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Reconsidering ‘Roman Reloaded’

Nicki Minaj

Blame criticisms of Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded — that it’s half great, half disaster — on the inelegant transition from “Champion,” a slow rolling rap track that ends with a furious verse from Nas, to “Right By My Side” a sunny turd of a slow jam turd featuring Chris fucking Brown. It’s jarring, and it declares “rapping’s over, time for pop,” which turns out to be only half-true. Pull “Right By My Side” and the next track, “Sex in the Lounge” off the album (and while you’re at it, Beenie Man collaboration, “Gun Shot”), and Roman Reloaded is a solid, always entertaining, sometimes frustrating major label rap album.

Recall that Pink Friday wasn’t received that much better. Back then, a whole year and a half ago, the narrative was that guest-verse scene-stealer Nicki gave in to pressure to go pop. That doesn’t seem true. Mostly because Pink Friday‘s songs with singing are so emotionally well-wrought, and still contain plenty of great rapping. Pink Friday sounds like the album Nicki wanted to make. As I’ve noted before, there was a frustrating flip of gender expectations — a female rapper is criticized for playing into her gender — a faulty theory for many reasons, though namely because the assumption that “pop” scans as “feminine” and rap as “masculine” is some sexist bullshit.

With Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, the complaint is not so much that Nicki didn’t bring the real, but that she collapses to pop expectations instead of doing all the weird stuff she does on the first half. This misunderstands just how strange the pop songs are, and again, presumes that making pop music automatically entails compromise. The celebration of Nicki’s “weirdness” too, is a way of boxing her in, speaking on what’s good for her, and forcing her into but another category (rap game’s manic pixie dream girl) that she’s way too interesting to fully occupy.

On Friday, SPIN’s Marc Hogan demonstrated how the attitude towards Nicki’s latest has been shifting closer to positive: “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.”

Disappointment with Roman Reloaded isn’t entirely limited to music writers (it sold 253,000 its first week to Pink Friday‘s 375,000) and the pop singles, which are simply not as strong (or even as starpower-fueled) on Roman Reloaded. But there is a disconnect between people who hear “Starships” as formulaic (“Moves Like Jagger” + Venga Boys + an Electric Daisy Carnival compilation) and those who just think “THIS SONG IS FUN TO DANCE TO!”

The nutty new music video for “Starships” (Kenneth Anger + #SEAPUNK + David LaChapelle’s Rize) should bridge that sucks/rules divide. It’s evidence that Nicki Minaj’s subversive qualities are always on display. As Hogan observed, the line “fuck who you want, and fuck who you like” is a status quo-bucking form of utopianism that rarely breaks through to mainstream party pop now. As visceral and sugar-rush-filled as Nicki Minaj’s music is, she’s an expert at making slow-growers that reveal themselves weeks or even months after their release.

A few weeks ago, I tossed out a “redux” version of Roman Reloaded — rearranged with the three offending tracks lopped off — and I’ve received some positive tweets and e-mails about it. Here’s my version of Roman Reloaded: “Roman Holiday,” “Starships,” “Pound The Alarm,” “Come On A Cone,” “Hov Lane,” “Beez In The Trap,” “I Am Your Leader,” “Whip It,” “Stupid Hoe,” “Roman Reloaded,” “Beautiful Sinner,” “Automatic,” “Fire Burns,” “Young Forever,” “Champion,” and “Marilyn Monroe.”

What Jessica Hopper says in her SPIN review stands (“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”), though an album that sounds like a mix CD seems pretty awesome to me! So, don’t listen to “my” version because it’s better than the real version, though I think it is. Listen to it because a resequencing exposes the way that, free of false genre divisions, and the moans of lousy critics caught up in categorical thinking, Roman Reloaded is an excellent, though easily dismissible album.