The mere mention of Kanye West one year ago would surely elicit a sneer, while Nicki Minaj’s name might bring about a furrowed brow with the question of “who?” It’s funny how so much can change in just one rotation of the calendar. Minaj is now the queen of the rap world, and her first single “Your Love” peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and conquered the rap charts with a number one position. Just last month, Minaj became the first artist to have seven songs on the Hot 100 chart at one time. Artists like Christina Aguilera, Diddy, and M.I.A. have featured her on their songs. This summer it was almost impossible to turn on a rap radio station without hearing Minaj’s trademark growls.
Concurrently, West took some time off and sheltered himself in a Hawaiian recording studio. His decision to step out of the limelight to focus on his music was a winning one. He stormed back onto the scene with “Power” in June, a song that lit up the charts and let Kanye back into people’s hearts. It was a grandiose and forceful smash. I think a lot of people had expected a more sorrowful song, an apology to Taylor Swift or at least some acknowledgement of his wrongdoings, but instead the track briefly brushed off the incident and focused on the ineptitude he had displayed over several years, as the chorus rings out, “No one man should have all that power.”
In August, West joined Twitter (one of the best decisions he could make, I think) and announced his “G.O.O.D. Fridays,” his promise to adoring fans that he would drop a new song every Friday until the release of his new album. The songs kept eager listeners satisfied and, true to his promise, Kanye kept on releasing them once a week. Unfortunately the songs never quite reached the same level of quality as “Monster,” a behemoth of a track (which thankfully made the cut for the album) that is dominated by Nicki Minaj. Her verse outshines Kanye’s, Rick Ross’, and Jay Z’s combined. It served as a wakeup call to people who previously had not seen her as a contender in the rap world, as she breathlessly unleashed a torrent of rhymes like, “So lemme get this straight / wait / I’m the rookie? / But my features and my shows 10 times your pay / 50k for a verse no album out.” She assuredly gained new fans thanks to the track, and even had the chance to perform it live at Jay-Z’s concert in Yankee Stadium.
West heavily improves on the quality of his “G.O.O.D. Friday” songs on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his best album to date and one of the best works of the year. It is a maniacal and grandiose journey, and funnily enough, the first thing one hears on the album is Minaj’s voice, growling her way through an introductory poem, snarling in a British accent, “Twisted fiction / sick addiction / well gather round children / zip it / listen!” The track segues into Kid Cudi and an un-credited female gorgeously harmonizing, “Can we get much higher (so high!) / oh oh oh!” Kanye quickly takes command, the Kanye that, at his core, is a self-assured braggart with the killer rhymes to back him up. “Refresh the page and restart the memory / re-spark the soul and rebuild the energy / we stop the energy we kill the enemy.” The track is harrowing and subtly addresses the aftermath of his mother’s 2009 death, as he muses, “the plan was to drink until the pain over / but what’s worse / the pain or the hangover?” On “Gorgeous,” Cudi joins Kanye once again. The track sounds like it could have been plucked off Cudi’s latest album. A brooding and muddy guitar plays alongside a haunting organ as Cudi sings, “I’m on the edge / so why you playing / I’m saying / I will never ever let you live this down, down, down.”
One of Kanye’s most brilliant tracks on the album is the sparse “Runaway,” a song he debuted on this year’s VMAs, stealing the rug right from underneath Swift’s feet. The song has improved since its “G.O.O.D. Friday” release — Kanye has sharpened the sound quality and added a very 808s and Heartbreaks-era verse, auto-tune and all, on top of some lilting strings and the same, simple piano chords. It is his long awaited acknowledgment of his wrongdoings, and he delivers it in typical Kanye fashion – cockily and boldly, with no apologies to be found.
Fantasy’s best song is its last, the aptly titled “Lost in the World.” Featuring an auto-tuned Bon Iver, singing from his song “Woods,” he adds some beautiful layers of sound, ranging from a trashing drum to an angelic chorus cooing in the background. The song incorporates snippets from master poet Gil-Scott Heron’s classic “Comment #1,” audible when Heron repeatedly chants, “Who will survive in America?” in rapid succession. “Lost in the World” is not only one of the best of Fantasy, but also of the year – no other artist has taken artistry to such bold and truly thrilling new levels.
I wish I had the space to explore the rest of Fantasy, but I must also point you in the direction of several songs. On “All of the Lights,” Kanye teams up with (get ready) Rihanna, Fergie, John Legend, Elton John, La Roux, Alicia Keys, and many more in a rousing anthem that is a standout track. West has reworked “Devil in a New Dress” with an exceptional new verse from Rick Ross. “Hell of a Life” is phenomenal, and a song I can’t wait to blast from the speakers in my car over Thanksgiving break, while “Blame Game” is the best love-lost song of the year, featuring John Legend and Chris Rock. “So Appalled” and bonus track “See Me Now” are my least favorite tracks on the album, but both still transcend what defines a good song. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is certainly the best rap album of the year, and thanks to West’s masterful work, makes my top three best albums of 2010 list.
One of Pink Friday’s most successful tracks is “Dear Old Nicki,” a song that Minaj promised longtime fans she would include on the album. On it, her voice hearkens back to that of her mix-tape days, the most recent of which, Beam Me Up Scotty, was released to critical acclaim in early 2009. “Maybe you died cause everybody asked where you at / I try to channel you in hopes that I can steer you back,” she muses, contemplating the tradeoffs she has made in her transition to mainstream success. She ultimately decides that, “I needed to grow / and I needed to know / were there some things inside of me that I needed to show? / So I just deaded you / left you in all black / but dear old Nicki / please call back.” It is an oddly sentimental rap that veers into more recent territory on its R&B-style chorus, showcasing quite brilliantly the Nicki of both then and now.
We get a glimpse of one of Minaj’s amusing alter egos on the stellar “Roman’s Revenge.” On this duet, Minaj’s Roman Zolanski trades verses with Eminem’s Slim Shady, a truly inspired combination. It is a biting, thrashing track, and it is hard to tell who does the more masterful job. “Roman” targets (unofficially) Lil’ Kim with verses like, “you outta work / I know it’s tough / but enough is enough,” an apparent response to the mud Kim has been slinging Minaj’s way. In the meantime, Eminem plays off Minaj’s palpable anger and hurls piercing verbal barbs Kim’s way, quite literally spitting, “so finally I broke down and bought her an iPod / and caught her stealing my music / so I tied her arms and legs to the bed / set up the camera / and pissed twice on her / look! / Two peas in a tripod!” It is the album’s most vulgar, yet most successful track. “Roman” is Minaj’s most successful alter-ego, with a best-of-the-summer verse on Trey Songz’s “Bottom’s Up” and stealing the show from Kanye and Jay on “Monster.” Her voice becomes rapid and frenzied, alternating between knowingly silly and swiftly intimidating. Unfortunately, Roman disappears for the rest of Pink Friday, but perhaps it was a conscious decision to keep “him” from overexposing “himself.”
Many artists like to address the media directly through their music, and Minaj does so in a professionally subtle manner on “Here I Am,” a bumping and old-school track that is more about self-assurance than calling out anyone in particular. The song does a much better job of enforcing the “be yourself” message than the current Top-40 hit by Ke$ha, “We R Who We R,” a real garbage pail of a track. On “Here I Am,” Minaj confidently asks, “Do you take me to be who I am / to have and to hold ‘til death do us part / You say I wont survive if I leave / but I’ve got a couple of tricks up my sleeve / I no longer need your attention / at ease.”
The album veers into a winning blend of pop and rap on tracks, like “Check it Out” and the summer smash “Your Love.” Joined by Will.I.Am on “Out,” Minaj’s auto-tuned voice rises above the David Guetta-style drum machine and keyboards in the background. “Love,” a track that Minaj never intended to release until a leaker spread it around the Internet in May, samples Annie Lennox as Minaj raps, “S on my chest cause I’m ready to save him / Ready to get buck on anybody that plays him.” It features an un-auto-tuned Minaj (save for the chorus) showcasing her constantly evolving singing voice over a throbbing drum and organ pairing. On the album’s best R&B track, “Save Me,” the rap goddess finds a winning formula by mixing pop and rap as she sings, “I’m a monster / I’m a beast / and I feast / when I conquer.” It is the most emotional track on the album and it exceeds expectations for her as a singer.
Again, I run out of space, but I have to point out some of Pink Friday’s other successes. “I’m the Best” is Minaj’s “Kanye moment,” a bragging track that proves the rapper can rhyme like the best of them. I think “Did It On’em,” a boastful and synth-heavy track, is one of the album’s best, second only to “Roman’s Revenge.” Drake makes a more than welcome appearance on the fantastic “Moment 4 Life,” Kanye returns the favor on the Minaj-frenzied “Blazin,” and surprisingly, but actually quite successfully, Natasha Bedingfield croons the chorus on the poppy “Last Chance.” I have watched and heard Minaj grow for the past two years. I heard her on Lil’ Wayne’s Dedication 3 in late 2008 and I’ve been following her progress ever since. I can happily say that Pink Friday is an astounding debut album and a sure sign that Nicki Minaj will be a force on the music scene for a long time.