nicki minaj may still be the queen, but is her crown beginning to slip?
Her much anticipated album 'Queen' is here, but Nicki Minaj’s dominance as the top female rapper is in a precarious place.
Nicki Minaj, Queen
Before it had officially been announced, Nicki Minaj had spent two years teasing her fourth album, Queen . In an 2017 interview she hyped that it would be “a billion times more epic” than her last album, The Pinkprint, released in 2014. While boasting about the album’s supposed impact, however, she also admitted that she wasn’t sure where she was in terms of the album’s progress. A month later, talking to T Magazine , she expressed how “everything in my life is coming full circle. I am getting Nicki Minaj figured out with this album,” she added, “and I’m loving her."
Almost 12 months later, Queen is finally here and it’s debatable whether she has “figured out” Nicki Minaj. While the album is her most sonically cohesive record since Pink Friday, the quality ebbs and flows exponentially, scaling new artistic heights while also diving headfirst into more filler than a Kardashian. Queen is the sound of an artist in flux.
This artistic instability could be symptomatic of the album’s messy roll out. With a promised release date of 15 June, things were delayed twice, first to 10 August then to 17 August, before the album was brought forward again to 10 August, a mere 12 hours before its release.
Then there were the controversies. Sure, given her persona there’s bound to be a swirl of feuds and diss tracks circling around a character like Nicki, but following the release of the album’s lead single, Chun-Li, the campaign already felt like it was in choppy waters. After writer and critic Wanna Thompson tweeted that she felt that the rapper should head in a new direction and eschew the “silly shit”, Nicki slid into Thompson’s DMs to deliver an expletive-filled rant about how Thompson was just jealous. “But wait, leave my balls,” she allegedly wrote. “Tired of you sucking on them.” Thompson was then rounded on by Nicki’s fans, her Barbz, who sent her death threats, before being let go from her internship at entertainment blog Karen Civil.
There’s also Nicki’s collaboration with Brooklyn Soundcloud rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine. 6ix9ine’s career has been marred with legal issues, specifically allegations of paedophilia. In 2015, at the age of 18, he pleaded guilty to “the use of a child in a sexual performance” after he uploaded a video of a 13-year-old girl engaged in sexual activities. After accepting a plea deal, however, 6ix9ine has since reoffended twice, allegedly choking a 16-year-old in a shopping centre and also assaulting a police officer. It was recently reported that the Manhattan District Attorney has recommended that 6ix9ine be tried as an adult, sentenced to up to three years in prison and also be added on a sex offenders registry.
Despite all this, Nicki teamed up with 6ix9ine on the song FEFE. The track has proved a hit (although, it’s missing from Queen’s final tracklist), landing at number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Nicki has also invited 6ix9ine to accompany her on her joint world tour with Future. Is this really Nicki Minaj all figured out?
Still, these missteps don’t mean that Queen isn’t worthwhile. It might be turgid, but nestled between the extraneous material there are glimmers of an artist at the height of her creative prowess.
Opening with Ganja Burn, a slick rhythmic and melancholic nod to both her pop and hip-hop roots, Nicki reasserts herself, acknowledging the controversies and backlash she’s received over the last four years, her struggle to figure out an artistic vision and the breakdown of a relationship. The amalgamation of simple sweet melodies and acerbic verses that slash at the imposters she claims have emerged in her absence since 2014’s The Pinkprint exemplifies Nicki’s unique ability to jump from cutting to emotional reverence.
There’s also Barbie Dreams, a take on The Notorious B.I.G.'s Just Playing (Dreams), which is Nicki at her most brilliant. For five minutes she rolls through the biggest men in hip-hop, dragging them across hot coals for some serious burns. There are no gimmicks or character voices here. Instead, Nicki’s verses are genuinely funny as she gleefully roasts her male counterparts; intelligence and humour pouring out of every line.
In fact, Queen is at its best when Nicki puts her talent above swagger. Run & Hide is a short and woozy mixture of modern balladry and pure confessional, surprisingly tender and sonically arresting. Nip Tuck is also surprisingly candid, too, Nicki recalling how she altered herself in relationships and how, now she’s single, she’s grown as both an artist and a person.
That’s not to say that her penchant for braggadocio isn’t welcome, it’s just most effective when it’s delivered with a wink. Good Form is propelled by Nicki’s biting commentary on online vitriol and social media as she raps, “See a bitch get more pressed than a keypad / Before you suck me off, get a knee pad.” It’s matched on LLC, mainly because Nicki sounds like she’s having fun, but also because her verses are crystalline; the skill, lilt and delivery of each line humming with an energy that’s reminiscent of her pre-album mixtapes. Finally, Coco Chanel featuring Foxy Brown is a vivid display of female, Trinidadian and New York excellence. It’s sonically hard and rightly so: here are two artists flexing and solidifying their legacy.
Yet the weight of Nicki’s power on Queen is upset by the records’ ineffectuality. The dainty Ariana Grande collab, Bed, a chill, tropical bop, is so thin that it might blow away. Thought I Knew You, a bitter duet with The Weeknd, isn’t memorable either; the production lacking the depth and forcefulness needed to bolster Abel’s falsetto and back Nicki’s personality. Similarly, Majesty, featuring Labrinth and Eminem, is so messy that it verges on unpleasant; grating synths juxtaposed next to Labrinth’s angelic hook. There’s no reason why Chun Swae should be six minutes long, and Rich Sex, featuring Nicki’s mentor Lil Wayne, is retread ground. The record also loses steam thanks to filler like Miami and Hard White.
Queen isn’t immune to Nicki’s courting of controversy, either. Since the album was released on Friday (10 August), she’s been accused (again) of homophobia for lyrics about Yung Thug in Barbie Dreams. “Used to fuck with Young Thug, I ain't addressing this shit,” she raps. “I caught him in my dressing rooms stealing dresses and shit.” She was accused of cultural appropriation for the video and performances of single Chun Li, and fans also took umbrage at her collaborating with Eminem, an artist known for his past misogynistic and homophobic lyrics.
In order to reign successfully, a ruler must have authority. Unfortunately, for an album called Queen, Nicki Minaj exhibits too much creative uncertainty and a lack of focus to sit on the throne comfortably. Clearly spooked by rumoured usurpations from the likes of Cardi B, her grip on the crown is shaky and defensive. Now, however, isn’t a time for second guesses or safe choices. Instead -- and here’s where Queen excels -- artistic vision, honesty, certitude, intelligence and humour should be the laws of the land. On Chun-Li Nicki boasts that “they need rappers like me”. Now, she just needs to believe it. Otherwise, we’ll be left questioning whether, once her crown slips, we really do.