3 STARS (OF FIVE)
Ah, the second album.
The one a hot artist desperately needs to become established. The one with the world’s weight upon it. The one that more accurately expresses an artist’s true self. The one that features a million “This is who I am” quotes from the artist pre-release. The one that usually ends up half as good as the first.
This is the quandary Nicki Minaj faces. As the Best Female Rapper belt-holder (I’m 23, don’t even come at me with a Lil Kim argument), hitmaker, YMCMB princess, etc., the pressure on Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded is at a level she’s never encountered.
Nicki’s talent is impossible to overlook. I could present multiple exhibits to the jury, but only “Monster” is necessary. Considering she murders Jay-Z, Kanye West and Rick Ross on the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy track, with easily one of the best verses of 2011, the bar is set. Just like that. We know her ceiling, we know her capabilities. So given her involvement in 17 top-30 singles, a No. 1 album and legit artistic credibility under her belt, only one hurdle stands in her way: the sophomore slump.
(For the record, I don’t like the Pink Friday series. Is every disc of Nicki’s career gonna be a subtitle to her first? It kinda defeats the purpose of separate albums. Music evolves, artists evolve, and to tie this evolution together, they slap a new word or phrase on their work. To me, this disc is called Roman Reloaded and will be referred to throughout the review as such.)
Roman Reloaded starts with “Roman Holiday,” which Nicki performed at the 2012 Grammys to reviews of “This chick is batshit insane.” The song itself isn’t bad – her flow is on point – but it sets a very strange tone for the album. Album openers are traditionally less polarizing than this. The “You’ll be, okayyyyy” hook is annoying.
“Come On a Cone” starts in promising fashion, a siren production complimenting Nicki’s brag: “Do a show for Verscace/They request me by name/And if they don’t get Nicki/It just won’t be the same.” First verse is good; then the chorus kicks in. WTF. More wailing and less melody. Ugh.
(One of the greatest strengths of Pink Friday was Nicki’s effortless blending of radio-hot hooks with actual ability and content. Through the first six minutes of Roman Reloaded, I’ve been annoyed by each chorus. It’s like she wants us to imagine her singing the hooks in a straightjacket surrounded by padded walls. [To her credit, the “put my dick in your face” breakdown is beyond unexpected and hilarious on “COAC”. And props on the title’s double meaning.])
Rhythmic blips and bleeps take the lead on “I Am Your Leader,” and Nicki wastes no time raising her rap game with the knowledge she’ll soon be joined by Rick Ross and (KNOCK KNOCK, WHO’S THERE? KILLA CAM, KILLA WHO?) Cam’ron in a rare mainstream feature. RAWSE flow is flawless but underwhelms lyrically, story of his (ruugh) life, as Cam drops a solid verse right after. Hearing Ross/Cam go back to back is cool. Beat quality raises all three artists higher than they reach lyrically.
“Beez In the Trap” tells the epic tale of an insect drug dealer. Kidding. Nicki brings a zig-zaggy, earworm hook, her first of the disc. “Hov Lane” is a solid track, one that utilizes her rapid-fire flow. “I don’t give a fuck, ho/Like we in the friend zone” sticks out.
The female Weezy wastes no time raising the bar to her namesake on “Roman Reloaded,” dropping the “I guess I went commercial/Just shot a commercial/When I flew to the set, though/I ain’t fly commercial” bars within 15 seconds. Love that. Weezy comes on a few minutes later and drops a quick, sex-crazed verse that befits a man recently sprung from jail. (And it’s official: Wayne isn’t as hot as he used to be. Not to say he’s fallen off or can’t get it back, but that hunger, that zone he was in for a year… gone. Or it’s just possible that he’s my greatest competition in the quest for the hand of Skylar Diggins, so I’ll knock him every available chance. Yo Skylar, Wayne ain’t hot anymore. But you are.)
“Champion” busts out the heavy hitters – Drake, Nas (!!) and Young Jeezy – further cementing Nicki’s importance to rap’s current landscape. (How Jeezy is even considered a part of this class now, or ever, is beyond me.) The song itself is a success. I envision the beat coming on at 3 a.m. as the four artists sit together at some general public-spurning VIP club and Nicki says “I got a mic, and I’ll pass it around to each of you. Drake, you start, and just pass it to your left. Also, get your hand off my ass.” Driz takes the signature smooth-yet-boastful approach, Jeezy growls like an actual lion, and Nas reflects on his debut and the mid-1990s. Good song.
My dude Chris Brown comes next, as he – “I wanna hold your hand/Make you laugh again/I need to be near you” – and Minaj dive into surprisingly deep and honest relationship territory on “Right By My Side.” Both sound comfortable. They recognize a good concept and tried to make the best song here, as poppy as it is. I hear success, and would love more collabs in the future. (Nicki bonus: “It ain’t just spit game/It’s your dick game/That got me walkin’ round ready to wear your big chain.”)
“Right By My Side” starts a totally different era for Nicki, as the next eight-ish songs (with an exception or two) are heavily pop-house. It’s like she fell a bit in love with LMFAO and decided to make a half-album of upgrades. It’s not what you’d expect, and from a purely hip-hop standpoint, not what you’d like. But I respect her reasoning, as she told Vibe: “I refuse to define what I do. You’ll feel it. It’s more of an experience than a genre. They’ll have to create a new genre for this. You can’t put it into a genre that’s out now. You absolutely can’t.”
(Then again, upon mentioning this album being “pop” to Nicki, she’ll get pissed. It doesn’t make sense to me though; we know what pop is, and the second half of the album is exactly that. Not that there’s anything wrong with that [Costanza what up], but it’s unfortunate she rails so violently against a word, claiming she’s making a “diverse” album yet denouncing a major genre of inspiration. Guess being called “pop” is the last thing a hip-hop artist wants. But if you hear the music, she doesn’t avoid it.)
"Starships" is the best song released in March, something Tibs and I agree on. (Don't believe us? I'll let him take this argument.) But seriously, it's a solid pop song but gets heavily discounted when you realize the song’s second half is basically a SLIGHTLY grittier version of Britney's "Til the World Ends." It’s the first of four consecutive RedOne productions.
“Pound the Alarm” would be home at Karma on the Jersey Shore. Not as much of a song as it is a beat with intermittent speech, this track bangs if you’re in that mood but irritates if you’re not. “Whip It” and “Automatic” have their upsides, but ultimately sound too similar. If you’re expecting and/or hoping for legitimate hip-hop, skip these.
“Beautiful Sinner” has seventh-best-song-on-Breezy’s-next-album written all over it, from the lyrical content to the pulsating beat to the solid hook. Passable, not elite. “Marilyn Monroe,” for my money, is pop elite. Nicki takes the blonde bomber’s most popular quote and with the help of hitmaker J.R. Rotem, runs the train with it. Come for the piano loop, stay for the addictive melody.
I have a feeling “Young Forever” is gonna be a gigantic hit. It just has that indefinable “it” quality. Don’t be shocked if B96 and KISS FM spin this ad nauseum from June-August. In other words, my desire for it will go from “Oooh, new Nicki?” to “I WILL RIP OUT MY EYEBALLS WITH BOX CUTTERS IF YOU DON’T STOP PLAYING THIS GOD FORSAKEN SONG” rather quickly. Looking forward to it.
“Fire Burns” could’ve been left off the disc, especially considering the excessive 1 hour, 9 minute runtime. This isn’t a Mad Men episode, it’s an album. Shorten it a bit. “Gun Shot” won me over on the fourth spin, mostly because the lyrics are so great. (Kidding. I couldn’t understand a word til the 1:20 area.) In all seriousness, the melody is impossible to shake, and I have a soft spot for that. Props to Kane Beatz and Beenie Man for kicking it up a notch. As for album closer “Stupid Hoe,” two words sum it up: quality nonsense. A few more: I wish I wish I wish I wish I wish a bitch wouldddddddddddddddddddddd.
What I like most about Roman Reloaded is Nicki’s middle finger to the industry. No doubt she anticipated her drifting toward pop would cause waves because, after all, she’s the Best Female Rapper. One might expect her to, with this album, increase her rap cred and lock the belt up for the foreseeable future. She doesn’t.
Nicki has a pop side, and clearly that side needed to grow. She uses Roman Reloaded to prove she can rap when she wants to, but only then. Your preference/expectation of her doesn’t mean shit. If she wants to be a fusion of Kim, Lady Gaga and LMFAO, that’s what she’ll be.
And although that mindset makes for an uneven album, it establishes an air of unpredictability. Her next album could be anything. I respect that artistry.
Must-hear: “I Am Your Leader,” “Champion,” “Pound the Alarm,” “Marilyn Monroe,” “Gun Shot,” “Stupid Hoe”
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