At her best, Nicki Minaj is, line for line, one of the wittiest, most creative rappers working today, either male or female. Her many personas and voices fly through her songs with joyful abandon, and she seems to be having so much fun astonishing us. On the first half of her second album, “Pink Friday ... Roman Reloaded,” the Trinidadian American rapper from New York City offers repeated evidence of her talents, and she delivers funny, biting, bawdy lines and rhyming couplets with apparent glee.
A supremely confident Minaj trades verses with otherwise cocky male rappers such as Lil Wayne, Drake, Nas and 2 Chainz and not only proves herself their equal but also pushes them to step up with their own ace verses. On the effervescent, minimally invasive bounce track “Beez in the Trap,” Minaj plays the queen of a hive, with Atlanta rapper 2 Chainz buzzing around her. Musically, the track bounces from ear to ear as though moving straight through your skull, and 2 Chainz's wild and slobbery verse is pretty great. Fellow New Yorker Nas continues his return to form on “Champion,” even if Minaj’s verses aren’t her best on the album.
But then, after the ridiculousness that is “Sex in the Lounge” (which sounds like a Lonely Island parody of an R. Kelly song, and, unsuprisingly, features Lil Wayne), the album drives off a cliff. In a spectacularly unfortunate crash-and-burn, Minaj abruptly hits the accelerator and stops rapping, leaving behind the minimal, bouncy hip-hop tracks that highlight her charm and achievement in favor of 128-beat-per-minute dance pop songs as simple as they are generic. It’s hard to witness, actually, an artist whose craft should be cresting, with enough power in the business to call her own aesthetic shots, chasing the money at the expense of the art.
That second half is a drag, filled with dance bangers of the blandest and most cookie-cutter variety. The music behind “Automatic” could be mistaken for a 15-year-old’s first stab at making a dance track on Ableton software, a cynically simple run with clumsy synth chord progressions that were already tired when invented at cheesy 1998 raves. These are accompanied by a few late-night ballads with singing so synthetically enhanced that it sounds like a Jetson robot.
The result is a disjointed, artistically confused release that’s not only way too long but also doesn’t really ring true as an “album” at all, at least if your definition is a collection of new songs with a central premise or statement that one listens to from start to finish.
This is only an album in the commercial sense -- a grab-bag of potential singles that may or may not hit, but that will be strategically worked over the next 18 months. Katy Perry’s organization perfected this business model on “Teenage Dream,” and Adele’s people are following it on “21” -- a gradual, patient release of singles over the course of a year or two, maximizing on the investment in what has become an iffy financial proposition.
It would be best if Minaj's "Roman Reloaded" fails as a commercial endeavor in the same way that its worst instincts fail artistically. Maybe then she'll stop trying to greedily be all things to all people and focus on what got her here in the first place: that ridiculous flow, wit, and imagination.
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-- Randall Roberts
"Pink Friday ... Roman Reloaded"
Two stars out of four