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Nicki Minaj's 'Pink Friday': Super-savvy or super-lame?

November 18, 2010 |  3:17 pm

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In the last few days, pop fans in the media have occasionally stepped away from the frenzy surrounding Kanye's new album and made note of the imminent release of another crucial album of 2010: "Pink Friday," the debut long-player from mixtape empress and guest rapper extraordinaire Nicki Minaj.

Maybe it's inevitable, but a backlash against this fresh female artist has begun, primarily caused by her decision to include several R&B-style tracks -- structured around Minaj's very Latin freestyle-influenced and often computer-manipulated singing -- to offset the harder, Eminem-style flow on monsters such as  "Roman's Revenge."

I appreciate the argument made by writers such as Judy Berman in Flavorwire -- that women rappers are so generally unmarketable that even this extraordinary one has to soften herself up and croon to please her label and, ostensibly, her ever-growing public. But I disagree that Minaj's embrace of softer, more romantic -- and more melodic -- material is weakening her tea.

Minaj caught everybody's eye with her costume drama: Like Lady Gaga, to whom she's been compared, she is an intelligent manipulator of the visual, using wild costumes to present herself in ways that challenge the conventional images of female rappers as either strict sex kittens or hardy homegirls. But this daughter of Queens, the most culturally diverse neighborhood in America, obviously spent her youth listening to all those accents on the subway. She takes the art of the fluid self into new territory by cultivating multiple vocal personalities, making her not just another fashion plate but a true spokeswoman for the split and shattered female self.

With several alter egos helping her define her rhyming style, from the nastily aggressive Roman Zolanski to the coquettish (but never dumb) Barbie, Minaj has not just set herself up to be a necessarily versatile pop star -- she has taken on the very complicated subject of how any woman, artist or not, manipulates her own consciousness to adjust to what life within a still-sexist society demands of her.

Minaj doesn't always succeed on "Pink Friday," and I'm not even sure how thought out her split-personality approach is. But I for one admire her attempts to show range, vocally and emotionally, and to confront how confusing life for young women can be.

Many women in pop are currently struggling to reconcile how to be both (Sasha) fierce and tender; ambitious and open-hearted; hard and soft. Many, in fact, are already incorporating rapping into their vocal palettes, though only a few critics have dared to call Ke$ha or Lady Gaga "rappers."

By showing her formidable skills as an emcee, Minaj risked becoming the designated savior in the criminally unbalanced, frankly sexist world of hardcore rap. But as Tina Turner said so long ago, we don't need another hero. We need well-rounded artists who can be in this game for the long haul. I think that's what Nicki Minaj is trying to become, and despite a few stumbles on her debut album, she is on the right path.

I'll be writing more on Nicki Minaj, Kanye West and the fantasy life of hip-hop next week.

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Nicki Minaj. Credit: Business Wire

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