Rap is her game, but chatter is Nicki Minaj’s 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 to—the sound of one of rap’s 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, I’m 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 wouldn’t even give it as much credit as you—I don’t hear platitudes about the power of women so much as self-aggrandizement masquerading as empowerment via a few bones thrown to Nicki’s imaginary sisters. I mean, this woman doesn’t even quote Helen Reddy properly! Where’s the “U.N.I.T.Y.”? Regarding your question, I’ll 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 it’s, “Girls don’t freestyle!” She botches performances left and right with blatantly relied-on backing tracks, embarrassing dancing, and missed notes, and it’s, “Well, she’s just not a seasoned performer yet.” She releases weak pop single after weak pop single and it’s, “Well, she’s just trying to get her name out there.” She cuts an embarrassingly cheap-sounding, lazily hooked album and it’s, “Well, it doesn’t matter.” So why, Zach, why? Why can’t people face the fact that they were probably wrong about this girl? She’s given ample evidence. By the way, I’m not sure that her exceeding weirdness is anything beyond scowl-deep. Pink Friday is proof.
Zach: Well, yeah, let’s 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 I’ve 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 there—which also manages to humble, among others, a guy named Jay-Z—consists 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, “Roman’s Revenge”—not 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 track’s 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 there’s a difference between inherent weirdness and showmanship, and Nicki falls clearly on the side of the latter. What has she said that’s bested her scowls? How weird are her words, actually? And since you bring it up, “Roman’s Revenge,” while boasting the best Pink Friday production (Swizz’s snares are hypnotic, and the keys bringing the mood are a fucking trip), is extremely problematic—Nicki’s gay male character goes toe-to-toe with a homophobe (and not just a passive, anti-gay-epithet-using one, but someone who’s actually said on record, “Hate fags? The answer’s yes”) and doesn’t even broach the subject? What kind of a gay dude is she? None that I’d fuck. That’s to say nothing to her playing host to Eminem’s “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, I’ve 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 more—I see that even when she’s been random without much reason, when she’s selling nonsense not out of cleverness but out of no other choice, at least part of the reason is because she’s 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 you’re going to do r&b, you best bring the hooks and make sure they’re catchy. She doesn’t. 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, let’s give her some credit for her pneumatic asexuality—she is not a very convincing gay dude, sure, but she ain’t 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.) She’s clearly gotten some bad advice here, though: Rather than do what’s gotten her to this point—rapping on tracks with her betters, then besting them; rattling off the names of reindeer on Usher singles—she’s singing bad hooks on bad drum ’n’ bass records. (By my count, she handles a full half the sung choruses on this album—an 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 here—“Roman’s 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, bitch—Gatorade, wet towel.” Do you agree with West that hashtag rap is the future of hip-hop, Rich Juzwiak?
Rich: I don’t know, I’ve heard her be plenty sexual (“Get more head than a ponytail,” “Maybe it’s 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. I’m not giving Minaj a cookie because she’s not as sexual as she could be. For one thing, I like sluts. And while this may make her unique, I still don’t think it’s weird per se—there 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 aren’t we rhapsodizing her? Because her weirdness is acting like actual weirdness—it’s 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 it’s so appropriate that Auto-Tune finds her shaky. She sounds like she’s uncertain she can pull this off, as well she should be. She’s not very good at faking it till she makes it (worst of all is ”Save Me,” on which she’s 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 doesn’t 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 can’t help but be nostalgic regarding female rappers because they were a big part of my childhood. And that’s another reason why Pink Friday sounds wrong to me—it’s 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 can’t worry so much about the future of rap when history isn’t being served. I know that hashtag rap already sounds stale, like everyone’s 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 can’t really wrap my head around “Go against me now/I dare you—Bambi,” provided that I’m hearing it right. A Bambi reference really shouldn’t 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 couldn’t faze me”) and explains needlessly (“Exclamation just for emphasis”). It’s 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” couplets—“More talent in my motherfucking left thumb/She ain’t a Nicki fan that bitch deaf dumb,” or the delightful bit of microsurgery that is “All these bitches is my sons and I’mma go and get some bibs for ’em/A couple formulas, little pretty lids on ’em”—belies the underwhelming lyricist slander.
But let’s 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 it’s a depressive’s 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 doesn’t mean you’re 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 she’s 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 who’d 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 she’s otherwise been on?
Rich: But including her inflection doesn’t 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, she’s capable of wordsmithing, but playing with rhyme and meter is only part of her public-speaking job. I don’t expect pseudo-CNN commentary from today’s 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 “Roman’s Revenge,” with “I’m 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 isn’t 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 that’s not to say she doesn’t have decent lines. I like “Tell ’em bitches get a stick/I’m done leading the blind,” but her bad ones stick out much farther. “You ain’t my son, you my motherfuckin’ stepson?” “If you could turn back time—Cher/You used to be here now you’re gone—Nair”? “And yes I call the shots, I am the umpire/I sprinkle holy water upon the vampire.” And that’s 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, she’s no Edward Albee, either.) Without any investment in her success (not even for my own enjoyment), I’m 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 she’s released this year—it 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 she’s responsible for the choices that she’s made to allow her to cut that song in the first place). Does this make her complicated? Perhaps! I’ll concede that she’s a multidimensional character. But I’m not sure how much of that is calculated and how much is a result of chronic inconsistency (look at the conflicting statements she’s 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 people’s, has flip-flopped all over the place like a flamboyant wrist). For better or worse, she’s turned this into an ADHD aesthetic on her guest verses. It’s much harder to give ’em whiplash when you’re 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, she’s forced to play her own straight woman—not a look. My guess is she’s about to be absolutely clobbered by Kanye West in the upcoming sales week. But since we’re talking about it, allow me to ask you to imagine your own best Nicki Minaj, untethered by Pink Friday’s humdrum realities and bleary lack of focus.
In my critical dreams, Nicki Minaj is standing onstage—any stage, really, but for fun, let’s put her on Letterman’s Late Show, site of triumphs recent and otherwise—blinking 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, there’s 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 didn’t happen that way on Pink Friday, sure. But I’m not giving up hope yet.
Rich: I think you’re right on about the straight-woman thing. I’ve always examined Nicki Minaj in the context of female rap and winced at her solitude. That’s so much more apparent here, where she’s mostly alone. She’d be a lot easier for me to accept and maybe even frivolously enjoy if she weren’t the only relevant female rapper in the game. She’s a jester and we need a queen.
…And not the one of multiple media that she’s trying to be! I don’t have a best-Nicki scenario, but one thing she should learn from the Pink Friday debacle (which she’ll probably only see as such if it flops) is that long-form isn’t 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 that’s so standard for someone who clearly prides herself on weirdness, whatever your opinions of how deep that weirdness goes. It’s OK to have your gift be that of guest verse. It’s OK to just do short-form. It’s OK to be the O. Henry of rap, especially since we’ve never had one of those before.