Nicki Minaj is a purist’s nightmare. She doesn’t just straddle pop categories, she dumps them in a Cuisinart, whips them to a frothy purée, then trains a guided missile at the whole mess. She is a rapper’s rapper, a master of flow and punch lines, with skills to please the most exacting gatekeepers of hip-hop street cred. But she’s a bubblegum starlet as well, delivering confections to the nation’s mall rats. “I’m in the HOV lane,” Minaj boasts on her second LP. It’s true: She’s one of the few performers who can rival Jay-Z‘s blend of artistic bona fides and sheer star power.
But Minaj is also in the Gaga lane, the Bowie lane, the Missy Elliott and Gary Glitter and Katy Perry and Betty Boop lanes. (By the sound of “Right by My Side” – a blustery duet with Chris Brown – she can cruise in the Jordin Sparks lane, too.) Then there’s the Roman Zolanski lane. Roman Reloaded opens with Minaj – a biracial woman from Queens via Trinidad – ranting in the voice of her (Polish?) homosexual “twin brother” alter ego. In the same song, she takes on the voice of Martha Zolanski, Roman’s mother, singing in a cartoon Cockney accent. “Take your medication, Roman,” counsels Minaj/Martha. “Quack, quack to a duck and a chicken, too/Put the hyena in a freakin’ zoo,” answers Minaj/ Roman. Later, she bursts into “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”
She’s just limbering up. On Roman Reloaded, the energy never flags – it’s the rare filler-free mega-pop album, an achievement for a record that stretches to 19 songs and 69 minutes. Minaj fans dismayed by her post-“Super Bass” turn toward pop will be cheered up by the red-meat hip-hop here. There’s booming triumphalism (“Champion”), electro-rap boastfests (“Beez in the Trap”) and a couple of collaborations with her mentor Lil Wayne, in which she more than justifies the claim that ends the album: “I am the female Weezy.”
The beats, by young comers like Hit-Boy and Kenoe, are taut and lively, a good match for Minaj’s manic spirit and comic zingers – and comic anti- zingers. Here’s Minaj on taking in fashion shows with Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour: “When I’m sittin’ with Anna/ I’m really sittin’ with Anna/ Ain’t no metaphor punch line – I’m really sittin’ with Anna.”
Beginning with Track 10, the thumping “Starships,” Roman Reloaded veers into radio pop, serving up club anthems, clobbering ballads and, on the Dr. Luke-produced “Young Forever,” the most shameless Rihanna-wanna-be song ever recorded, a tune worthy of the ambition. The album is neatly utilitarian and bifurcated – “Side One” for the hip-hop headz, “Side Two” for teenyboppers.
But why would you choose just one Nicki Minaj? With her, the point is plenitude: more boasts, more hooks, more craziness, more shape-shifting, more cognitive dissonance, more pleasure. If you believe that art and commerce and provocation and fun – and hip- hop and disco and teen pop – can all be one and the same, here’s a record for you. Come, all ye faithful.
Listen to Nicki Minaj’s “Beez in the Trap”: