Drake has ruined it a bit for Young Money. Before “Take Care” we were blissfully content with mindless fun, lots of puns about shit, being an alien and Birdman parachuting in. But after his second album, we want more from all of them – none of that “Tha Carter IV” shit, no. We demand proper sequencing, meaning, well-written songs, intelligent production – more than anything, we want to connect. With the artist, with the message. Of course, an innately different set of rules applies to Nicki Minaj, on her own sophomore outing, as every artist is different and her “five year plan” already seems vastly different from whatever Drizzy feels like conjuring up. But following “Take Care” it might have been fair to expect something more than “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded.”
The first clue is in that name – it is bewilderingly confusing, sounding more like a Deluxe Edition of her debut (“Pink Friday”). It is, however, her second full-length album. And the emphasis is firmly placed on “full-length” – PFRR (Deluxe) weighs in at a staggering 22 tracks, continuing the somewhat unfortunate trend of overly long albums from this particular label. Her leaner debut did the job admirably, even if it was “mindlessly entertaining” and filled with holes. You see, she released a Deluxe of that including “Superbass” which ended up giving her a genuine breakthrough moment (queue SuperBowl etc). So, it’s only natural to expect Minaj to revisit that feel on her second outing. She declares herself “the female Weezy” (presumably they wear the same size jeggings) and deploys similar shock tactics as Carter, but more notably at times Lady Gaga (her Grammy performance certainly suggested that, even hiring the same choreographer). That performance divided opinion, as did her video for “Stupid Hoe” – the backlash presumably delayed the release of PFRR, and her mission to be big, bolder, larger than life and a creative tour de force seems to have been put on ice. Now, she just wants hits.
PFRR is deceptively simple, and should really be understood as a double album – in fact, it honestly should have been turned into just that, there are more than enough songs there, and the appalling sequencing would have been a non-issue. ‘Disc 1’ would have been the hip hop and R&B side, ‘Disc 2’ is – almost completely – a Rihanna record. Initially, at least, it really is as simple as that. Instead, we get a confusing mess, lots of filler and – once again – no real concept other than Roman being a bit mean. When we have artists like Janelle Monae delivering superb concept albums, these half-hearted stabs make us feel short-changed, and Minaj aborts the attempt so early on, it truly wasn’t even worth it. But less of what it should have been – how does it turn out?
Well, there are good points and bad ones, depending on your personal taste. Her “typical 5 year old target market” – as my friend told me the other day – will be happy with various clubby efforts, mainly helmed by RedOne and Dr Luke. Her Army of Barbies should feel relatively satisfied with most of the rap joints, which are deceptively impressive. But the abundance of filler makes the album sound disjointed, rushed and lacking in any kind of feeling. The core of the problem lies in that: Nicki Minaj, on 22 tracks, says absolutely nothing of any consequence. It’s cold, calculating and clinical, genetically designed to get her somewhere, not give you something of her personality or character. This is a collection of store-bought and prepackaged hits, with occasional sprinkles of risquÃ© behaviour that merely gives an illusion of interest.
Saying all that, are there enough impressive tracks to warrant your purchasing the album? Well, really and truly, half of them do the job well, with the other 50 percent being rather take it or leave it. Those eleven songs kick off with “Roman Holiday” – whilst dividing opinion, it has an undeniable flavour and even if it is all a bit OTT, it should eventually convert you (pun intended). “Come On A Cone” is effectively “Did It On Em (Part 2)” with a similar feel until Minaj starts singing the Tulisa anthem “Oooh, dick in your face” – a bizarre shock tactic that actually works rather well. “I Am Your Leader” features Rick Ross and Cam’ron, with everyone riding the beat as expected. A real standout follows, with the superb and brutally simple “Beez In The Trap” – it could well be a richly deserved summer anthem, with a spacey beat and indelible chorus. “Roman Reloaded” features Weezy and both MC’s just have fun with the bang-bang-beat. “Champion” is decent enough, featuring Drake, Young Jeezy and Nas but truth be told, nobody truly walks away with the track. Although the (prerequisite) Chris Brown duet is the next big single, it is distinctly average and seems like a somewhat odd choice, perhaps choosing star quality over song quality.
The next song to really hit bull’s-eye is the undeniable joy of “Starships” – a gloriously uplifting anthem, like a less cheesy version of “Superbass.” It is followed by a quick one-two of similar dance tracks (all produced by RedOne) in the form of “Pound the Alarm” and “Whip It” – of course, it’s a radical and sudden departure from the hip hop and R&B of the first unofficial half. However, the last third of the album is decidedly poor, with only (arguably) “Marilyn Monroe” – such a ‘Rihanna track’ – and “Stupid Hoe” perhaps earning their place. The rest of the album just isn’t quite there – more features from Weezy, less successful dance tracks, a bad collabo with Beenie Man, and “Turn Me On” is lift from David Guetta’s own album anyway. When looked at in the harsh light of day, you start to understand that perhaps this is too eager, too rushed, and for so many tracks to weigh PFRR down, a lack of thought has gone into the quality control department. Can you make a lean and thoroughly enjoyable 35 minute playlist out of these songs? Yes, sure. But why should you have to? That’s the job of the artist.
You’ll notice that her lyrics barely warrant a mention – that’s by design, as she rarely says anything worth noting. Such a technically proficient MC, with exquisite delivery, and one can hardly recall what she is actually saying over 22 tracks. Other points of interest include the favouring of singing over rapping in so many of the songs – again, it’s evident that Rihanna is the destination point for Minaj, and it’s understandable why. But Nicki sounds best when being herself, and the tracks that sound like her Barbadian counterpart are amongst the weakest. Minaj is an artist without clear character, personality and direction: she wants to reach her goal without giving herself to us in the process. That’s her choice – maybe she’s just level headed enough to recognize that this is basically a job to her, and it might be best to focus on singles. But if so, that’s a shame. There is such little substance combined with so much genuine filler that one can’t help thinking that the album format is a mere passing thought to Minaj. It makes us feel that way, too – something that could rarely be leveled at truly creative geniuses like Missy Elliot who made songs to express themselves, not just for pure commercial benefit. A missed opportunity to progress.