Nicki Minaj: sight gag or sonic groundbreaker?
With a figure that looks like an R. Crumb cartoon, a wardrobe that takes its color cues from a jumbo box of Crayola crayons, and facial expressions that run from farcical to psychotic, it’s small wonder many tend to talk more about what Minaj looks like than how she sounds.
The peak parts of the star’s second CD, “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded,” turn that trend smack on its back. The rhythms, textures and inflections of the best tracks far outfreak, and outwit, any get-up the star has ever sported.
Take the opening cut, “Roman Holiday.” When Minaj previewed this ditty on the Grammys back in February, her zany (some said blasphemous) theatrics obscured the originality of both the beat and of Minaj’s rapping attack.
On the disk, you can bask in her fitful, stuttering style — a manic cadence informed by its own grace. In the space of one track, Minaj mixes pitches and flows to create as much rhythmic surprise as a top comic.
Using the persona of Roman Zolanski — the most amped-up gay man imaginable — Minaj unleashes a great spew of profane humor. She matches that to vocal and percussive rhythms that meld a Trinidadian patois, a New York attitude and a Hindi-hip-hop bounce. Such a pan-cultural swirl shoots Missy Elliot’s brand of hip-hop surreality to the moon.
Unfortunately, it’s a style and philosophy that occupies only so much of the CD. The next five tracks do their part to keep things edgy, as Minaj applies her visionary sound to the street. They sound like the snappy tracks that fired her early mixed tapes.
Had the album stuck with that hard, mean sound, Minaj might have created the most radical hip-hop album of the year. But she’s too fidgety and greedy for that. She goes on to divide the CD into three sections, as distinct and isolated from each other as gated communities.
Minaj carves out a five-song oasis of mainstream dance-pop, informed by the kind of auto-tuned vocals and tics that could come from any pop star who could afford a David Guetta remix. These are followed by four ill-advised ballads.
The best of the dance tracks still click. The single, “Starships,” offers a tease of an ideal summer song. But it’s the kind of thing fans could just as easily get from another island-inflected poster girl: Rihanna. The more problematic ballads falter by too cravenly aiming for the vulnerable side of Minaj, a feature best left to her therapist and to implication. Doesn’t everyone know the hardest characters hide the deepest hurts?
Luckily, Minaj rallies in the album’s demented finale, “Stupid Ho.” It’s a masterpiece of depravity, filth and rhythmic belligerence.
Unlike fellow physical punch line Lady Gaga, who dresses avant but whose music couldn’t be more conventional, Minaj proves here she can sound every bit as jaw-dropping as she looks. In an ideal world, she would honor that rarity more often, using it to create her own hip-hop theater of the absurd.