It has been almost three years since Nicki Minaj released her breakout mixtape, Beam Me Up Scotty, and quite a bit has changed for the rapstress over that span. As quickly as she morphed from an unheralded role player on Young Money’s extensive roster to a star-in-the-making, with attention-grabbing guest spots on songs like “Monster,” “My Chick Bad” and “Bedrock,” she has launched into a stratosphere all her own with an equal number of crossover smashes.
But the swelling popularity has come at a price—for her rap pursuits, at least. Nicki’s climb to having the eleventh most followers on Twitter (Eminem, Kanye West, Drake, 50 Cent and Lil Wayne are the only other rappers in the top 50, and they’re all behind her) wasn’t achieved by bodying Kanye West and Jay-Z on wax. No, her crossover capabilities have stemmed from a stranglehold on Top 40. With her sophomore album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, the Queens, New York native continues on the career path she has laid out for herself since the release of Pink Friday a year and a half ago, forsaking hip-hop for wider-ranging domains, as she sprinkles in hardcore rap records with dance-made pop songs.
The album begins with “Roman Holiday,” the same zaney song that she performed to a curious response at the Grammys in February. The immediate introduction of Roman Zolansky, Minaj’s alter ego, represents much of what makes the Young Money queen appealing as a rapper. The unique energy and distinct personality that she is able to bring to a track continues for much of the first portion of the album. Though many of the early songs lack real substance—instead, Nicki dishes boast-heavy verses about how she’s better than all these other bitches—the records remain generally exciting. “I Am Your Leader,” alongside Rick Ross and Cam’ron, “Beez In The Trap” with 2 Chainz, and the triumphant “Champion” featuring Nas, Drake and Young Jeezy are all memorable moments.
Soon, though, there’s an abrupt shift. Without attempting to mask the intentions, it seems Minaj uses the first half of the project to cater to her rap audience, and then jumps into music for her broader demographic on the second half. The hip-hop comes to a halt 25 minutes in, and a more mainstream sound takes over. The bubbly “Right By My Side,” her Chris Brown collaboration, was just released, but is already picking up on radio. The danceclub friendly “Starships” peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The other tracks from this section are much the same in their composition. It seems Nicki has taken each of the sounds that dominate Top 40 and offered her own take. But in the end, “Pound The Alarm,” “Whip It,” “Automatic” and “Beautiful Sinner” simply come out sounding like something that Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, or any other pop idol would churn out, rather than records singular to the femcee’s often uncommon style.
Nicki Minaj has embraced her growing role as a pop icon. When she does rap on the album, many of the bars are even about this ascent (“Pink Friday, two milli; ‘Super Bass,’ triple plat/When you see me on Ellen, just admit that I’m winnin’/Do a show for Versace, they request me by name/And if they don’t get Nicki, it just won’t be the same/When I’m sitting with Anna, I’m really sitting with Anna,” she raps on “Come On A Cone”). Who can blame her? The quick crossover success is unparalleled for a rapper in recent memory. And it’s her pop-leaning songs like “Super Bass” and “Turn Me On” with David Guetta that have put her in this position for superstardom, not a verse on “Monster” or “Massive Attack.” She was destined to follow that formula here.
More than it’s lack of rap, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded suffers most from not fully being any one thing, as it’s unable to balance multiple approaches into one package. It’s a quasi-concept album revolving around Roman, without ever fully fleshing out the character; it’s also part rap album, part pop album without finding a way to seamlessly balance the two pursuits.
And while the release may not appease those who fell in love with the technical talents of the lyrically gifted scene-stealing Nicki Minaj, there’s no question that the hits from Roman Reloaded have just begun, and Nicki Minaj’s celebrity will only continue to snowball. —Adam Fleischer (@AdamXXL)