Monday, December 15, 2014

album review: 'the pinkprint' by nicki minaj

Rarely has there been an artist that I've approached with equal parts anticipation and dread than Nicki Minaj.

See, when she first broke into the mainstream definitively in 2010, I found myself in a distinctly awkward position. She started as a firespitter, a lyricist that wasn't afraid to take the unreal plastic trappings of pop rap and add a real edge beneath it. And yet while that was impressive on guest verses, the songs where Nicki Minaj began to find a lot more success were in a heap of mid-tempo dance and pop jams that didn't contain any of that distinctive edge - 'Your Love', 'Super Bass', 'Moment 4 Life', 'Fly', 'Starships', and 'Pound the Alarm', the last being a song that I unashamedly think is pretty damn awesome.

But putting that aside, like her mentor Lil Wayne Nicki Minaj's weaknesses became ever more obvious as the years past. She might have been successful making party jams, but the plastic nature of her brand of pop only emphasized the artificiality and had me waiting for the subversive moment that never came. And as a rapper... look, she's got a good flow and she did have a lot of personality and intensity, but go beneath the initial flash and her material got a lot less interesting. Technically, she had many of the same issues as the rest of the Young Money camp - sloppy rhyming, a tendency to fall into overdone cliches about drugs, money, and sex - and beyond that, her attempts to shock and get in my face just came across in the cheapest possible way. And this isn't even in a desensitized 'nothing's shocking anymore', but because I can look at a rapper like Gangsta Boo who relies on many of the same tactics, works with more interesting producers and collaborators like Clipping or Run The Jewels, and who is just a lot more appealing. At the end of the day, going into The Pinkprint, my biggest issues with Nicki Minaj wasn't that she was bad, but that her material was incredibly uneven, with the writing and instrumentation frequently letting down her personality. And considering none of the singles from this album enthused me at all about this record and some were actively repulsive, I steeled myself for the worst before diving in - what did we get?

Well I'm not exactly surprised by this - and honestly, I can't even say I'm disappointed because I didn't expect a lot from this record, and I didn't get a lot either. I'm not going to say The Pinkprint is terrible - it's not, there are a few good, worthwhile songs on this album and it's clear that Nicki's getting a better handle on straddling the line between pop and hip-hop, but if you're going into this album expecting Nicki Minaj to be edgy or weird or even all that upbeat, she effectively went in the opposite direction to mixed results. 

So we need to start with Nicki Minaj herself - and I'll give her this, I've always liked her as a performer if I haven't liked her songs. She's got a ton of talent and raw charisma, and her range has expanded into more emotive territory. I used to find many of Nicki Minaj's midtempo ballads a little inert, but the choice to ease up on the obvious pitch correction and move more towards the reverb-saturated melodies you normally find in modern pop is actually a pretty good fit for her, not so much fiery but a definitive presence. And with the more emotive, downkey, almost vulnerable moments - once again, we're not getting anything like Atmosphere or Sage Francis or even the more confessional side from Dessa or Angel Haze here - I can say that Nicki Minaj has improved as a more expressive vocalist. Not precisely subtle or especially raw, but there are moments you can buy that she sang or rapped from the heart, and there are significantly less moments where she feels the need to rhyme words with themselves or elongate syllables to completely waste everyone's time.

Of course, those are moments - not entire songs, which leads to the first issue of this album, that being it is completely all over the place in terms of tone, themes, or even consistent characterization of Nicki as a rapper. Those who are going in expecting Nicki to play the drug-crazed sex doll of 'Anaconda' aren't going to get that - which is good, because we don't need more 'Anaconda' - but for as much personality as Nicki Minaj has, I have a hard time nailing her down. At some points she plays the dominant, alpha-female luxury rapper, awash in money and drugs and expensive cars, all that she seems mighty defensive to say she earned on her own, but then she's the dancing pop diva again who can also sell ballads about complicated relationships that angry Nicki Minaj could have crushed in her sleep. And yet she's at her best on this record when she has the courage to get more personal, like the violence on 'The Crying Game', the lies she told to get out of a bad relationship on 'I Lied', or especially the distance she feels from her family and the fact she had an abortion on 'All Things Go'. Let me stress, that took real courage to put on record and I can respect her for it, and I remembered thinking that if this album had continued in the more personal direction she took from the first three songs, I could have something really special on my hands...

And then we get Beyonce playing up her ratchet side and singing about masturbation, and Drake behaving like a pre-teen pervert and Lil Wayne's voice sounding worse than ever and Jeremih either imitating Young Thug or Future on his two collaborations or Meek Mill wasting everyone's time! Really, if you're looking for an area where this album's inconsistencies leap to light, it's in the guest stars - I'll give them this, they certainly make Nicki look good in comparison, but not because she actually is better but because they're all so much worse. Believe it or not, probably the best performances on this album are from Skylar Grey on 'Bed Of Lies', a song that feels austere and reserved but it does fit with Nicki's delivery, Jesse Ware's uncredited chorus on 'The Crying Game', or especially from Ariana Grande on 'Get On Your Knees', which amps up the dominant sex imagery to eleven and Ariana proves shockingly good at it. Granted, none of it has any subtlety, which is another issue I have with this album - lyrically, it's sketched in such broad tones and stark language that there's very little room for interpretation or expression beyond the basic punchlines. And sure, that works for pop rap, but there are points where Nicki intensifies her flow or brags about being able to step outside the mainstream, and really, I don't see any of that on this album .

Granted, a major part of that is the production and instrumentation - and really, that's such a mixed bag that I can say that Mike Will Made It's beat on 'I Lied' is one of the better ones on the album. Sure, you get some spacious, 'big' sounds courtesy of Boi-1da, the washed-out reverb soaked guitar on 'The Crying Game' and the piano, strings and deep hollow drums of 'Pills & Potions', but at other points Nicki chooses either criminally underweight production like the four-note eerie melody and creaking trap elements of 'Only', the skin-crawling greasy synths of 'Want Some More' and 'Feeling Myself', or the criminally cheaply thin and generic production on 'Buy A Heart' and 'The Night Is Still Young'. Sure, there are moments that are more melodic, and the instrumental changeup on 'Grand Piano' was well-executed, but for what reason did Nicki bring that one-note synth and wooden percussion on 'Four Door Aventador', or the shot at bass-heavy Caribbean music on 'Trini Dem Girls', or the blatantly obvious and sloppy sample on 'Anaconda'? But most of this leads to the larger issue of the album, which is that for as many moments that are trying to sound big and have real impact, the album is too long, dreary, and flaccid to maintain its momentum, rarely ever matching Nicki's intensity and frequently dropping into washed out tracks that are either too minimalist or too awash in reverb to really grip me, especially when the lyrical subject matter rarely evolves beyond the immediacy of the punchline. There are very few stories on this album, and when Nicki Minaj does paint a picture, so much of it is focused on her body and brand labels - and if I'm being completely honest, I don't find either of those things all that interesting beyond a very shallow appeal.

And you know, if this album could have devolved into more weirdness like parts of Pink Friday and Roman Reloaded did, it might have been able to hold my interest better, and let me stress there are moments where that happens - I mean, Nicki Minaj brags on this album about hanging out with Shia LeBoeuf, which no self-respecting individual including Shia LeBoeuf should ever brag about. But in the end, this is probably Nicki's most downbeat and personal record to date, and I can see it becoming a fan favourite. But beyond that, there's not a lot to it beyond cheap provocation and controversy - and considering she never goes hard at any of her rivals, she doesn't even take full advantage of that - and Nicki Minaj is not an interesting enough MC to me in her production, hooks, or bars beyond scattered moments. And all those moments do is remind me that she probably could put together a truly great record if she tried. So for me, it's a light 5/10 and only a recommendation for hardcore fans. Everyone else, listen if you're curious, because it's probably not what you'll expect, but what you're going to get isn't much better.

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