Wednesday, August 15, 2018

album review: 'queen' by nicki minaj

I've never been one to give Nicki Minaj a free pass.

Yes, even in the beginning when she was one of the few women making serious moves in hip-hop's mainstream at the time with a ton of charisma and occasionally some striking wordplay. Whatever you could say about Nicki, she had the charisma and presence to be a provocateur and a contender for the throne for women in hip-hop, at least in the mainstream. Sure, someone like me might point to the underground and rattle off the names of a dozen MCs to whom I'd prefer to give that pedestal, and I've not been shy about pointing out my issues with Nicki even in the mainstream - the construction of her bars can get really slapdash, and borderline lazy, her pop pivots have more misses than hits, and she's proven more willing than most to embrace a caricature of her image if it would give her success - but very few of her fanbase gave a damn about that. So long as they got the snapshots of genuine promise, they were able to tolerate her overlong and incredibly uneven records. Not bad records, but for every high there were steep lows.

But deep down I knew it wouldn't last - the tidal wave of hungry and razor-sharp MCs from the underground was growing bigger with every year, and while Nicki was able to smack back Remy Ma and both Iggy Azalea and Azealia Banks would mismanage their careers into the ground, the real challenger would be Cardi B, who not only had more consistent bars and charisma, but also seized the chart-topping success that had long eluded Nicki's biggest singles. And here's the thing: I wouldn't feel the need to bring up Cardi B if it wasn't so blatantly obvious that Nicki Minaj had internalized her as a serious threat, which has led her to so many baffling promotional missteps in the rollout of Queen along with songs that made it clear she was not taking even the mere presence of competition well. Like her fellow Young Money peer Drake, she had been shaken when truly challenged, and despite the protests of her Barbie fanbase, it looked like it was backfiring onto Queen, leading to critical opinions that were all over the damn map. And since I've never claimed to be a fan or a hater, I had the hopes this would work - I've been hard on Nicki but that's because I've always seen volumes of tremendous potential, so did Queen turn out okay?, this record is frustrating, because it should be so much better than it is. So let me get this out of the way now: in terms of sheer consistent rapping prowess, this is Nicki's best album release to date - her flows are the most developed and complex they've ever been, and Nicki has never been short on personality. The problem is that you need more than just bars and flows to make a good album, and Queen feels like the sort of overlong and overworked project where there was no clear vision or core. When it works at all it works in fragments, and if Nicki is so adamant that was her vision and that she had no writers - which I'll go with because I don't want to touch the overloaded cavalcade of nonsense that is her relationships with Safaree and Ransom - I have some serious questions surrounding the choices made here, most of which only seem to compromise what should have been a better record. 

And we have to talk about structure, because if we want to find the root of why Queen starts falling apart, it's that the foundations can feel cracked across the board. Let's put aside the baffling decision of why 'Barbie Tingz' was cut and yet 'Rich Sex' was left on - not only does the former track fit with any themes or tone better, it's also markedly better than probably half the record - and solely focus on her use of guest stars for a moment. I've already talked about the disaster that is 'Rich Sex' on Billboard BREAKDOWN, but the larger truth throughout her entire career is that Nicki is such a singular presence on a song that her presence suffocates any collaborator or she winds up diminished - there's rarely much chemistry, and that can hurt songs as a whole. So on the one side you get Lil Wayne and Future sounding either awful or pointless on their respective cuts, or she's overshadowed by Ariana Grande on 'Bed' who delivers a more convincing sensuous hook. Hell, on 'Majesty' we somehow get both situations, as Labrinth might be a non-presence on the hook but then Eminem shows up with an overlong verse and yet bringing one of the most kinetic flows he's put out in years, and yet for some ungodly reason Nicki decided to add another verse of her own after his and it's a glorified outro? Or take her collaboration with The Weeknd on 'Thought I Knew You', where not only is the chemistry non-existent, it sounds like they recorded in different studios, possibly on different continents! But somehow it gets worse with Swae Lee delivering his worst vocals since 'Swang' on 'Chun Swae', and this isn't even touching on the songs where Nicki is singing - look, for as many names as you dropped you couldn't get a hold of more pop acts to handle hooks, it's not your strong suit. And then there's 'Coco Chanel' with Foxy Brown, presumably here to prove that Nicki can work with other women in hip-hop, but that's likely more because Foxy Brown's records were never all that good and she doesn't really sound great here!

Now you might think this record would sound overstuffed like this... and in a way it can feel like it because of Nicki's in-your-face delivery, but the truth is that there's nineteen songs on a record running comfortably over an hour, and there's a shocking amount of wasted space in the form of extra tacked on hooks, verses, and outros that can't help but feel perfunctory. This is where a conversation of structure becomes relevant, because there's no damn reason to tack on the 'Inspirations' outro when you're just going to reuse the production and flow of 'Coco Chanel', or tack on the extra minute and a half to 'Ganja Burn' if you do nothing with it - and that song already has a problem with a hook that doesn't remotely connect with the sentiment or attitude of the verses. Hell, after the beat switch I'd have chopped off the rest of 'Barbie Dreams' and at least two minutes off 'Chun Swae', and that's before we talk about the pop and R&B concessions, fewer than on previous records likely with the correct assumption they're not needed but feeling now all the more out of place, especially as they don't nearly match the more aggressive framing of the other cuts here. 'Run & Hide' and 'Nip Tuck' are not bad efforts in this territory, even if they sound like the sort of grainy, blocky clunkers that SZA could knock out in her sleep, but what sounds utterly out of place is '2 Lit 2 Late' - yes, I know it's just an interlude, but it's the sort of bubbly pop rap that someone like KYLE would perform, and following it with the ballad 'Come See About Me' makes you wonder if this was only here for the pop rap Hail Mary single... and the frustrating thing is that in comparison to other mid-tempo Nicki ballads, it's one of the better ones thanks to the piano line and hook. 

But this leads into a production conversation... and if there is an artist who desperately needs some more consistent and colourful beats to match her style, it's Nicki Minaj. Maybe it's because her albums are trying to be too many things for too many people so the sound is all over the place from contemporary R&B to more tropical grooves to your by-the-numbers trap beats, but what bugs me is that the quality is not higher, and that few if any of these beats have significant texture - which for as much as you're flexing about immense wealth, you'd think the production would show off a bit more opulence. And again, what's frustrating is that you see snippets of what could have been: I like the guitar sizzle lurking beneath 'Ganja Burn', and if Nicki is about the only woman who could convincingly flip Biggie's 'Just Playin (Dreams)' guitar line - shame she had to tack on that pointless beat switch, but oh well. And while I have issues with the content of 'Chun-Li' - who is not a bad guy no matter how much Nicki wants to spin it and then repeat her own bars from the song just one track later on 'LLC' - the production has really grown on me with the squonking horn groove and gongs, and following it two songs later with the flashing synths and darker trap bombast of 'Good Form' show off tones that could work effectively - same with the steamy trap murk of 'Coco Chanel'. But songs like the dreary bore of 'Sir' or the warping bassy trap discordance of 'Miami' or 'Chun Swae' or the autotune abuse of 'Hard White' don't have anything in their production that uniquely compliments Nicki - yeah, she can handily step into those styles, if there's one thing this album proves it's that she's a good enough rapper to make it work - but aside from sounding a bit more washed out and bigger, the production is not exceptional given to anybody else.

But now we get to content... and look, I was not expecting anything close to the stabs at depth and emotional nuance Nicki attempted on The Pinkprint, when it at least came to her raps these were going to be vicious, over-the-top, and occasionally hilarious. I'll definitely say 'Barbie Dreams' treads into some controversial territory in the jokes she makes about other MCs that could read as punching down, especially about Young Thug and Desiigner, but given the context of the sample she's flipping and everything they've said about women, I'm a little more inclined to give it a pass. But right after that we hit the curdled, cackling ugliness of 'Rich Sex' and then 'Hard White'... look, I have nothing against Nicki Minaj using her sex appeal to sell records, but it's a little contradictory when you say you 'never had to strip to get the pole position' on the same song as where she describes her own objectification as the 'trophy of the game'! But even still, Nicki still has the weird problem that whenever she raps about sex she never sounds like she's actually enjoying the idea... in fact, it's more like she's aggressively not enjoying it, because she doesn't even play disaffected well opposite The Weeknd on 'Thought I Knew You', and hell, most of her third verse on 'Bed' is highlighting how the guy is getting it wrong! But it leaves you wondering where the actual core of this record is, and I'd be inclined to say Nicki Minaj asserting her ultimate bad girl dominance of women in hip-hop... and you know, for as hard as she's trying I wish I bought it more. Part of this is how she relies way too heavily on the easy shortcut of just rhyming words with themselves to fill up space, but she also seems a little too comfortable in falling towards petty but deferential ditziness that at this stage of her career she doesn't need to rely upon - if you're as loaded as you claim, why are you running off a dude's credit cards or are so willing to play dumb or call guys 'sir', or ratting on girls who sleep with guys without a lot of money when your own record of guys and relationship cuts don't reflect the best of choices either. And it'd be different if it was building up to a deeper core of insight or a theme... but Nicki confines any introspection to her R&B cuts, and it winds up feeling so shallow and thin.

And here's the disappointing part: Queen probably shows Nicki Minaj as the most consistent MC she's ever been in terms of bars or punchlines... but if you're going to stridently claim you're on the throne with production that's not that special, increasingly slapdash construction that should be inexcusable for any major label act, and lyrical ideas that feel less reflective of a multi-faceted artist than an artist managed to try and be everything to everyone and winds up not really satisfying anybody but the fans.... well, you're going to get unseated. For me this is a strong 5/10 and only really recommended to that fanbase, but for everyone else... look, I wanted to like this, and while I had no expectations this would be a contender for what Dessa or Jean Grae or Janelle Monae are doing in R&B and hip-hop, Nicki has always had that potential if not the direction. And at the end of the day... at least Cardi B sounds like she's having fun.

No comments:

Post a Comment