Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded
(Young Money Entertainment)
A mess of DayGlo paint, kitsch and hypersexuality, Nicki Minaj has the appearance of someone who splits her time between dancing at the Moulin Rouge and entertaining at children's parties.
Born in Trinidad and raised in Queens in New York, the MC's music has always been as unique and bewildering as her image; mixing guttural rhymes with Mariah Carey-like soul singing, over an assault of heavy beats and bass.
Then there's the raft of characters and accents (Caribbean, New York and even faux-British) that the performer adopts to embody her thoughts.
But in spite of her wildly idiosyncratic ways, there was never any denying that, when all's said and done, Minaj was a hip-hop artist. Until now.
Her second full-length release, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, sees the vocalist moving away from the scattershot rap that first brought her to the attention of Lil Wayne's Young Money imprint. The flirtation with dance music that helped create 2011's hugely successful single Super Bass (absent from the original version of her debut, Pink Friday) and saw her guest on the French DJ David Guetta's club smash Turn Me On, now seems to have become the driving force of her output.
Apparently no longer content to simply be the most consistently fascinating rapper in the world, Minaj now wants to compete with the likes of Rihanna and even Britney Spears in the crowded world of pop.
This is never more apparent than on the lead single Starships. Opening with the lines "Let's go to the beach, each / Let's go get away" over radio reggae guitars, the song quickly transforms into the kind of club thumper that has somehow become pop's default setting in recent years. There's no denying that the exuberant tune does what it sets out to do, but Minaj's oddball rhymes are eclipsed by its walloping house beat and "euphoric" production.
The late-1990s Ibiza aesthetic continues on the likes of Pound the Alarm and Whip It, co-produced by the in-demand Moroccan-born musician RedOne, who worked on many of Lady Gaga's biggest hits. But as well as club tunes, Roman Reloaded also sees Minaj trying her hand at bubblegum pop.
On Marilyn Monroe, the artist compares herself to the late Hollywood icon; "I'm insecure / I make mistakes ... Is this how Marilyn Monroe felt?" Aside from being thoroughly well-worn pop subject matter, the power ballad features none of the irreverent spark that fans have come to expect from Minaj. Things get even more lightweight on Forever Young, in which the feisty singer seems to mutate into a gushing American Idol contestant.
But that's only half the story. Unusually, for an album that's aimed squarely at the mainstream, Roman Reloaded's first half is made up of the artist's more difficult (read: interesting) material.
The opening track Roman Holiday - sung mostly from the perspective of Martha, the Cockney mother of her "alter-ego" Roman Zolanski - is as barmy and fun as anything she's ever created, (even featuring a few lines of Oh Come All Ye Faithful).
The slow blaze of I Am Your Leader (featuring Cam'ron and Rick Ross) calls to mind the glitchy rap of her brilliantly out-there contemporary MIA. There's also a nod to old-school hip-hop on the street anthem Champion, which comes loaded with another host of star collaborators.
Tucked away at the record's end is its finest moment. The brilliantly blunt Stupid Hoe features not only Minaj's finest rap performance, but a kinetic beat reminiscent of Beyoncé's Single Ladies. Most importantly, the songs sees the artist embracing the demented persona that made her so endearing to begin with, (check out the epilepsy-inducing Hype Williams-directed promo on YouTube for the ultimate evidence of this).
Despite being an album of two distinct halves, Roman Reloaded will almost certainly achieve its aim of placing Minaj right at the centre of mainstream music. While her club tunes and sugary R&B ballads still have enough of the artist's wild personality to elevate them above those of her contemporaries, there's no denying that by moving away from what she does best – gloriously wonky, Technicolor rap – something unique risks being lost forever.
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