In 2010, making it as a rapper is all about traversing two worlds. Post-millennial hip-hop superstars have dual obligations: They must meet fans’ expectations of fierce beats and agile lyricism, but they must also deliver stellar financial returns to the record company. In order to accomplish both seemingly disparate feats, many have simply resolved to split themselves in two. Atlanta rapper B.o.B garnered a reputation as a whip-smart stylistic heir to Cee-lo and Outkast over a series of impressive mixtapes. Come album time, he released The Adventures of Bobby Ray, a shockingly saccharine song set where he cavorted with the likes of Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo and Bruno Mars. Bobby Ray was a huge hit, but it left much of his fanbase wondering where the B.o.B they’d come to know had gone. His solution? Satiate the hardcore hip-hop contingent with another mixtape.
With Pink Friday, Nicki Minaj is the latest artist to attempt parlay a promising mixtape career into a burgeoning pop empire. The thing is, as much as Minaj wants to blow up, she isn’t quite sure how to do it yet. Pink Friday’s songs split the difference between crass lyrical smack talk, doe-eyed teen pop fodder, vulnerable ballads, and wholesome motivational anthems. Minaj’s department store fitting room approach to her message and image can be off-putting. On the album’s first song, “I’m the Best," she opens up about wanting to be successful to support her family. The next song finds her snarling, “I am not Jasmine/ I am Aladdin,” as she dons her tough-guy outfit for “Roman’s Revenge," a foul-mouthed and damagingly direct rebuke of her sometime rap rival Lil’ Kim. A few songs later she’s fighting off loneliness on “Save Me” and finding solace in a significant other on “Right Thru Me." Humans are nothing if not conflicted, touting a dearth of competing allegiances and interests, but what looks like multifaceted depth in a persona sounds like a lack of commitment and direction in an album. Pink Friday lacks cohesion. What’s worse is that its execution is sloppy.
Minaj’s scattershot approach to songwriting would be fine if she pulled it off with wit, charm, and skill. But this album’s greatest failure isn’t its personality crisis. It’s Minaj’s voice and delivery. Like her Young Money compatriot Drake, Nicki’s flow champions style over substance, and as such, Pink Friday, like Thank Me Later, is peppered with more than a few embarrassing lyrical flubs. She rhymes the same word with itself (“This stone is flawless -- F1/ I keep shooters in the top of the F1”) endlessly (“Even when my daddy was on crack, I was crack/ Now the whole album crack”). She absolutely abuses her stutter flow, obnoxiously filling whole measures with filler on “Did It on ‘Em” and other songs. The punch-line flow popularized by Drake and Big Sean arrives here at its most obnoxious form, worming its way into every verse of every song. As a result, she is routinely blown away by her guest features. Pink Friday’s finest moments are all too often assailed by Minaj’s lyrical quirks and crutches, and the great shock of this album is that she probably fares better as a singer than she does as a rapper.
As a singer, Minaj follows the Rihanna framework. Her voice isn’t very nuanced, and her range is a far cry from formidable. But she knows it, so she doesn’t push beyond her limits. Minaj gets by on simple melodies and raspy bluster. The simple, repetitious vocal runs on songs like “Save Me” and “Here I Am” go a long way toward disguising an amateurish singing voice in catchy, accessible hooks. It doesn’t always work out, though. This aesthetic torpedoes the grating, monotonous “Your Love” and “Check It Out." And both of the times more accomplished singers turn up for cameos (Rihanna on “Fly” and Natasha Bedingfield on “Last Chance”), we're served with stern reminders of Minaj’s lack of experience as a crooner. For every adept performance on Pink Friday, there is something less than enjoyable waiting to happen.
It’s sad that, having spent the last few years clawing her way to the forefront of hip-hop’s mainstream elite through an impressive series of mixtapes and features, Minaj would use the occasion of her debut album to pull a bait and switch, to turn off the wild-eyed charm that won her an audience and turn in this fragmented collection of stabs at radio play. Pink Friday lives or dies on Minaj’s ability to fully embody all of the various personas she toys with, the singer, the rapper, the lover, the fighter, the tomboy, the girly girl, the big sister, the bitch. But she isn’t always engaging, and she doesn’t always sound at home with this material. She’s got a sense of the concessions that need to be made to streamline and reach a bigger audience, but she doesn’t have the experience or pop smarts to make it work. Minaj actually addresses the subject on “Dear Old Nicki," a eulogy to her former self. “I loved your rawness, and I loved your edge,” Minaj tells herself. We all did. Come back, girl.
After a few years of hopping around on other artists' songs and releasing a few mixtapes, Nicki Minaj's Pink Friday finally gives her a vehicle to call her own. The Young Money rapper's debut comes after a major bidding war in 2009 in which Minaj was able to retain all of her merchandising, sponsorship, endorsement, touring and publishing rights. Lead single "Massive Attack" is a choppy, more experimental collaboration with R&B singer Sean Garrett that defies her previously established "Barbie" persona, while follow-up "Your Love" is a sweeter rumination on puppy love, even though her reference to NBA player Tracy McGrady is a little dated. (Seriously, he hasn't been good in years.)
With "Your Love," Minaj was the first woman since 2002 to lead Billboard's Rap Songs chart while unaccompanied by any other artist. Minaj also worked with producers like Swizz Beatz, Kanye West and Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am to create a record that she claims is about "telling every girl's story."