When an artist’s debut album is one of the most anticipated records of the year, based on a few mixtapes and a scene-stealing cameo on a Kanye West track, you have to take notice. And making people sit up and take notice is what Nicki Minaj has been doing since she arrived on the scene.
A troubled childhood, enough musical alter-egos to make Lady Gaga seethe with jealousy and a headline-grabbing feud with Lil Kim, Minaj is already a journalist’s wet dream. And that’s without even discussing her undoubted talent – anyone who’s heard that blistering rap on West’s astonishing Monster, or been privy to some of her early singles, will know that Minaj is, quite simply, destined to be huge.
Take a look at the roll-call of guest names on Pink Friday. As well as the aforementioned Kanye, there’s also Eminem, Swiss Beatz, Rihanna, will.i.am, Drake and, rather disconcertingly, Natasha Bedingfield all lining up to duet with her. But the Trinidad-born rapper never allows her guests to overshadow her own, sometimes overwhelming, personality.
It’s a schizophrenic affair though. Bubblegum pop sits side by side with dark, violent scattergun raps (sometimes in the same song) and the use of samples can range from ingenious to irritating. Yet when she’s on form, Minaj sounds like the most exciting new artist of the year.
Roman’s Revenge, for example, is absolutely exhilarating – a collaboration with Eminem (resurrecting his Slim Shady character, with all the violence, misogyny and homophobia that comes with it), it features one of Minaj’s many alter-egos, Roman Zolanski (yes, really), allegedly putting down Lil Kim (referring to an unnamed ‘has-been’, before threatening to “wrap your coffin with a bow” and declaring “bitch, if you ain’t shitting, get off the pot” and eventually appearing to tell Brooklyn gangsters to ‘take care’ of her nemesis).
Look beyond the shock value of the lyrics though and you’ll see that Minaj is a staggeringly good rapper. It’s not everyone who can give Slim Shady a run for his money, but Minaj more than holds her own here, sounding both menacing and cartoon-like and even dropping into an approximation of a cockney accent at one point. More importantly, she never lets the flow drop for one minute.
On the flipside of the coin is Right Through Me – a rather lovely ballad showing off Minaj’s more vulnerable side. She croons so sweetly that’s it hard to believe this is the same woman who was boasting “I’m a bad bitch, I’m a cunt” and promising to “beat you with a pad-a-lock” a few tracks earlier. Early single Your Love is similarly affecting, craftily being built on a sample of Annie Lennox‘s No More I Love Yous and managing to get away with the lyric “For your loving I’m die hard like Bruce Willis”.
Yet there are times that Pink Friday succumbs to the worst excesses of modern hip-hop. There’s an over-reliance on the dreaded auto-tune, far too many mentions of Minaj’s “haters”, and the usual amount of bluster and bragging. It’s one thing introducing your debut album with a track entitled I’m The Best, but tracks like Blazin’ and Did It On ‘Em just seem to have been written to boast how Minaj is the greatest rapper in the world bar none (the latter featuring the somewhat bizarre exhortation to “raise your number twos in the air”).
There’s also the involvement of the sadly ubiquitous will.i.am, who samples The Buggles‘ Video Killed The Radio Star on Check It Out and manages to succeed in creating the most irritating song since The Black Eyed Peas‘ I Got A Feeling (can anyone spot the common factor here?). It’s a shame that the disposable pop on here is likely to create most commercial attention, for Minaj is capable of so much more.
It’s better to concentrate on moments like Fly, the duet with Rihanna, which mixes Minaj’s frantic rap perfectly with Rihanna’s sweet-as-honey vocals, or the excellent collaboration with Canadian rapper Drake on Moment 4 Life. There’s even a clattering of dubstep beats on Save Me while Blazin’, despite the self-aggrandising nature of the lyrics, uses Simple Minds‘ ’80s classic Don’t You Forget About Me in an ingenious manner.
Ultimately, Pink Friday is a frustrating listen – for every burst of brilliance there’s also a tendency to play it safe which ultimately hampers the album as a whole. Yet when Minaj is allowed to let herself go, the results are thrilling. There are certainly enough signs here that, in a few years time, she could well be producing some classic albums.