly Bandz™, the crowded 2 A.M. dance floor at Manhole, those lamenting the lack of pop-rap irreverence post-OutKast, and anyone who wants too see a girly-girl MC Godzilla-ing her muy macho peers. Which is to say that Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, like a Whitman’s Sampler, has something chewy for everyone.

She’s showing us all sides here — singer, MC, and theater geek, complete with a few alter-egos (gay-boy Roman and his mom). Reloaded is separated into the Rap Half and the Pop Half, a nearly 70-minute monolith frontloaded with devastating proof of her skills as an MC, then transitioning into her diva bit via 10 tracks of sparkly Top 40 precision. Such a strict divide is a good idea: Switching back and forth between rappy-rap broadsides and Ibiza tracks would leave this sounding more like a mix CD than an album, and having a treacly bit of Chris Brown do-me diarrhea (“Right by My Side”) sidle up next to the mania and jungle drums of “Roman Holiday” wouldn’t serve anyone’s best interests.

Her rap offerings are nearly flawless. See the frosty “Beez in the Trap,” Minaj’s staccato throwback flow flaunting the borough lilt of her voice and annihilating the rest of the record in the process. “Roman Holiday” is pure theater, the closest hip-hop’s gotten to its own “Bohemian Rhapsody,” full of thrilling crescendos and twitchy verses that verge on the ridiculous, but always shift toward the triumphant. The rest is exactly what you want post-“Monster”: the Harajuku Barbie detonating on posse cuts. Though Jeezy, Weezy, Nas, and Drake do their thing, she wrecks any good-for-a-girl doubts that still lingered. “This is the official competitor elimination,” she raps on “Champion,” and indeed it is. She says she’s the female Lil Wayne, but considering his recent singles, he’s more the microwavable appetizer prepping us for the real meal of Minaj’s hot-pink rap exorcism.

Nicki Minaj is pop’s superheroine, her image a Hulk-ed out perversion of female perfection so saccharine it’s almost grotesque, all nuclear tits and neon. She undercuts the caricature by screaming “Suck my dick!” no less than three times here, which makes bon mots like, “It’s Britney, bitch,” seem a little wan. If it wasn’t clear before, she is the future, and she’s here to fuck with us. Which is why it feels good to believe in Nicki the rapper: Her spitter mode puts the impossibility of the whole package into fabulous relief, the defiant glory of the contradictions, the shredding of our expectations. She’s chart-savvy, but it’s still art.

With such a gratifying front end, it’s easy to dismiss Roman Reloaded‘s subsequent pop tracks as a paying of the piper: The too-perfect, Dr. Luke-produced songs are her penance for sneaking deranged yodeling ode “Roman Holiday” in there. While such dexterity is part of her appeal — she can sing the hook and slay on the verse — it’s hard not to think of that duality as a hindrance, highlighting her ferocity as a rapper but exposing that, as a singer, she’s just a typical girl. Which rings false, because we’re already so well-acquainted with her riotous DayGlo steez — we know the real Minaj story. Her pop simulacra, with their steamroller synths, Guetta throb, and pant-along verses, are a lesser representation of her talents. How you feel about Nicki the singer depends on how you feel about, say, Katy Perry — same difference. There is nothing to get lost in on the bad-boy romance “Beautiful Sinner,” no destroy-all-comers spirit to rile you. A criminal lack of Minaj-ness. Her artistic potency dissolves, and she’s just another well-finessed quirky diva, distinguished from the endless wave of finna-be Britneys only by her pink wig and wicked grin.

The upside is that even when Minaj is dialed to “mediocre,” she’s never close to terrible; on “Automatic,” she does a better (or at least more nuanced) Rihanna than Ri-Ri herself. “Starships, ” her fun first single, might be your ringtone until June, but until she raps out that verse, she could be anyone. Which is probably the point, but it’s asking you to forget that Minaj the MC is singular, the prodigal daughter returned to save all who want to believe.