Pink Friday by Nicki Minaj
The last twelve or so months have seen Nicki Minaj contribute, as a featured artist, an inordinate number of flashy, memorable verses to high profile and high-charting rap and R&B singles, establishing herself as the premier female emcee of the early 2010s, even without the benefit of having released an LP or more than a smattering of singles. Marrying the assiduously honed fashion aesthetic and girl-next-door charm of M.I.A to actual musical talent, she established herself, in this brief period, as the unquestionable master of her trailblazing forebears—possibly excepting Lil' Kim,—and heir to the throne of Jay-Z (if for no better reason than their probably not unintentional similarities in delivery). For these reasons, and the sheer fact that there haven't been that many successful(ly marketed) female rappers in the past decade, it seems only logical that the main attraction of Minaj's debut album, Pink Friday, would be … Nicki Minaj rapping.
But, alas, "logic" carries very little weight in the frustratingly counterintuitive world of marketing, where cultural epochs are not brought about by myriad coinciding historical, social and political vicissitudes but, rather, are just made up by people with sociology degrees in a room somewhere. Those anticipating a straightforward rap album from a straightforward rapper who just happens to have two X chromosomes will have to wait for a more enlightened age to come about: the eternal verity follows that, since Nicki Minaj is a pretty girl and all pretty girls must sing, Nicki Minaj must sing. Of course, this can prove somewhat of a drawback when said pretty girl's forte as an artist happens to be rapping.
As a testament to this last proclamation, the first four tracks are flawless, not only because they boast pristine production values, but because each features, as a main attraction, the blinding verbal gymnastics of Nicki Minaj, with just a little singing added into the bargain. "I'm the Best", "Roman's Revenge" (which features a stellar verse by a scenery-chewing Eminem and a brilliantly bizarre accompaniment by the legendary Swizz Beatz), "Did It On 'Em" and "Right Thru Me" are all highly effulgent, hyperkinetic tracks, but they provide the rapper with just enough space in which to coruscate. The first (relative, given the strong opening sequence) disappointment of Pink Friday is "Fly", featuring Rihanna. Superficially speaking, it has all the makings of an R&B crossover hit, but one for which its producers and songwriters forgot to write anything like a "chorus."
But it's on the following track, "Save Me" that Minaj tosses aside the rapper gloves and dons an ill-tailored singer suit: since it features no rapping, its production is boring and borderline passé (cribbing a mid-nineties canned DnB beat for no apparent reason) and offers nothing by way of a memorable melody, the track is instantly forgettable, but in many ways throws the following track, the ingenious "Moment 4 Life", into shocking relief. Featuring explosive performances by Nicki Minaj and Drake, it is, arguably the best track on the album, featuring a finely textured production and unforgettable hook, both of which vaguely recall New Jack Swing's heyday. Crushingly, but inevitably, this is followed by the bombastically banal hit single "Check It Out." Produced by and co-starring will.i.am and based around a sample of "Video Killed the Radio Star"—a song that, I'm sure, no one is sick of at this point in history—“Check it Out” could be described as less than nothing. will.i.am's continual assurance that he "can't believe it" and that "this beat is bangin'" are dubious at best.
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Another of Pink Friday's drawbacks is its poor sequencing. Although this a minor point, and one which is rarely addressed in album reviews, possibly because it's completely irrelevant, probably because very rarely are major label releases sequenced this poorly and, all things considered, it isn't astrophysics and there are only a few points of conventional wisdom on the subject, such as: don't sequence, back to back, two songs that sound exactly alike or are based around the same chord progression or are in the same key and tempo. That whomever was charged with the task has, in fact, adhered to none of them suggests that he or she either didn't consider that this choice would make for an awkward sounding set, or did it on purpose, which is even more frightening.
"Blazin," featuring Kanye West and produced by Drew Money, whose ghostly chipmunk back-up vocalists appear to have been enlisted in an homage to West's early production style, is a return to the form of the album's flawless first third, with its ultra-bright synthesizers and a strong verse from Minaj with which she easily upstages a bored Yeezy. Still, it is a verse that in many ways exemplifies her tendency to be a little too cute and anodyne for her own good ("soccer moms need to organize a pep ral' / your game over, bitch, gatorade, wet towel"). On a similiar note, "Dear Old Nicki" and "Last Change," on which Minaj attempts that slipperiest of slopes, sentimental hip-hop, are largely benign.
The just okay "Here I Am" and much worse "Your Love" fall into a large marketing scheme—to which half the album is devoted—to thrust a singing Nicki Minaj upon an unsuspecting R&B market, R&B being, in this case, something of a knee jerk classification because, like "Save Me", "Fly" and "Right Thru Me," these tracks appear to have more in common with the electropop of Britney Spears and Lady Gaga than with actual rhythm and blues music. Even a fairly straightforward hip-hop track like "I'm the Best" feels like a "teeny bopper" take on rap music, which is neither or a good bad thing. It's merely interesting. If Nicki Minaj is going to successfully marketed in any genre, it is of the utmost importance that she appeal to women, including women who find they cannot relate to grisly urban soundscapes. As a result, Minaj's production team has gone out of its way to craft a decidedly "Pink" interpretation of rap. In other words, one that is bright, chirpy and sunny. However, as a testament to their abilities, this is far from light-hearted and frothy entertainment. The experiment actually works.
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