When Nicki Minaj is onstage, even the most mundane moments seem marvelous. Last night in Brooklyn, she demonstrated how easily she can move an audience with a slight scan of her eyes, or a slow, strategic stroll up the steps of her set. Her Pinkprint tour is a dramatic journey combining elements of pop spectacle, Broadway expressiveness and straight-up diva dominance that makes room for guests while asserting the reign of its queenly protagonist.
Before Minaj took the Barclays Center stage, a trio of rising stars warmed up the crowd. Dej Loaf, Tinashe and Rae Sremmurd could have easily been a lineup on its own, leaving lovers Minaj and Meek Mill to their own devices. Still, the appetizer sets were a collective treat, 20-minute sets where the artists pounded through the songs that have made them each such compelling newcomers: Dej Loaf opened with "Try Me" and her feature on Kid Ink's "Be Real"; Tinashe ended with "2 On" and even previewed a new song featuring a prerecorded Drake verse; Rae Sremmurd joyously jumped around to "No Flex Zone," "This Could Be Us" and "No Type."
Philly's Meek Mill ended the run of opening acts, receiving a welcome so warm, it seemed fit for a headliner. Mill was ruthless onstage; the trap beats of songs like "Levels" and "I Got the Juice" popped out of the speakers like a machine gun. At a moment where his feud with Drake is getting more attention than his excellent new album Dreams Worth More Than Money, he found the perfect way to prove that there's more to him than a few jabbing tweets. "If you follow me on Twitter and Instagram, you know I have no chill," he said later in his set before his highly anticipated response to the Drake diss song that had dropped the night before. He went on to call the Toronto rapper's effort "baby-lotion soft." Mill wisely moved beyond the beef with an affecting version of "Miss My Dawgs," dedicated to slain rappers Chinx and Lil Snupe that featured a projected photo of Mill's late father.
Surprisingly, Nicki kicked off her set on the same note of deeply personal candor. Dressed in black lace with her eyes covered by a matching veil, she looked like a mourning bride, an image offset by the sparkle of a gigantic rock on her ring finger. Alone onstage, she began with the first three tracks off The Pinkprint: "All Things Go," "I Lied" and "The Crying Game." In that moment, she was a woman scorned, out for blood after a bad heartbreak. This opening catapulted her into a set that moved like a dramatic film, as she navigated her way out of the pain.
After "Feeling Myself," "Only" and the infectious "Truffle Butter," Nicki took her first break of the night before enacting the next phase of her post-heartbreak plan: establishing her empire. Minaj returned to the stage in a gold gladiator outfit to perform "Lookin Ass," one of the singles she released to tide fans over before The Pinkprint. She strode slowly across the stage, shooting out eye-daggers into the audience. The simplicity of her performance here made it one of the show's most captivating moments.
Minaj then revisited the heavy emotion of the show's opening numbers. In a pink floor-length gown, she presented a lounge-style stretch of vocally driven songs, featuring only a pianist and back-up singer. Letting the latter vocalist shine on the bigger notes, Minaj coyly sang "Pills N Potions," "Save Me" and "Grand Piano." Fake snow floated around the instrument on "Grand Piano," a campy and unnecessary touch.
Minaj sprinkled the set with her famous guest features, letting the audience fill Barclays with the sound of them singing every lyric of her song-stealing moments on tracks like Big Sean's "Dance (Ass)," Beyoncé's "Flawless (Remix)" and, most notably, Kanye West's "Monster." She even reserved a small portion of the set for Drake, her Young Money labelmate and constant collaborator, performing "Up All Night" and "Make Me Proud" back-to-back.
There was more Young Money love in store. Near the end of the show, Minaj's mentor, Lil Wayne, ran out onstage sporting pink sneakers and a single pink dread in support of his Pink Girl. The headliner showered Wayne with compliments and even turned the stage over to the diminutive NOLA MC, who performed a mini-set including Chris Brown's "Loyal" and his own "A Milli." The love was mutual: each star dubbed the other the greatest rapper of all time, and the pair briefly retold the story of how they came to change one another's lives.
Wayne was the first in a parade of late-set guests. Minaj brought out her "two little babies" Rae Sremmurd to kill time during a wardrobe change with "Throw Sum Mo" before returning for the final phase of her cinematic show: a romance-centric duo turn with her boyfriend. Meek Mill and Minaj rose from beneath the stage to the tune of Mill's intro to "Big Daddy." They traded off on "Buy a Heart," "Bad for You" and "All Eyes on You" as they held hands and even kissed in front of pictures of themselves. The grand display of celebrity love would be excessive in another setting, but it was the perfect for a drama-driven Minaj show.
"I don't like to be in love," Minaj had stated earlier in her set. "I don't like to give away my power." By the end of her set, and most specifically the end of her smoochfest with Mill, Minaj proved that no relationship could obscure her star wattage. Even when she shared the spotlight with her man, there was no question about whose night this was.