Nicki Minaj returns to rap with personal, probing ‘Pinkprint’
It all goes back to the wigs. No, seriously. When Nicki Minaj abandoned her DayGlo getups and cotton-candy hair early this year, it hinted that she was done with trite pop songs and ready to get back to being a rap star. With her stint as a judge on “American Idol” in the rearview mirror, the implication was that she was returning to her roots, and not just in the follicle sense.
“The Pinkprint,” her third studio album, is the overdue but welcome product of that transformation. Released on Monday, it is not an instant classic, but it is the work that fans who admire Nicki Minaj the rapper, this critic included, have been waiting for her to make.
It presents Minaj at her most heartbroken and vulnerable, a peek behind the satin curtains to shed some light on the woman who was born Onika Maraj and worked her way up from the streets of Queens, N.Y. For someone known for her ambition and determination to be taken seriously in a genre still dominated by men, Minaj has not built that reputation by mining her personal life.
“The Pinkprint,” a title that Minaj has said refers to Jay Z’s landmark album “The Blueprint,” changes that. On the opening “All Things Go,” her flow is slow and crisp; she wants you to hear, to feel what she has to say.
“Yo, I had to reinvent/ I put the ‘v’ in ‘vent’/ I put the heat in vents/ Man, I’ve been competin’ since,” she spits on the song, which addresses the death of a cousin “to a senseless act of violence,” possibly an abortion she had in her teens, and a marriage proposal she seemingly declined a decade ago.
As a mission statement, “All Things Go” grabs you by the collar. Its emotion is heavy over a minimal beat, putting the album in the same league as Kanye West’s “808s & Heartbreak” and Drake’s “Nothing Was the Same.”
On “Grand Piano,” an orchestral ballad led by that instrument, Minaj holds long, luxuriant notes that render her unrecognizable. “The people are saying/ That you have been playing my heart/ Like a grand piano/ So play on, play on, play on,” she sings in a voice she has rarely expressed before on record.
As with her previous records, Minaj still draws a line between her rap skills and her mainstream pop prowess. She frontloads the album — which is overstuffed, with 16 songs on the standard edition and 20 on iTunes’ deluxe version — with her most heartrending tales, and lets the radio catnip anchor the other half.
It’s jarring how she swerves from meaningful sentiments (“I Lied”) to filler aimed at record sales. “The Night Is Still Young” (“and so are we,” she finishes the chorus) plays like a bookend to “Starships,” her poppiest — and most forgettable — hit.
The album is also full of cameos. As a follow-up to their recent “Flawless (Remix),” “Feeling Myself” allows Minaj and Beyoncé to boast, playfully but rightly, about how they’re game-changers. British songbird Jessie Ware lifts “The Crying Game” off the ground with her sublime vocals. And Ariana Grande turns up to crack a whip on “Get on Your Knees,” insisting “you gotta beg for it.”
“Only” riffs on the idea that her two duet partners, rappers Drake and Lil Wayne, haven’t had sex with Minaj but wish they could. Chris Brown sings the hook. It’s amusing to see how Minaj calls the shots, not only rebuffing their advances but turning them inside out. Don’t send boys to do a woman’s job.
In the context of the full album, its first two singles turned out to be pale harbingers of what we should have expected. “The Pinkprint” is far more personal, more probing than both “Anaconda” and “Pills n Potions.”
Minaj has long struggled with reconciling the many facets and dimensions of her talent. Actually, “struggled” isn’t the right word. She has exploited and played up the fact that she contains multitudes. No wonder she often sings from the perspective of her alter egos, in exaggerated inflections and accents from God knows where.
The big difference on “The Pinkprint,” though, is that these many moods of Minaj are all in service to revealing the artist we thought we already knew. Nice to meet you, Onika.