Nicki Minaj has had a rough year. Sure, her sophomore album Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded sold a boatload of copies and spawned several successful singles, but her place in rap’s hierarchy has taken a tumble. Hip-hop has only taken notice of Minaj for her shortcomings lately, whether it’s popular DJ Funkmaster Flex berating the artist for “going pop” this year or a number of notable radio stations refusing to play the rap cuts (“Beez in the Trap” or “I Am Your Leader”) even though they’d been released as promo singles.
It’s also hard living in the shadow of your former self. Minaj hasn’t released a verse as good as her “Monster” spitfire, but that’s now over two years old, and the music industry moves on quickly. What critics hailed as the next queen of rap seems to have fizzled along the way, trading barbs for her Barbz, quippy raps for poppy choruses. Ever the smart businesswoman, it seems as if Minaj herself has noticed this public shift in opinion, and her latest-a reissue of Reloaded with eight more tracks-crackles with the sort of fiery braggadocio of her mixtape days.
Minaj actually classes up the EP with tracks like “Up In Flames” and “Freedom,” two extraordinarily solid and grounded rap efforts that the rapper has been missing in recent years. They cement her skills as one of the most talented writers-man or woman-in the industry, something many have questioned of the Re-Up artist for some time. The album comes alive on “Hell Yeah,” the perfect combination of rap and pop and something one can’t help but think Minaj has been searching for throughout her career. British R&B singer Parker takes the hook, while Minaj tosses bombs at rivals like “I ain’t see you on the Forbes yet / swear to God I ain’t see you in the stores yet.” It’s a smart and welcome song that signals a return to form.
Ciara makes a guest appearance on the hook of “I’m Legit,” a Mike WiLL Made It styled production with a dirty bassline and lickety-split quick rhymes from Minaj, who should be commended for her lightning quick pop culture references. “I did a freestyle then I got a shoutout from Obama / yes, yes, I am ill / I go in / for the kill,” she rhymes, calling out her second presidential candidate in a matter of months (a la Mitt Romney on Lil’ Wayne’s “Mercy” remix). Ciara holds her own, but her inclusion is headscratching to say the least. Minaj has a tendency for choosing some truly eclectic collaborators on her solo work, but fans must not be able to help thinking that her clout could pull in bigger names. Was Beyonce too busy, or perhaps just too classy?
What cements the EP, however, is also its most ludicrous single. Bringing the word absurdity to another level, “I Endorse Dem Strippers” serves as a sequel of sorts to her guest verse on fellow 2012 all-star 2 Chainz’s “I Luve Dem Strippers,” but here Minaj takes center stage. An icy beat is a welcome accompaniment to her heavily-accented rhymes as she raps about things not possible to be printed in this newspaper. “I ain’t got no time for your silly feuds / I’m with Pretty Gang at Sue’s Rendezvous,” she says with what one has to imagine is a steely glint in her eyes, shouting out a gentleman’s club. “I endorse this message,” she repeats over and over, drilling the mantra into your head.
Rap fans should expect to hear this spinning on their local stations in the coming months thanks to solid, not stellar guest verses by Young Money label-mate Tyga and Minaj’s own signee Brinx. Minaj has never had much luck with first singles, either, so the failure of “The Boys” both as a musical achievement and as a chart-performer should come as no surprise. With forgotten tracks like “Massive Attack” and “Roman in Moscow” serving as the lead singles from her prior two albums, the Cassie assisted mess of a song from The Re-Up should fade into the background of the rapper’s otherwise more than sterling career.
If nothing else, The Re-Up serves as the bridge between a solid sophomore effort and a hopefully rock-solid third disc. If it points to the direction her work is set to take in coming months, fans and haters alike should take note: the Queen is back.