Perhaps it was Aristotle who said once that “haters just gonna hate,” and oh, how the fountains of discontent have rapidly burst forth following the release of Nicki Minaj’s sophomore album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded. A two-tiered effort that demands listeners’ attentions and repeated listens, Reloaded is a record bound to be misunderstood by critics and fans alike. At times overzealous in its attempts to get noticed, a snag that plagued Lady Gaga’s Born This Way and Minaj’s fellow Super Bowl performer M.I.A. on her atrocious MAYA, the album suffers from a severe lack of editing-a problem that weighs it down with lumpy, half-baked songs that don’t live up to the unusually high precedent the rapper set for herself with her verse on 2010’s “Monster.” If only Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded had been trimmed down from its whopping 22 songs-the disc offers more than enough spirited and well-executed songs from the reigning queen of hip-hop.
I’ll admit, I’m biased in my truly never-ending adoration of the star-I once woke up at 3 a.m. to see her perform on Good Morning America, so yeah, it’s kind of a big deal-so it’s best to rip the Band-Aid off clean and start with the bad, of which there is much to speak of. There are some real clunkers on Roman Reloaded, almost all of which feature Minaj half-heartedly singing in an over-autotuned fashion. Her duet with Chris Brown, “Right By My Side,” is a formulaic flop that has generated a stunning amount of airtime on mainstream radio for a song that sounds like a thin wisp of Beyonce’s worst material. “I’m pouring out my heart / Oh boy” the rapper mechanically croaks, albeit passionately. The deeper album cut “Marilyn Monroe” sounds like a demo Minaj might have recorded for another star (like the time her “Saxon” was reworked as “Red Lipstick” for Rihanna, a more capable singer with better producers at her disposal)-it’s by no means a bad song, and Minaj does her best to do something fresh with it, but it’s easy to sense her lack of confidence in her own vocal abilities. Mary J. Blige, Burger King commercial aside, she is not.
Ever since critics harassed Minaj for a debut album light on rap, heavy on pop, the superstar promised fans a return to “mixtape Nicki” on her second effort, but the only noticeable attempt to win back her early fans is a flat-out bore. Featuring mentor Lil Wayne and nobody Bobby V (really, Nicki, you couldn’t have called up Usher, or even Gyptian to return the favors they owe you?), “Sex In The Lounge” is stale, trite, and in-your-face garbage with weak rhymes and weaker melodies. Likewise, the already questionable talents of dancehall rapper Beenie Man are put to waste on “Gun Shot,” an impassioned track that strains to be significant but should have been abandoned on the cutting room floor alongside “Fire Burns,” another misguided attempt at sincerity. On “Gun Shot,” Minaj’s vocals work well with the heavily produced number, but her lyrics are garbled and lost in the mix in a cute attempt to grasp her Trinidadian roots that falls short of inspiring.
Many critics have noted that the album follows two distinctly different paths-the first ten tracks veer heavily toward Minaj’s rap and R&B styling, whereas the latter half plants her firmly in the clubs. The rap side starts off with a bang on “Roman Holiday,” the frenetic number she performed on this year’s Grammy telecast to many harrumphs. It’s clear in listening to the recorded track that it’s hard to pull off live, a decision Minaj claims that the Grammy producers made. It’s a whiplash of a track, jumping between a cockney chorus (“Take your medication Roman / Take a short vacation Roman / You’ll be ok”), surely an homage to Minaj’s theatrical background, and some seriously fierce lyrics slung at the listener in rapid succession over nary more than a minimal drumbeat. “Anyway stylists go get Bulgari / I am the ultimate Svengali,” she raps as alter ego Roman, providing a whirlwind of a high point that the album frequently manages to keep up with. It’s a legendary performance that slays on every level.
Minaj follows “Holiday” up with three of her sharpest tracks ever. “Come On A Cone” offers the rapper a chance to prove her status as she points out, “Pink Friday 2 milli / “Super Bass” Triple plat / When you see me on Ellen / Just admit that I’m winning.” The track’s ludicrous chorus, a gibberish half-scream half-chicken running around with its head cut off chant of “It should come on a cone / Yeah my ice is so cold / It should come on a cone,” applies the same principal as Elmo in its alluring but inexplicable silliness. “I Am Your Leader” features frequent Minaj collaborator Rick Ross in one of his best verses in years, followed up an appearance by Dipset legend Cam’ron, who reminds listeners who may have forgotten why he has been called one of the best living rappers. Minaj lyrically holds her own next to the two big guns, “Saint Nick / Ross / Hey Rick / I just bought got a toy / cost / eight-fifty / now I’m in the hood / n-s is getting woodies / hit up Hot Topic / Nicki Minaj hoodies.” It’s funny and tart, self-effacing and congratulatory in one spectacularly entertaining breath. The last of the three, “Beez In The Trap,” is as sparse as sparse gets, spiraling icy metronomes providing the only background noise as Minaj and 2 Chainz idly rap with aplomb. It’s the one song on the album that offers something completely original.
It’s hard not to jump immediately to the pop side of the album, because it features some of Minaj’s finest moments. “Pound the Alarm” and “Whip It” seamlessly integrate the fast-paced rapping fans expect with the up-tempo, club-ready beats that “Super Bass” commanded the airwaves with less than a year ago. It’s important to note that on these “sell-out songs,” Minaj never falters from her self-proclaimed brand, a strong sense of self made up of years of struggling on the streets to make it in the industry. Her thick New York accent never fades under the heavily produced numbers. While Katy Perry and Jessie J fell victim to crimes of pop-anonymity on their recent singles, there’s no mistaking Minaj’s acidic tongue and firm grasp on her lyrics. Here too, Minaj’s voice is overworked with autotune, but it works wonders for some reason, the clear result of proper editing and Dr. Luke’s impeccable production. Always one to quip, Minaj demands haters to “Jump in this ride / It’s real nice and slippery inside / Boys, boys come get this pie / Ride it in style,” a lyric that mocks cookie-cutter pop stars’ “I’m trying to be sexy but not too sexy” acts (I’m looking at you again Katy Perry), and instead slams the listener with an intentionally over-the-top laugh. Sure, the whip sounds might be hyper-literal, but Minaj is always two steps ahead of us, giggling from atop her pink-frosted throne as audiences try to put her in a box.
In a similar vein, “Automatic” and “Young Forever” are smartly executed songs destined to be Minaj’s fifth and sixth singles as the summer months wind to a close. They’re both catchy and inherently hummable tracks that scream Top-40’s name. Some may call them ploys, surefire grabs at chart domination, but who are we to beat the girl up for wanting her album to sprout legs months after its release?
The iTunes version of Roman Reloaded features three bonus tracks. The first, “Turn Me On,” is a David Guetta leftover that has already had its time in the spotlight. The last of the three is “Masquerade,” a cute track that Britney Spears was rumored to be a part of, a deal that fell through somewhere along the line-probably for the best.
The best of the bonus tracks-and perhaps the album’s absolute best track, and certainly destined to be one of Minaj’s biggest smashes-is “Va Va Voom,” a single that was shelved at the last minute in favor of radio-friendly “Starships.” I’ll never understand the decision, unless Minaj wanted to give other musicians a chance to hit number one before she stomped along with this toe-tapping, neck-twisting number that screams perfection from its old-school opening notes. “Va Va Voom” is snappy and darkly hilarious, though listeners may never pick up on its nuances, that offers a married man “One last option / I-I-I wanna give you one last chance / If you’re looking for the main attraction / Just hold on tight and let me do my dance.” There’s no question the hook was crafted by some of Hollywood’s most ingenious writers, as it picks up on the ground paved by Rihanna’s “S&M” (“Na na na na na come on”) and Minaj’s very own “Super Bass” (“Boom ba-doom / Boom boom ba-doom / Boom bass”). It’s almost guaranteed that this summer, at every intersection and stoplight, the sweet sounds of “Va Va Voom” will be blasting from every window: “If you want it / I’m gonna be / Va Va voom voom / If you got it / You got it / You got that voom voom.” It’s so perfect I might cry.
Despite its obvious missteps, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded cements itself as one of 2012’s best pop albums and certainly wipes away any fears that Minaj had lost her edge. It’s a near perfect blend of pop-rap perfection, a love letter to the Barbs that have had her back since day one. Nicki Minaj is destined for superstardom-Roman Reloaded brings her right to the edge.