No one can own a room like Nicki Minaj.

Here, “room” means hip-hop and “own” refers to bolstering her rightfully rabid fan base. In the nearly four years following her third studio album, The Pinkprint, Nicki Minaj has found herself in artistic limbo—mostly through no fault of her own. Her club and pop anthems were charting like mad, and “Anaconda” remains a cultural staple to this day, but all the while, the narrative around Nicki Minaj moved further and further away from her music.

With that in mind, on Thursday (April 12), Nicki Minaj effectively shut down hip-hop and the internet at large with her tell-all Zane Lowe interview and two fresh singles (“Barbie Tingz” and “Chun-Li”), gearing up for her long-awaited fourth studio album. Minaj’s new singles noticeably straddle the line of past and present. To that end, “Barbie Tingz” and “Chun-Li” both sound hungry and polished. J. Reid’s production on “Barbie Tingz” unquestionably bangs—and this is both critically and subjectively speaking. The crunch of claps and taut bass notes lay the foundation for a classic Nicki Minaj soundscape, a beat she can snarl and flex over without listeners growing too tired.

Reminiscent of her mixtape days, we find Nicki playing with her range and hamming it up on “Chun-Li.” In 2018, Nicki Minaj sounds less like an artist with something to prove, and more like a rapper who is in the throes of her victory lap. She may botch her video game references at the final hour (Who cares if she doesn’t know that Chun-Li of Street Fighter is a hero?), but Nicki is rapping with the eviscerating confidence that made her such a bonafide rap sensation. When she spits about being a villain with such candor and swagger, you believe her.

In press runs past, the media went from celebrating her music to shoehorning her into some-real, some-imagined beefs with other women—and then there was her relationship with Meek Mill. All the while, Nicki padded her solo musical output with her 2017 run of singles alluding to an artist in purgatory. Between her features on Yo Gotti’s “Rake It Up” and Migos’ “MotorSport,” Nicki’s lyricism appeared to be sharp as ever, yet, her solo efforts lacked the same effortlessness and bite. Minaj’s anthemic pop-rap posse cuts (“No Frauds”), technically savvy, but slightly detached tracks (“Changed It”) and the catchy but emotionally confused “Regret In Your Tears” were all aurally pleasing but missed the fire of the Nicki Minaj that had secured her seat at the table of rapping elites.

Despite being packed with charismatic delivery and knocking drums, her present singles will leave listeners with some of the same trepidations that weighed down the 2017 cuts. Namely, the writing on these songs reveals Nicki Minaj to be set in a pop mindset. At this stage in her career, it seems appropriate to demand bars more evocative than, “I need a Mai Tai, so fuckin' sci-fi/Gimme the password to the fuckin' WiFi,” as she rhymes on "Chun-Li." The hooks are sticky, as you might expect, but the verses are noticeably light. Aside from a few weighty boasts on “Barbie Tingz,” Nicki’s writing here is begging for depth.

Her delivery places one foot in the rowdy and aggressive era that stole our hearts more than a decade ago, but the lyrics place the other foot in the pop-o-sphere that pays her bills. Whether it’s label pressure or general anxiety about falling out of favor—despite Nicki having a fan base so dedicated, she could release any music she damn well pleases—these singles reveal Nicki Minaj as an artist spreading thin.

With that, perhaps her upcoming album will have flashes of her cutting mixtape past and allusions to her pop present. At worst, the album has the potential to play out as a confused, transitional effort—but Nicki is too sharp an MC and businesswoman to let that scenario come to pass. She knows she’s approaching a liminal space, but this album may be her chance to recolor that space in her own image.

Minaj made as much clear in 2017, when discussing the 10th anniversary of Playtime Is Over with Dazed. “[Minaj’s old music] told me so much,” she said. “It taught me what drew people to me in the first place, and I needed to have that conversation with myself. Now, I have it figured out again.” Both singles play as the final words of that pivotal internal dialogue.

She continued: “I’m just back to being reckless and being a Southside, Jamaica, Queens, New York rapper. You know? I kind of feel like I’ve been having freedom with my look and my music.”

To that end, regardless of the album’s sonics, it seems Nicki Minaj’s fourth solo studio album will be a personable and striking offering—proof that the best music comes from a pure place. “Barbie Tingz” suggests innovation. The natural intrigue of “Chun-Li”—even with a droning kazoo note in the back of the mix—gives the impression that Nicki Minaj can play in her pocket and burn down whatever boxes she’s been crammed into. These are the just the singles, and of course they may play differently within the context of the record—if they even make it to the final product. For the purpose of whetting appetites for more music, though, they work.

Will Nicki Minaj be able to write and rap her way through the conundrum of being both a pop sensation and a rapper’s rapper? She believes so. “This is the best album I've ever in my life ever, ever, ever created,” Nicki told Zane Lowe yesterday. “I wanted to have fun again.”

See Photos of Nicki Minaj's Different Looks Over the Years

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