Nicki Minaj certainly isn’t backward in coming forward. And on Roman Reloaded, she makes getting up close and personal her prime directive with an opening onslaught of lewd’n’rude numbers that present her as provocateur extraordinaire. The bonkers, wild-eyed lyric spitting of Come On A Cone sees her reeling out the “put my dick in your face” refrain like a brassy-faced calling card, before launching with equal cocky arrogance into a series of boasts topped off with “When you see me on Ellen, just admit that I’m winning”. And she’s enjoying it all. Immensely. In fact, the album’s opening tracks are so uncompromisingly full of bravado and vulgarity that when the infinitely poppier, ‘safe’ melodies of Starships kick in, it’s almost a relief – a moment of respite amidst an album that leaves you bruised and battered, but in a rather satisfied sort of way.
It’s a treacherous, unwieldy journey through Nicki’s sophomore effort though, and it begins poorly with Roman Holiday, which sounds like it’s tripped headfirst into a Mary Poppins revival before suddenly flipping into a bizarre rendition of O Come All Ye Faithful. To put it politely, it’s awful. It’s here that Nicki’s excesses reach their most eccentric and over-reaching, and as with the ridiculousness of Stupid Hoe later in the album, it makes the fatal flaw of pandering purely to personal indulgencies rather than striking a balance of proper quality. Here, Nicki’s work ends up sounding like a loosely aborted attempt to recreate the brilliance of Roman’s Revenge; stuttering away on a construct of pure ego.
But when she’s not adding to the already grossly-inflated Roman alter-ego, Nicki actually manages to make a pretty good job of spreading herself across a panoply of current chart-ready dance-pop stormers. The techno push of Pound The Alarm comes on like 2 Unlimited set loose in the studio while Automatic ties in nicely with Nicki’s recent work on Madonna‘s MDNA album, fizzy synths contributing to a revved-up Ibiza nights vibe. Whip It continues the dramatic, high-energy TechnoBabe dance material, complimented by actual whip-crack sound effects. Saucy. This might be ‘POP!’Nicki in full force, but by pushing it through a frenetically produced dance cipher, she keeps hold of that keen artistic vivacity that powers her more straight-up hip-hop moments. “Maybe you’re the master of disguise,” she notes on Beautiful Sinner, but it’s Nicki herself who’s the real master here, slipping and swapping between different musical guises with outlandish velocity. The atmospheric, bass-licking sexiness of Beez In The Trap is a particular highlight, a sonic treat that flicks across the speakers with an impressively agile flow.
Fire Burns is the record’s touching slow jam that glows with Owl City-esque electronics and stands as a moment of surprising, genuine beauty. As an album that is so often upfront and blatant in its values, Roman Reloaded often struggles to establish a real emotional resonance, but Fire Burns offers a glimmering spark of what Nicki can achieve when she aims for greater depth in her music, and you only wish there was more like this here. Young Forever is this album’s Fly – the big synth-laced ballad, with suitably epic chorus to boot – while Masquerade finishes things off with sugary delight. The best moments of Roman Reloaded always manage to find that essentially ‘right’ balance between the disparate elements of what Nicki Minaj fundamentally stands for; that chameleonic, extravagant, ever-changing figure that stares out, paint-daubed, from the album’s cover.
If there was ever an album so utterly representative of current mainstream music trends and an aptitude for nailing itself into the heart of radio playlists, it’s Roman Reloaded. At 22 tracks, its formulaic and mechanistic approach begins to wear thin at times – there’s just too much going on to properly digest it all – but as a compendium of chart-ready fodder, Nicki has honed in on precisely what works for her with remarkable ease. Roman Reloaded is too weighty and bloated by far to ever come close to matching the excellence of Nicki’s debut – after all, Pink Friday had everything to prove, whereas here, it’s as if Nicki’s preaching to the converted, and the album suffers from it. Perhaps as two shorter efforts or EP releases, Roman Reloaded would be more palatable, but as it stands, it’s still a formidable presentation of Nicki ‘The Superstar’, invested with all her powers and the living embodiment of the empowered modern artist that demands their disc to be played on repeat to breaking point.