Roman Reloaded is a headscratcher of infinite proportions.
Pink Friday was a weird experience because, on the one hand, Nicki Minaj was undoubtedly talented. A female version of outsized Busta Rhymsian magnificence had never been presented to us before, nor had anyone so charismatically gifted been so willing to distort Lauryn Hill into a vision of Madonna. Pink Friday was an easy album to dislike, but it was also one that was hard to ignore. An album track such as "Save Me" seemed to one-up everything around it, but through constant bombardment in public spaces, it was hard to ignore the addictive (ironically, potentially) qualities of singles such as "Right Thru Me" and "Moment 4 Life".
Minaj's first album was perhaps more than anything an exercise in refurbishment, as the former New York street rapper was reconfigured into a variety of forms both misshapen (aborted single "Massive Attack") and oddly comfortable ("Your Love"). But it was a track you could only find on the Deluxe Edition, "Super Bass", that propelled Minaj into what she's been portrayed to be -- namely, pop superstar. And so one might naturally think that cue would be followed to a tee for her sophomore album, rather many of her biggest previous mistakes are amplified here for the pleasure of an unknowable populace.
In fact, in the build up to Roman Reloaded's release, the word "mistake" has come to define the campaign. Kickstarted by the laughably rhythmless "Stupid Hoe" and dutifully stoked by a woeful Grammy performance of "Roman Holiday", long has Roman Reloaded been expected to be bizarrely fixated on sounding like a train wreck. Release date pushbacks certainly didn't help either. But to actually experience the release of it, even if just to hear the studio versions of these two much-maligned tracks, is somehow even worse than expected. Every element of Minaj's artistic personality has been pushed to 11 on a blown-out amplifier for this album. Her delivery is a put-on like no other rapper has believed palatable, at many moments to the point it truly feels like Minaj has taken the old mantra that "it's not what you say but how you say it" to a poorly lit basement and performed malpractice surgery on the concept.
It's only seven minutes into this CD before Nicki Minaj operatically sings "put my dick in your face", a phrase she'll repeat many more times throughout the Hit-Boy helmed, very poorly titled "Come on a Cone". Thanks to the past few months it's not a complete surprise that this isn't the only surreal, incomprehensible moment on Roman Reloaded, but it's especially jarring following "Roman Holiday", a song with a ridiculous, Millionaires-esque chorus and completely unhinged rendition of "Come All Ye Faithful" wedged awkwardly into the middle. To receive a song that's every bit "Roman Holiday's" equal immediately after is just, frankly, insane.
Roman Reloaded seems to be the result of no one being brave enough to tell Minaj enough is enough. By doubling down on her cartoonish elements, she's lost all remnants of lyrical ingenuity she around the time "Monster" first leaked, let alone her various mixtapes. Roman Reloaded takes great pleasure in emphasizing this awkward lack of accountability as well. While the first half consists of very poorly thought out rap music masquerading as pop, the second half sees Lady Gaga producer RedOne take a leading role on the production end while Minaj sings pop songs that are notable only for their total lack of character. These are songs aim for the empty sentiments of Chris Brown's Graffiti or Rihanna's Loud, so lacking are they in reasons to believe in them it's a bit shocking to see an entire 40 minutes devoted to them.
Minaj has handled herself very capably in previous pop constructs -- see "Save Me" or Lil' Wayne's "Knockout" -- but here it's all pomp and circumstance. Even then, if the songs were any good, or the performance admirable on any level other than novelty, Roman Reloaded would stand a chance. But Minaj's shrieking and tongue-speaking here is oddly off putting. Listening to Roman Reloaded quite honestly feels like the hype one might feed a pot-smoking sophomore about Syd Barrett's Madcap Laughs, except you actually got the soundtrack to an artist losing their mind rather than a charmingly unhinged pop album. Or more contemporaneously, the audio equivalent of Minaj and Katy Perry's annual attempts to outweird Lady Gaga on the red carpet of the Grammys: pointless and futile.
Being an album whose rap half boasts features from Cam'ron, Nas and Lil' Wayne as well as 2 Chainz' usual dose of pure machismo, there are a few highlights. If "I Am Your Leader" were Minaj-less or "Beez in the Trap" two verses shorter, they could find strength in the summer. But, again, conservatism is not what you would come to Roman Reloaded. You're here for an album where Nicki Minaj claims "only thing pop is my endorsements" 15 minutes before an entire section of boring, trite attempts at playing Katy Perry or Rihanna (particularly "Marilyn Monroe", which comes complete with Rihanna's islander vocal affectations). You're here to listen to a Kool Keith album from his late-2000s dark period as interpreted by your kid sister's Barbie collection... you're here, honestly, because you're an audiomasochist.
"Stupid Hoe", infamous for its number of dislikes on YouTube and BET's banning of the video, is dumped at the end of the tracklisting for reasons unknown. One might think it was to admit the song was a mistake, but the rest of the album certainly doesn't try to make that case. If it's to remind us that Minaj is a rapper after 30 minutes of frilly, unessential pop music that only succeeds at being far less annoying than Minaj doing what she's marketed for, then I suppose it succeeds. But only insomuch as to put the final nail in the coffin of Minaj's fading hype as a true talent. If Nicki Minaj were Tracy McGrady, this would be the point in her career where her back gives out and she unceremoniously fades from the highlight reels and marque. To quote her Young Money compatriot Drake, Nicki, "I'm just sayin' you could do better. Tell me have you heard that lately?"