Nicki Minaj is gearing up for a new album; thought I’d reprint my review of her last one from the Chicago Reader.
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“I’m the best bitch,” Nicki Minaj declares on “I’m the Best,” the opening track of her debut album, Pink Friday. It’s not the first time she’s bragged about her bitchiness—the difference here is that she doesn’t seem to mean it. A year and a half ago, on “Itty Bitty Piggy” from her mix tape Beam Me Up Scotty, she came across as a cackling, potty-mouthed machine gun, declaring “I’m a bad bitch, I’m a I’m a bad bitch” in a deranged, hammering singsong that made you believe in both her badness and her bitchiness. In comparison, “I’m the Best” sounds like—well, like a rapper looking to go pop by abandoning weirdness for rote R&B backing and rotely inspirational lyrics. “I’m fighting for the girls that never thought they could win” is a long, sad trip from profane nuttiness like “If you see a itty bitty piggy in the market / Give that bitch a quarter and a car, tell her park it / I don’t fuck with pigs like as-salaam-alaikum / I put ‘em in a field, I let Oscar Mayer bake ‘em.”

I wish “I’m the Best” were an aberration. But alas, Pink Friday is filled nigh to bursting with blandness. You know those swelling, earnest, I-have-overcome bullshit tracks that even decent rappers often put at the ends of their CDs, where you can conveniently avoid them? Imagine a whole album of that, and you’ve got a general idea of what Minaj has perpetrated. The Rihanna collaboration “Fly” is the sort of dreary gush you’d expect from a song that uses “fly” as a verb; the Natasha Bedingfield collaboration “Last Chance” is the sort of dreary gush you’d expect from a Natasha Bedingfield collaboration. But don’t blame the R&B songstresses: Minaj proves she can suck all on her lonesome with dross like “Here I Am,” where she actually says, “I’m a woman, hear me roar.” What’s next—is she going to call Lil Wayne the wind beneath her wings?

The fact that Minaj channels Helen Reddy with a straight face on a hip-hop album seems like a good indication that she’s lost her way in spectacular fashion. It’s easy to see this as a desperate and misguided effort to reach a mainstream audience—and it clearly is that. But at the same time, the album’s rudderlessness seems like part and parcel of Minaj’s persona. With a flow that hops from Barbie cuteness to Rasta declamation to a faux British accent to sped-up Tourette’s, Minaj has always been about spastic incoherence, and one of her most acclaimed performances is deliberately and gloriously bipolar. In her verse on Kanye West’s “Monster,” she switches back and forth between a flirtatious little-girl coo and a fierce, ranting growl, using the alternation to create an escalating momentum so massive it makes the other rappers on the track—Jay-Z and Rick Ross—sound positively precious.

As the two poles of “Monster” make clear, Minaj has flirted throughout her career with both of the standard hip-hop roles for women: sex kitten and ball breaker. That flirtation, though, has up till now tended to be oddly and in some ways refreshingly halfhearted. True, Minaj wears preposterous ass-accentuating outfits in the video for the pre-album promo track “Massive Attack” and huge castrating claws in video for Ludacris’s “My Chick Bad,” but for the most part it’s remarkable how little she seems to care about teasing cocks or cutting them off. Her focus is almost always on, as she invariably puts it, “bitches.” One of the decent tracks on Pink Friday, “Did It on ‘Em,” is fairly characteristic: “All these bitches is my sons. . . . If I had a dick I would pull it out and piss on ‘em.”

If fantasizing about having a penis so you can better dominate other women sounds suggestive—well, yeah. Though Minaj dances around her rumored bisexuality in both her lyrics and her interviews, her most explicit statements of lust on record almost invariably involve women. The exception that proves the rule is perhaps her cameo on Christina Aguilera’s “Woohoo,” about the pleasures of cunnilingus. Though the song is ostensibly addressed to off-mike men, Aguilera is on record as not especially straight either, and when Minaj exclaims “Lick, lick like a lolly,” you get the sense that she’s not just the potential lickee. Less coy are her verses on Usher’s “Little Freak” and Gucci Mane’s “Girls Kissing Girls,” in both of which Minaj hornily anticipates a menage, offering to hook her brothers up.

Pink Friday doesn’t have anything that hot and heavy. Minaj may enjoy lasciviously contemplating your “kitty cat” and asking if she can “touch her,” but she’s careful to rhyme the whole thing with “Usher.” Lesbianism is only OK packaged for male consumption. Minaj wants girls . . . but it ain’t no fun if the homeys can’t have none.

And no wonder: as a female rapper, Minaj can’t be a sex bomb and a badass; she can’t be a castrator and one of the boys; she can’t be an out dyke and have a career. But artistically, this tension isn’t always a bad thing. Her seesawing between identities is a large part of her appeal and her genius. What other female rapper has called herself Monica Lewinsky, Barbie, and Freddy from Nightmare on Elm Street? Minaj’s refusal to stay in the hip-hop box labeled “women” has allowed her to be silly, unpredictable, and fierce in a way that few rappers of any gender have managed.

But a debut album is where an artist shows the world who she is, and for Minaj that’s a trap. You can see the problem most clearly on the album’s best track—”Roman’s Revenge” with Eminem. Swizz Beatz drops the two rappers into a factory full of hammering synths, and Eminem proceeds to tear that shit apart, bouncing from S&M to pissed-off Happy Meals, spewing tangled knots of filthy punch lines so fast that lesser mortals don’t even have time to be knocked on their asses. “So I tied her arms and legs to the bed, set up the camera and pissed twice on her. Look! Two peas in a tripod.”

Like most rappers, Minaj doesn’t have Eminem’s skills, but she doesn’t get blown away either. From her first stuttering transgender declaration—”I am not Jasmine, I am Aladdin!”—she spits insults and threats, at one point even comparing herself to Eli Manning, and in general she sounds lean, mean, and nuts.

The only thing is . . . well, Eminem is up in there getting a blow job and pissing on women, you know? And in response, Minaj . . . starts sneering at bitches again. The Internets have speculated that she’s calling out Lil’ Kim, and fair enough. But can you imagine Minaj cutting off some guy’s bits and Slim Shady just saying “ayup” and going after a third party? You have to wonder if he’s glancing sideways at Minaj when he snaps, “Look who’s back again, bitch / Keep acting as if you have the same passion I have / Yeah right, still hungry, my ass.”

The point isn’t that Minaj has some obligation to fight for the rights of women everywhere. But it is to suggest that, even at her most feral, there are places she won’t or can’t go. “I feel like people always wanna define me and I don’t wanna be defined,” Minaj said in a Vibe magazine interview this summer. I can sympathize with that—but on Pink Friday, the fear of being defined seems to have made her unwilling to say anything of interest at all. At some point, if you’re not going to stand for something, you might as well sit down.

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