“Let Nicki Minaj Be Great,” SPIN’S hip-hop blog No Trivia argued not long before the pop-rap multi-threat released her all-over-the-place sophomore album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, and it’s advice that’s stuck with us. If you spend a lot of time in the real or virtual company of music writers, as we do, you hear a lot about how Minaj is at her best when she’s showing off her unparalleled skills as a rapper. If you spend a lot of time with middle-school girls, we suspect, you’d be more likely to find yourself singing along to pop hits like “Super Bass.” Historically speaking, the little girls are usually right. In the long run, fun and catchy trumps serious and virtuosic a whole lot more often than we tend to remember, and people who underestimate easy pop appeal in favor of supposedly more high-minded qualities often end up on the wrong side of history.
All of which is a very roundabout way of saying we’ve softened quite a bit on our initial resistance to “Starships,” a Red One-produced dance-pop track that at first struck as a generic bit of radio-baiting calculation, and which now has a lavishly produced video. Part of the criticism of Minaj, and Roman Reloaded in particular, has tended to be that she can’t make up her mind who she wants to be and ends up trying to be all things to all people, an impossible task. But remember, this is the Harajuku Barbie, the woman who raps her songs from the perspectives of multiple bizarre characters: Of course she’s schizophrenic. That’s one of the key themes of Minaj’s records. And in a weird way, “Starships” is just as multifarious and indulgent as mind-bending album opener “Roman Holiday,” except here the sudden personality shifts happen to be between choppy dance-pop and frenetic EDM. There’s nothing else quite like it, Minaj raps that you should “fuck who you want and fuck who you like,” and whatever voices she hears in her head, we can’t get this song out of ours.
So maybe the video will grow on us, too. Director Anthony Mandler, best known for his work with Rihanna, shot the “Starships” clip in Oahu, and it certainly doesn’t look like a low-budget job. After one of the starships of the title drops Minaj off on a beach, where she’s wearing a bikini that allows her to play the that’s-just-how-it-is sexualized-female-pop-star game while also being voluptuously true to herself, a party breaks out with some strange tribal dancers. The video is of more than one mind, too, shifting between glamorous shots of Minaj giving come-hither looks and hallucinogenic scenes where everybody just looks batshit. Whether this fantasy-island video grows on us or not, it’s frivolously, hedonistically pop. Why is that necessarily such a bad thing again, exactly?