On Friday night, three days after the postponed release of her sophomore album Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, Nicki Minaj performed a surprise three-song show in Manhattan’s Times Square. For an album that went straight to the top of the charts, it’s been interestingly polarizing in both content and reception; inside Minaj is a thespian, a sugary pop goddess, and a fierce rapper, all while repping for the girls in her home-borough of Queens and cutting down claims of selling out. The latter made the night’s show that much more surreal, as her small stage stood bathing in the glow of Manhattan’s brightest LCD screens. The massive, looming constructions flashed advertisements for Broadway shows, The New Girl, tourist packages and a screaming, logo-emblazoned backdrop courtesy of the night’s sponsor, Nokia. By the end of the concert, all of this would be captured in a viral video ad for their newest Lumia phone.
The pontential quotables are endless here. “I guess I went commercial / Just shot a commercial,” is one of the first lines of Reloaded‘s title-track for Christ’s sake. There was no avoiding that the evening’s spectacular was part of a larger plan that had very little to do with Minaj at all. No matter how hard we tried. Those privy to the details of the show in advance — brand execs, label folk, a handful of celebs, and press — were directed to a neighboring hotel to watch the show from their swanky, window-encased lounge. And an open bar with drinks like Monster Mayhem and Lumia Light and bite-size spoonfuls of risotto are not things you’d imagine go hand-in-hand with this particular rapper’s baddest-bitch attitude. Our initial hesitance could have very likely been the result of an inner-struggle, of course. It’s hard to watch a woman who so powerfully declares, “I’m a brand bitch, I’m a brand,” on her newest release almost immediately drown in the imprint of another.
But then came “Starships,” the night’s opening number and probably the best of Minaj’s forays into the world of singing, if only because there’s not much to it. Amid sparkly, sing-songy house brilliance and much bouncing around courtesy of RedOne’s climactic “Just Dance”-ian drops, the rapper’s sassy, furrowed-brow hometown swag remained. Even while encased in what we’d imagine was her interpretation of business casual (a black leotard over a white collared shirt and lace tights), she was wide-eyed, bubblegum pop-star through and through. “Right By My Side” we could have done without but, again, we suspect there must have been PG video-scheming at play. (“How many have you been in love?” was one of her few lines of banter.) As for her third and final song, well, there’s something truly spectacular about a few hundred people screaming the words to “Super Bass” in the middle of a Times Square mosh pit.
We’ll admit that her theatrics are what made this far-too-short performance so very worth it. Not the goth-opera dramatics of the Grammys, but rather the clenched hand-over-heart griping that came with the hooks of “Super Bass.” Or the flirtatious grins that accompanied stiletto-heeled jumps on “Starships.” After the show, Minaj imposters walked around the lounge posing for photos with what was left of the somewhat tipsy hotel lounge. The Barbz had her aesthetics down — painted-on purple jumpsuit, pink lipstick and glittery, mile-long eyelashes, swag for days. The real Nicki walked into the lounge shortly after and went almost unnoticed until a swarm of photographers caught wind and pounced on her. So, in the end, maybe being stripped of the in-your-face, confetti-costumed mayhem gave us more than we expected: a Nicki that we could relate to.