By Bob Ruggiero
By Hilary Hughes
By Peter Gerstenzang
By David R. Adler
By Devon Maloney
By Brian McManus
By Jessica Hopper
By Harley Oliver Brown
Rap is her game, but chatter is Nicki Minajs medium. It surrounds her (has there ever been a more talked-about female rapper?) and fuels her creativity (Nicki Minaj, Nicki Lewinsky, Roman Zolanski, and Onika Maraj are just a few of the voices in her head that she organizes into verse). In the week that her long-awaited debut, Pink Friday, finally sees release, adding to the din seems only appropriate. Below, Nicki fan Zach Baron and Nicki non-fan Rich Juzwiak hash (...tag) it out.
Zach: Will it ruin the suspense/debate if I admit right at the top here that Nicki Minaj made a bad record? Because, jeez, Pink Friday really is sort of difficult to listen tothe sound of one of raps world-class personalities having all her clever foibles and idiosyncrasies blasted away and replaced with . . . platitudes about the power of women? Worse, actually: badly sung platitudes about the power of women. But the question I want to ask you is this: In the grand scheme of rap in 2010, does the failure of this album even matter? Ultimately, at the end of the year, Im rating Nicki like I rate one of her biggest fans, Kanye West: as a fascinating, exceedingly bonkers, total personality. The record to me is almost beside the point.
Rich: This, indeed, is pink garbage. I wouldnt even give it as much credit as youI dont hear platitudes about the power of women so much as self-aggrandizement masquerading as empowerment via a few bones thrown to Nickis imaginary sisters. I mean, this woman doesnt even quote Helen Reddy properly! Wheres the U.N.I.T.Y.? Regarding your question, Ill answer with another question: Why are so many people so bent on defending Nicki Minaj at each underwhelming turn? She flubs a freestyle when put on the spot, and its, Girls dont freestyle! She botches performances left and right with blatantly relied-on backing tracks, embarrassing dancing, and missed notes, and its, Well, shes just not a seasoned performer yet. She releases weak pop single after weak pop single and its, Well, shes just trying to get her name out there. She cuts an embarrassingly cheap-sounding, lazily hooked album and its, Well, it doesnt matter. So why, Zach, why? Why cant people face the fact that they were probably wrong about this girl? Shes given ample evidence. By the way, Im not sure that her exceeding weirdness is anything beyond scowl-deep. Pink Friday is proof.
Zach: Well, yeah, lets talk weirdness for a second: Nicki at her best really is weird! Her verse on Monster, which I will concede is not on Pink Friday, is maybe the most dazzlingly zany minute and a half of music Ive heard in 2010. That song presents a fake Jamaican, '50s-era B-movie villain, big-blinking ingénue, gum-and-neck-snapping Valley Girl, and, of course, fire-breathing, dizzyingly technical rapper, all within a handful of bars. Her performance therewhich also manages to humble, among others, a guy named Jay-Zconsists of way more than just a mere scowl. As for Pink Friday, I wonder mostly where that person went. Surely even you can enjoy the way she flat-foots Eminem on the track they share here, Romans Revengenot just because he deserves to be shown up by someone like Nicki, but because she does it so deftly that she still has time to have a intra-persona, English-accented debate with herself on the tracks hallucinatory outro. If only Roman Zolanski, Nicki the Harajuku Barbie, and all her other demonstrably distinct incarnations were present pretty much anywhere else on this record!
Rich: I think theres a difference between inherent weirdness and showmanship, and Nicki falls clearly on the side of the latter. What has she said thats bested her scowls? How weird are her words, actually? And since you bring it up, Romans Revenge, while boasting the best Pink Friday production (Swizzs snares are hypnotic, and the keys bringing the mood are a fucking trip), is extremely problematicNickis gay male character goes toe-to-toe with a homophobe (and not just a passive, anti-gay-epithet-using one, but someone whos actually said on record, Hate fags? The answers yes) and doesnt even broach the subject? What kind of a gay dude is she? None that Id fuck. Thats to say nothing to her playing host to Eminems faggot on this very record, as well as his piss-on-women misogyny. They say Nicki supports her gay fans and is pro-woman, and I say, Surely, it gets better.
Truth be told, Ive never been very taken by this person. Nicki Minaj has regularly put on elaborate shows of not saying very much, but Pink Friday actually makes me appreciate her guest work a lot moreI see that even when shes been random without much reason, when shes selling nonsense not out of cleverness but out of no other choice, at least part of the reason is because shes trying to pack in as much entertainment as possible, by hook or by British accent or by free association. One thing I never expected from Nicki Minaj is boring. And Pink Friday is full of boring. Like, if youre going to do r&b, you best bring the hooks and make sure theyre catchy. She doesnt. Is repeating two or three words ad nauseum entitlement or laziness? Or does she actually think this is how pop music works? Is the chorus of Right Thru Me that sounds like vaguely melodic snoring supposed to be impressive? The mind reels.
Zach: Now now, lets give her some credit for her pneumatic asexualityshe is not a very convincing gay dude, sure, but she aint exactly heteronormative, either, Barbie doll on the cover notwithstanding. (You get the sense that Drake is going to have to wait an awful long while to get that marriage proposal accepted.) Shes clearly gotten some bad advice here, though: Rather than do whats gotten her to this pointrapping on tracks with her betters, then besting them; rattling off the names of reindeer on Usher singlesshes singing bad hooks on bad drum n bass records. (By my count, she handles a full half the sung choruses on this albuman awful ratio clearly inspired by her frequently crooning Young Money compatriots Drake and Lil Wayne, though even Wayne is a more versatile hookman than she is.)
Not for nothing, I think, does Minaj sound most comfortable on the rap songs hereRomans Revenge, Did It on Em, and especially Blazin, featuring Kanye West, a man who not coincidentally recently told Funkmaster Flex that he forbid Minaj the use metaphors while working with him. This album, we not even doing similes, West bragged, and she seems to have heeded this advice: Your game over, bitchGatorade, wet towel. Do you agree with West that hashtag rap is the future of hip-hop, Rich Juzwiak?
Rich: I dont know, Ive heard her be plenty sexual (Get more head than a ponytail, Maybe its time to put this pussy on your sideburns, How bout I come all on your dick and I lick it off)more so than, say Queen Latifah, Yo Yo, Monie Love, Lyte, and Missy were by this point in their careers. Im not giving Minaj a cookie because shes not as sexual as she could be. For one thing, I like sluts. And while this may make her unique, I still dont think its weird per sethere have been a relatively small amount of girls playing pianos in pop music, but there is only one Kate Bush (no matter how hard others try to be her). You know, Rah Digga released an album this year devoid of sung choruses, which may be the first of its kind from a female rapper. That is weird. Why arent we rhapsodizing her? Because her weirdness is acting like actual weirdnessits repellant, not a marketing scheme.
I agree that the non-soft (would be inaccurate to call them hard) Nicki songs are so much better than anything else here. And comfortable is a great way to describe her on them, if only because it speaks to the warble on her voice in the several soft tracks. It may be intentional, but its so appropriate that Auto-Tune finds her shaky. She sounds like shes uncertain she can pull this off, as well she should be. Shes not very good at faking it till she makes it (worst of all is Save Me, on which shes not supposed to sound Auto-Tuned, but does anyway).
If the album followed through with the setup of its first three songs (all of varying roughness, all investing in MCing, all boasting production that doesnt sound too-dimestore-even-for-M.I.A.), it could have been a nice surprise. I even like Here I Am, Nicki-sung chorus and all. It reminds me of mid-90s New York hip-hop. I cant help but be nostalgic regarding female rappers because they were a big part of my childhood. And thats another reason why Pink Friday sounds wrong to meits the r&b crossover as the first album of her career. It makes me long for the days when selling out was something you resisted, not something you jumped to do. This is like Act Like You Know coming before Lyte as a Rock, like Nature of a Sista before All Hail the Queen, and Black Pearl before Make Way for the Motherlode. So to answer your question: I cant worry so much about the future of rap when history isnt being served. I know that hashtag rap already sounds stale, like everyones just copying each other. Smells like a fad to me. Hashtag rap is the future of hip-hop in that it is the new Auto-Tune.
That brings up the point of how underwhelming this album is lyrically. I cant really wrap my head around Go against me now/I dare youBambi, provided that Im hearing it right. A Bambi reference really shouldnt be that ambiguous. I am not fly, I am levitation? Like just floating there is more impressive? Rihanna bleats a reality-show cliché (I came to win); Nicki lies (Shout out to my haters, sorry you couldnt faze me) and explains needlessly (Exclamation just for emphasis). Its just really, really lame.Zach: Ah, but quoting her Bambi line without noting the inflection (Go against me now-OW...) is to deprive Minaj of her main asset, which is her outlandish voice. Is there a better pure enunciator in rap? One who has more variable and interlocking speeds? The sound alone of some of these Did It on Em coupletsMore talent in my motherfucking left thumb/She aint a Nicki fan that bitch deaf dumb, or the delightful bit of microsurgery that is All these bitches is my sons and Imma go and get some bibs for em/A couple formulas, little pretty lids on 'embelies the underwhelming lyricist slander.
But lets play psychologist for a second: Is it possible that Nicki Minaj, contrary to all public indications, is having kind of a bad year? After the I won! bombast of the first three tracks here, the thing that strikes me about Pink Friday is that its a depressives record. I detect heavy melancholy even on the singles, Right Thru Me and Your Love, to say nothing of the weird wrist-cutting quintet that is Fly (I wish today it would rain all day), Save Me (All these screams, all these voices in my head), Moment 4 Life (To live doesnt mean youre alive), Here I Am (Why is it you can only see the worst in me?), and Dear Nicki (Maybe you died because everyone asking where you at). Maybe the problem is that shes just fundamentally bummed out. Wayne was in jail when she made this record. Drake was on tour. She was getting big checks for guest verses and then having to go back to a deserted studio and try and figure out on her own what a debut rap record from an up-and-coming young female star was supposed to sound like, without the people whod been helping her sort through fame and the game. Wild speculation, obviously, but can you deny that she sounds oddly downbeat, given the winning streak shes otherwise been on?
Rich: But including her inflection doesnt make that line make any more sense! I guess my point about Nicki, to map it out and sound completely trite in the process, is that style is chosen over substance at every turn. OK, shes capable of wordsmithing, but playing with rhyme and meter is only part of her public-speaking job. I dont expect pseudo-CNN commentary from todays rappers, but even at his most scattered, Wayne has flashes of insight on how the world works (Repetition is the father of insight) and how hip-hop operates, too (Fuck the Police twisted into a song about fucking a female police officer). Contrast the genre mastery within the latter example with Romans Revenge, with Im startin to feel like a Dungeon Dragon, which exists only so she can go on to reference Scenario, no more no less. Maybe she was wearing a green wig when she spit that. MAYBE. The best nonsense is based on reality. Wayne is no Lewis Carroll, but Nicki isnt even Sifl & Olly. You can marvel at the precision with which Nicki spits her blah, blah, blahs, but at the end of the day, blah, blah, blah is just blah, blah, blah.
And thats not to say she doesnt have decent lines. I like Tell em bitches get a stick/Im done leading the blind, but her bad ones stick out much farther. You aint my son, you my motherfuckin stepson? If you could turn back timeCher/You used to be here now youre goneNair? And yes I call the shots, I am the umpire/I sprinkle holy water upon the vampire. And thats not even mentioning the extreme tedium of Right Thru Me: And you say, Nicki? And I say, Who, me? And you say, No, you. And I say, Screw you. Petty bickering is insufferable, it turns out! (In addition to not being Sifl or Olly, shes no Edward Albee, either.) Without any investment in her success (not even for my own enjoyment), Im embarrassed for her. She sounds truly labored, her rhymes too often forced. I wonder if this is a result of the sheer amount of material shes released this yearit sounds like her sass is running on fumes.
Many of the depressive songs that you named are full of bravado, as well. A lot of the lyrics you mentioned are flashes of pathos (she can Dear Old Nicki herself all she wants, but shes responsible for the choices that shes made to allow her to cut that song in the first place). Does this make her complicated? Perhaps! Ill concede that shes a multidimensional character. But Im not sure how much of that is calculated and how much is a result of chronic inconsistency (look at the conflicting statements shes made on record and in public about getting along with other female rappers, and I hate to sound like Queen Crybaby, but her stance on her own sexuality, as well as other peoples, has flip-flopped all over the place like a flamboyant wrist). For better or worse, shes turned this into an ADHD aesthetic on her guest verses. Its much harder to give em whiplash when youre rolling that out slowly in a long-form format.
Zach: And yet style is a form of substance. Form is its own kind of content. One thing we probably agree on here is that the most confounding thing about Pink Friday is that it lacks style, lacks weirdness, whatever your opinions of how deeply that weirdness goes. Without a foil, be it Trey Songz, Robin Thicke, Mariah Carey, Ludacris, or whoever, shes forced to play her own straight womannot a look. My guess is shes about to be absolutely clobbered by Kanye West in the upcoming sales week. But since were talking about it, allow me to ask you to imagine your own best Nicki Minaj, untethered by Pink Fridays humdrum realities and bleary lack of focus.
In my critical dreams, Nicki Minaj is standing onstageany stage, really, but for fun, lets put her on Lettermans Late Show, site of triumphs recent and otherwiseblinking big, channeling the Queens girl she is by birth, the Valley Girl she is by ironic comment, the rap monster she is by ambition, the theater student she is by inclination, all these contradictory and self-contained identities trading one-liners and barbs, ambiguous sexual overtures and vehemently hilarious rejections of the same. And, all the while, theres David Letterman standing off to the side, cackling in amazement, watching as would-be collaborator after would-be collaborator steps up to challenge her, only to sit back down, utterly humbled. It didnt happen that way on Pink Friday, sure. But Im not giving up hope yet.
Rich: I think youre right on about the straight-woman thing. Ive always examined Nicki Minaj in the context of female rap and winced at her solitude. Thats so much more apparent here, where shes mostly alone. Shed be a lot easier for me to accept and maybe even frivolously enjoy if she werent the only relevant female rapper in the game. Shes a jester and we need a queen.
...And not the one of multiple media that shes trying to be! I dont have a best-Nicki scenario, but one thing she should learn from the Pink Friday debacle (which shell probably only see as such if it flops) is that long-form isnt her thing (at least for now). Obviously, the general career model is to build buzz, start showing up in pop culture, and then move in to make your solo killing. But thats so standard for someone who clearly prides herself on weirdness, whatever your opinions of how deep that weirdness goes. Its OK to have your gift be that of guest verse. Its OK to just do short-form. Its OK to be the O. Henry of rap, especially since weve never had one of those before.