Nicki Minaj reloads
Can a gifted female rapper be just as successful as a mainstream pop star?
If you missed or don't remember Nicki Minaj's performance at the Grammys in February, it's worth revisiting. Coming toward the end of the night, it jolted an otherwise drab ceremony: five minutes of rapping set to a multimedia exorcism-themed Broadway production. Some called it a train wreck, but at least they couldn't take their eyes off of it.
In retrospect, it foreshadowed just how bizarre, and bloated, Minaj's new sophomore album is. "Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded" is every bit as entertaining but just as erratic as that Grammy spectacle.
The album, which was released on Tuesday, poses a question that pop music has rarely had to address: Can a gifted female rapper be just as successful as a mainstream pop star? Minaj has the skills to be both, but you wouldn't know that from her latest release.
"Roman Reloaded" suggests Minaj is dogged by what happens to be her greatest asset: her versatility. As a theatrical rapper, she is peerless and often steals the thunder when appearing as a guest on songs by Kanye West ("Monster") and Drake ("Make Me Proud").
She's a competent singer, too, but still has not figured out a way to integrate both sides of her outsize persona. Obviously she doesn't need to choose one over the other. The problem is that the disparity in quality between her warped rap fantasias and her glossy pop material is vast.
Minaj's debut, 2010's "Pink Friday," hinted at the rap-pop divide, but it's even more pronounced on this follow-up. At a staggering 19 songs, "Roman Reloaded" doesn't even try to bridge the gap. It lumps together all the rap tracks on the first half, and lets the pop fluff fill the rest. It's essentially the equivalent of a confession: If you only like Minaj as a badass rapper, you can tune out the last 12 songs because they will surely appeal to someone else.
The first seven tracks are impressive showcases for her prowess, outlined by this choice line from "HOV Lane": "I don't do shotgun / I be driving my own car." Her cocksure rapping is a marvel, full of wild detours into various accents and voices. She's the rap world's Sybil.
Minaj's most manic songs – fueled no doubt by her theater background in high school – impart the sense that she inhabits her characters as if they were out-of-body experiences. She specifically sings from the perspective of an alter ego she has named Roman Zolanski, who is the muse behind the album's most hair-parting moments. "Roman Holiday" is so demented, Minaj winds up outweirding Lady Gaga and Janelle Monáe. Her deranged performance on "Come on a Cone" is Oscar-worthy.
Why, then, do her dexterity and drive go missing on the pop songs? It's the real riddle of "Roman Reloaded": how someone so genuinely self-possessed can recede into such filler.
It's telling that the album's deluxe edition includes a 21-minute interview in which Minaj defends herself from such criticism. (It's never a good sign when a bonus track is more enlightening than the album itself.)
Her vision is diluted when Minaj creeps into Top 40 radio territory. In a blind taste test, you might guess "Marilyn Monroe" and "Young Forever" are the newest Rihanna ballads, or that the chorus on "Pound the Alarm" escaped from Gaga's clutches. "Starships" belongs in the Katy Perry pantheon, and "Automatic" has a spoken-word interlude that sounds suspiciously like the breakdown on "Vogue" by Minaj's latest cheerleader, Madonna.
That's all fine since pop music is cyclical by nature. But for an artist who is writing her own rules as a female rapper who can finally be just as celebrated as her male counterparts, it's disappointing to see Minaj settle for such a scattershot approach. That is exactly what "Roman Reloaded" does. For all its detours and dangerous curves, this album comes to a fork in the road and can't decide where it wants to go.
James Reed can be reached at email@example.com.