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Listening Party

Nicki Minaj: Pink Friday

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Nicki Minaj

Pink Friday

Young Money/Cash Money/Universal Motown

Whether or not Nicki Minaj can rap is beside the point. A few weeks after her Pink Friday debut came out—the same week as Kanye West’s latest ego trip—she’s still top-10 charting on Billboard’s Top 200, R&B/Hip-Hop, Digital, and Rap albums sales charts. The album’s lead singles—the slow-jammy “Right Thru Me” and “Your Love”—are holding steady in radio rotation. And she all but runs away from a crowded field in West’s “Monster,” whose imminent video release is anticipated with second-coming salivation. Minaj is hip-hop’s latest female pop crossover hope, which is why she gets discussed in the same breath as hip-hop/pop goddesses Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott, and Lauryn Hill.

And Pink is undeniably a move more toward glossy pop. Minaj sings more often than she raps, and sings mostly about some of the usual R&B female things: strength, overcoming obstacles (“Fly”), overcoming demons to be together (“Save Me”), giving thanks to where she came from (“Moment 4 Life”), the euphoria of success (“Blazin”).

Nothing wrong with such songs and subject matter, but the easygoing songs and their corresponding tempos don’t showcase what earned Minaj fans in the first place. She’s a personality who knows how to act with her voice, bending it to suit her needs. This is the sassy mouth that hilariously uttered “You see Jeffree, I can show you how to do it/ Make a lollipop squirt squirt a lot of fluid” on Jeffree Star’s mall-rat disco flatline “Luxury Lollipop.” On “Right Thru Me” she sing-speaks uplift about “the good advice/ I always hated/ but looking back/ it made me greater.” It’s a sentiment that doesn’t give her any room to take her reading of it into any sort of cartoon land.

And that day-glo attitude is better suited by her, not the production. One of Pink’s genuine stinkers is the “Check It Out,” where the hook is the bubble-gummy “Oh-oh-oh” female chorus introducing the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” The sample immediately coats the song with the dust of a superficial novelty, giving Minaj very little to play off vocally.

So it’s a blessing that Swizz Beatz tosses Minaj into an empty corridor of minimal beats and textures for “Roman’s Revenge,” giving her ample space to fill with vocal performance. That the track’s guest is that other character-rapper, Eminem, doesn’t hurt either.

The song showcases her as a vocal actress who can attack a song’s production when it’s loosely set-decorated. So while, no, Minaj doesn’t have the velvet bounce of Ms. Melodie, the classic flow of Rah Digga, or the otherworldly pipes of Georgia Anne Muldrow, what she does have is a limber ear for making lyrical melodrama mainstream. And maybe on her next outing her collaborating producers will let Minaj be Minaj.

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