Nicki Minaj has had quite the weekend. First came “Check It Out,” a Buggles-sampling, will.i.am-featuring slice of zaniness that seems destined for Pink Friday, her long-gestating debut LP, currently due on November 23. Then came a marriage announcement via from fellow Young Money rapper Drake, which Minaj quickly confirmed, then annulled. And then, finally, there was “Monster,” the latest mega-single from Kanye West, featuring Minaj, Rick Ross, Bon Iver, and Jay-Z. Faced with pretty much the stiffest competition rap can muster in 2010, Nicki murdered all of them–her schizophrenic, endless verse is the runaway highlight of song that would otherwise be entirely forgettable (you’re a ghoul, Jay? Really?).
And that’s pretty much Minaj’s signature in 2010: blistering guest verses that salvage lackluster songs from artists as unreliable as Robin Thicke, Ludacris, and Usher. What she hasn’t been able to do, including on “Check It Out,” is headline a particularly convincing song of her own. With every insanely virtuosic guest verse, anticipation for Pink Friday rises. But we may have to start getting used to the idea that this is as good as it’s going to get. Nicki’s a great rapper. But it doesn’t seem likely that she has a great album in her. Here’s why:
Consider the singles. This year, Minaj’s name has come first on “Massive Attack,” a first single of such colossal miscalculation and dissonance that it probably won’t even make the album now; “Your Love,” the Annie Lennox-checking, Billboard-conquering follow up, a song that despite its success could’ve belonged to any anonymous female rapper out; and now “Check It Out,” which may not even be destined for the record, but either way is effectively a Black Eyed Peas song. There’s not a mixtape or solo song that Minaj has released that meaningfully captures the zany personality people so love.
About that personality. On her minute-and-a-half “Monster” verse, Minaj coos, growls, screams, spits, and barks; raps in patois, double-time, and cheerleader chant; and cycles through personas as disparate as Roman Zolanski, her haunted, psychopathic alter-ego, Harajuku Barbie, which is the one that sounds like an airhead, kinda, and of course, Nicki herself—the fierce through-line throughout. It’s a tour de force. It’s also incredibly exhausting. Some will be able to withstand being shouted at by the many, many voices of Nicki Minaj for the better part of an hour. Most of us, however, probably won’t.
She needs a foil. Lest this sound incredibly paternal, let’s also acknowledge that these days, even Jay-Z doesn’t rap well unless he’s got someone else to play off of. (Not for nothing are Jay’s twin advice-raps on Drake’s “Light Up” and Kanye’s “Power” remix the only great Shawn Carter verses of 2010.) But Minaj’s best moments come in character, whether as Usher’s demonic little freak or Mariah Carey’s wing-woman. Even the song of hers that seems most in rotation on HOT97 at the moment–that’d be the “Hold Yuh” remix–is a riff on Gyptian’s original. “Your Love” is an anodyne song in part because she has nobody to push against. Unless you count Annie Lennox.
None of this is to say Pink Friday won’t be great. Certainly, with her “Monster” coup, it’s hard to argue that there are that many rappers out better than she. Kanye famously ranked her just behind Eminem in the greatest MCs conversation. She’s not there yet, but she’s definitely a star–more charismatic than basically anyone, with fearsome technical abilities, powerful friends, and a chip on nine out of ten of her various personalities’ shoulders. If she’s on your song, your song is a hit, even when it also features Gudda Gudda. But this past weekend played out an already depressingly familiar back-and-forth. People will be talking about “Monster” for weeks. “Check It Out” seems to have already vanished without a trace. She’s a master at stealing the show. But can she play the lead? So far, that answer is no. Here’s hoping that Pink Friday proves us wrong.