On her first album in three and a half years, Nicki Minaj comes out swinging. “Unlike a lot of these hoes, whether wack or lit/At least I can say I wrote every rap I spit,” she charges on “Ganja Burns.” Queen is littered with subliminal disses, and though she doesn’t name names, it’s not a leap to imagine Cardi B, Remy Ma, Lil Kim and sundry frenemies as her targets. Only ‘90s heroine Foxy Brown is allowed to stand beside her on the chiming bells and ragga rhythm of “Coco Chanel.” “They know I’m the queen,” raps Nicki over the ornery trap rhythm of “Hard White.” “I didn’t pick an heiress.”
The centerpiece is “Barbie Dreams,” a viral revision of The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Just Playing (Dreams).” While Biggie drooled over “R&B bitches,” Nicki Minaj “dreams of fucking one of these little rappers,” and cuts them down to size in the process. “Drake worth a 100 million, always buying me shit/But I don’t know if the pussy wet or if he crying and shit,” she rhymes, subtly poking fun at Drake’s sad boy persona. She crows about former beau Meek Mill haunting her DM’s, Young Thug stealing her dresses, and DJ Khaled’s portly weight—providing grist for countless memes in the process. (It’s actually her second cover of the Brooklyn legend’s 1994 track; she also remixed “Dreams” for her 2007 debut mixtape, Playtime Is Over.)
Queen brings a new Nicki Minaj character: the regal, haughty monarch, a woman who insists on sword-sharpened rhymes as a prerogative for excellence. Her true-school pose may look ill-fitting for an artist who has spent most of the decade toggling between Busta Rhymes-like wackiness and Rihanna-like electronic pop. However, it has long been clear that in terms of pure bar-for-bar skills, Nicki Minaj is one of the best rappers of her generation. If she were a man, she would have long ago been crowned the best (mainstream) rapper in New York City. The question, as always, is whether she can figure out how to make full use of her incredible musical abilities.
Despite some spectacular moments, Queen has a flabby, meandering mid-section. Nicki’s bestie Ariana Grande shows up for “Bed,” but it can’t compare to past collabos like “Side to Side.” “Chun Swae” is too deferential to Swae Lee’s tropical pop croon; the same goes for the Weeknd’s embittered accusations to a past lover on “Thought I Knew You.” It’s a relief when Nicki retakes control for the underrated battle rap single “Chun-Li,” and the jiggly “Good Form,” the latter that finds her reaching wildly zany lyrical heights.
Queen isn’t the first time Nicki Minaj has spit hard with sustained force, only to hedge her bets. The first half of her 2012 album, Pink Friday…Roman Reloaded, brought face-melting highlights like “I Am Your Leader,” “Beez in the Trap,” and “Come on a Cone”; but it also included Electric Daisy Carnival bangers like “Starships” and “Pound the Alarm.” Meanwhile, 2014’s The Pinkprint found her emerging as a flesh-and-blood icon who is just as vulnerable to personal heartbreak as the rest of us, at least when she wasn’t busy shaking her ass on dumb-hot singles like “Anaconda” and “Only.” Perhaps this is how her career is meant to unfold: she reveals herself in layers, in fits and starts, always with an eye on the commercial bottom line.
In the meantime, Nicki Minaj’s legacy remains a subject of fascination. It was only a few years ago when she was the only major female rap star, the last woman standing in an industry that seems to dismiss and sexualize anyone who doesn’t reflect a narrow masculine virility. Now, there’s a host of up-and-comers following a path she created, like Dej Loaf, Rico Nasty, Dreezy, Saweetie, Kamaiyah and too many others to name here.
Is this the world Nicki Minaj made? There are many reasons why she is now just one of many talented rap women instead of a lone, combative voice. But give the queen credit for surviving to enjoy this moment, even if her natural impulse is to protect her crown against any competitors instead of sharing it.