Nicki Minaj’s main struggle as an artist hasn’t been finding a voice, but finding out how to have her multiple voices gel together. On one hand, she built a fanbase around the “mixtape Nicki” of Beam Me Up, Scotty, and her first showstopper moment was her verse on “Monster”, where she upstaged an already solid Kayne and Jay-Z. At the same time, “Super Bass” was the commercial smash pop song that put her fanbase through the roof, and caused this to happen. So how do you reconcile the cypher-spitting rapper and the pink pop star?
Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded offers up a simple but ambitious answer: you don’t. This 19 track, 69 minute album makes more sense if you consider it as a double album. The unofficial “first disc” runs from the start until “Champion” with disc 2 opening with “Starships” (pretend that the two cuts between those, “Right By My Side” and “Sex in the Lounge”, are bonus tracks or something). It’s the only logical explanation.
The “Roman disc” opens with “Roman Holiday”, aka “That weird not-quite song Nicki did at the Grammys”. While not bad, the song feels like it’s trying to cram too many elements in for any one of them to take off: the whole “Roman” concept, the theatric production, and Minaj’s less than stellar performance on the track make Roman Reloaded a hard sell. But then, she spends the next six songs in rare form that not only sells this album, but more than justifies Minaj’s place as one of the modern hip-hop giants.
“Come on a Cone” to “Champions” aren’t just successful because Nicki raps on them, but because her rap on them is solid. She chews through “Come on a Cone”, jumping between hysterics on the chorus, rise and fall cadences on the verses, and left-field (and absurdly hilarious) moment where she sings “Ooooh, dick in your face” a few times. She leads a three-MC assault with Rick Ross and Cam’ron on “I Am Your Leader”. Then there’s “Beez In the Trap”, where minimal production creates a menacing atmosphere for Nicki to give her most confident (and best) performance on the disc. More than any of the other songs on PF:Roman Reloaded, it proves that Minaj is hear to stay. Next up is “Beez in the Trap”‘s polar opposite in the excellent “Hov Lane”, where the production and Nicki go manic.
The “Roman disc” finally proves one of Minaj’s criticisms wrong: that she can’t work on her own. In fact, some of her best performances (“Come on a Cone” and “Hov Lane”) are her going solo, and when guests show up on “I Am Your Leader” and “Beez in the Trap”, they never upstage her. The group cut on “Champion” (who’s beat I guarantee will be on a mixtape somewhere by year’s end) with Drake, Young Jeezy, and Nas feels like an actual group collaboration; no one walks away owning the track (for better and worse). Weirdly enough, the only collaboration that doesn’t really take off is the title cut with Lil Wayne, which feels too much like a deliberate single to work (gimmicky gun cock production, weak hook, etc.). Overall, the first seven songs on Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded could make for a 4 or 4 and a half star album/EP/mixtape/what have you.
The two buffer songs between the “Roman” and “Pink” sides of Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded aren’t anything to write home about. “Right By My Side” features a vocoder as Chris Brown, and sounds like any other Chris Brown urban radio single. Other possible urban radio single is the “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Lonely Island” sensuality-fail that is “Sex In The Lounge” featuring (who else but) Lil Wayne. The two songs feel unnecessary, but in retrospect, make for an easier transition from “Roman” to “Pink”.
Hell, even with them, it’s weird to hear something as superficial as “Starships” after what we’ve heard so far. And “Starships”, despite being a little slapped together and overstuffed, is still the best of these. Lady Gaga producer RedOne jumps in the production chair for “Starships” and the three songs after it, and other radio-makers Dr. Luke and J.R. Rotem enter the mix as well. And, in the interest of fairness, none of the songs on “Pink” are explicitly bad (well, maybe “Beautiful Sinner”), but they’re purely disposable fluff. Minaj loses the commanding presence she had on “Beez in the Trap”, and is reduced to being the producer’s plaything like any Rihanna, Jason Derulo, or Katy Perry.
The problem with the “Pink disc” isn’t that it’s pop–“Super Bass” was a great song, but that it’s thoughtless and simply not as good as the “Roman disc”. “Pound the Alarm”, “Whip It”, “Young Forever”, and “Automatic” are more unnecessary than terrible; even after hearing them plenty of times, the hooks barely stick, and the lyrics aren’t worth remembering. It also goes on entirely too long; imagining Pink Friday: Roman Relodad as a double album helps justify the length (Young Money, hire a damn editor: length keeps hurting your albums), but half an hour of redundant pop songs that would be on another pop star’s cutting room floor is simply too much. Just because people can delete the songs they don’t like doesn’t mean release subpar songs. It tarnishes the fantastic first half of the album.
In the end, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded is both a thrilling and exhausting record, the only problem being that there’s almost zero overlay between the two. After almost half an hour of putting up some of her best rapping and saying she won’t go pop, Minaj goes the poppiest she’s ever been. Giving side 2 more time in R&D could have made PF:RR a masterpiece, but as is, it only sinks in its own mess: three out of five stars.
tl;dr: Mixtape Nicki and Pop Nicki collide. Mixtape Nicki wins, 3/5.