Oftentimes, Nicki Minaj sounds just as confused as the rest of us about exactly what she's supposed to be.
Despite moments of genuine passion and looking inward, the entirety of Pink Friday is marred by poor production choices and most likely the highest concentration of whack couplets per song in years. The budget for this album is too high for Minaj to be allowed to get away with some of the things she does here. "I'm the Best" is fine for what it is -- it's Nicki introducing herself to all of us and giving us her story to this point. It comes with the territory of debut rap albums. But one line, "Even when my daddy was on crack I was crack/And now the whole album's crack", sticks out way too sorely to just overlook. And it's something she does so often it's really not worth pointing out because it should be apparent as hell to anyone that gives the album a simple cursory listen. "Where my dawgs at... Randy/Get off my dick, bitch... Andy". The moment where she uses the same overly-theatric punchline flow to emphasize the rhyming of "me" and "we", it's even less creative than it sounds.
The album is littered with echo effects on her voice (think Kanye West's "Monster") to the point it's more gimmick than talent. Her delivery feels similarly indebted to a need to appear unique rather than actually being such. Oftentimes, she equals Rihanna's propensity to be a so-called jack of all trades, while quickly, proving she's incapable of mastering any of them.
Equally surprising is the amount of time Minaj spends on this disc making pop songs. One almost gets the impression the girl was allowed to make her Rebirth before she even proved she could make a rap album. The result is songs like "Right Thru Me" and "Your Love" that come as close to blustery, Kelly Clarkson ballads as they do rap singles. Similar to B.o.B.'s Adventures of Bobby Ray, the result is the endless reduction of a rap artist to a mere vehicle for producers and their trends. I don't doubt in Pink Friday's case that we're talking about a project the artist fully intended to create, though.
During an MTV special documenting the hype leading to the album, Nicki makes it perfectly clear that she would like to be a sort of Lady Gaga figure in hip-hop, supposedly representing the underrepresented women of the world. Her plastic image and assets are a direct result of this desire to appear different, even challenging to people. At one point, she's even coaxed into admitting she might just be pretending to be a rapper so she can get into acting by her interviewer. It's framed as a touching, insightful moment, but to me, it came across as dishonest and indicative of the problems many of the artists involved in rap's pop-oriented circles often face. Minaj is a talented rapper, one who used to freestyle over Notorious B.I.G. instrumentals and, when challenged such as on the aforementioned "Monster", is often able to rise to the challenge with a scene-stealing if not technically dominant performance. To hear someone who so obviously has a talent -- and a desire to pursue that talent -- cast it aside so casually ought to have stung her a little.
One moment on the album that rises above the muck is "Save Me". It's equally as mucky as "Right Thru Me", but built on the Amen Break and samples that feel like a direction Radiohead might go if they took a turn back towards their pop roots, the song goes a lot further towards making its message worth listening to. Strangely, this is also one of the few songs where she does not rap at all, opting instead for a surprisingly strong vocal performance that brings to mind the way she saved Lil' Wayne's "Knockout" on Rebirth. But it's too fleeting, as that "we, me" rhyme I talked about and more lame jokes about Drake and Minaj getting married follow on "Moment 4 Life". Then there's the token Black Eyed Peas style track that falls flat on its face (we didn't need a "What Is Love?" sample, and we don't need a "Video Killed the Radio Star" sample, either) and the unexplainable pop crossover attempt, in this instance featuring a faceless Natasha Bedingfield.
Kanye West seems to be the only guest intent on resembling himself at his best at least a little bit, though his verse shares Nicki's tendency to teeter nearly too close to the edge of gimmickry and nonsense. Pink Friday is a real shame, albeit a very well-marketed one, and since it's found its niche, it's no surprise the album was a fair success for Minaj. But I feel like it would definitely be a surprise to see Minaj continuing to play the same role three or five years from now, if not sooner. Hers does not seem to be a style that can outlast its apex of popularity, though the level of ubiquity hip-hop has achieved in world culture casts that further into doubt than, say, Das EFX's short-lived fame or Busta Rhymes' necessary toning down in order to elongate his career.