One day far in the future, when Nicki Minaj will have produced maybe three or four more albums and sold tens of billions more, she will release a greatest hits package, and what a wonderful day that will be. As a matter of course, this collection will almost certainly include such mawked-up, platinum-plated blaring pop anthems as “Super Bass,” but if there is any justice in the world her straight-up hip-hop will dominate, because her straight-up hip-hop is twisted and fantastical beyond belief. With three albums and roughly as many mixtapes, this supposedly corporate rapper has done some pretty daring work, and it all deserves to come together on a single, flawless, long-playing record. Whomever Minaj hires to compile the thing has a rich, idiosyncratic catalogue at his or her disposal. Pray that he or she recognizes the swaggering, screeching grenade of an album lurking within this catalogue and bestows it upon a tender and unsuspecting marketplace for universal hedonistic delectation.
Anybody even mildly familiar with the pop charts, however, will recognize my imaginary Nicki Minaj’s Greatest Hits: Hardcore Bangerz Edition as an unlikely fantasy. Beyond instant ear candy like “Anaconda,” her greatest hits generally aren’t hardcore bangers. They’re big, cheerful slices of relatively anodyne common-denominator pop, typified by the aforementioned “Super Bass” but also “Starships,” “Your Love,” “Pills N Potions,” etc. Most likely, her best-of package will include as high if not higher a proportion of this schlock, perhaps starting strong and then turning to mush halfway through — that’s the strategy on 2012’s Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, which nevertheless for the first six songs contains her single most compelling musical sequence and nevertheless remains her best album. It certainly beats 2010’s prequel Pink Friday, whose inspirational arena-pop only occasionally gets interrupted by tougher, sassier material. It also beats 2014’s The Pinkprint, where similarly tough material shares space with slower, introspective, confessional indulgence. All three albums divide up their playing time between magnificently aggressive and audacious hip-hop and mildly embarrassing heartsongs, many of which include quite a lot of Auto-Tune and not much rapping at all.
Like the Black Eyed Peas, say, only wickeder on one end and blander on the other, Minaj splits the difference between hip-hop and R&B for a generation where both genres are primarily experienced in a club setting, and for whom each term refers to a variety of sleek, modern black pop that has recently come to dominate the charts. Thus she retains credit among rap gatekeepers who admire her wordplay while reaching a wider audience theoretically open to anything on the Top 40. Problem is, she has no gift for a hybrid style. She makes hip-hop songs and R&B songs, but she can’t do both at once. Except possibly for the beguiling “Check It Out,” coincidentally featuring the Black Eyed Peas, the few attempts on Pink Friday never quite jell. Either she raps or she sings; if she raps her music comes out fierce, and if she sings her music comes out sentimental. Her anthemic material has serious commercial advantages, especially given the market for rousing power ballads, and I suppose she never would have made it as a rapper or a celebrity without a propensity for the tearjerker. Regardless, this former American Idol judge’s pop energy rarely rises above Kelly Clarkson level, which for those of us who love her rapping per se but not her corny choruses, lends her albums an odd, disconcerting, split-personality feel. Rather than fusing two genres and by extension two audiences into one integrated whole, she records music in one of two separate aesthetic modes and releases them in awkward juxtaposition.
When she raps, however, my hair-splitting objections lose their relevance as fans and haters alike get swept up in the overwhelming energy of her flow. Though indebted to Lil Wayne’s mischievous/obscene free-associative mode like every other rapper right now, she sounds like absolutely nobody else. She screams, snickers, gasps, whispers, stretches out her words, puckers her lips, and blows raspberries at the listener, all in a rough whine the harshness of which comes across as Alienation Effect Supreme until it miraculously morphs into Thrilling Pleasure Machine. While her guest verse on Kanye West’s “Monster” stands as her finest moment by popular acclamation — and an astonishing verse it is, with her voice organically shifting from shout to growl to high sarcastic gripe as she jumps octaves and bends vowels into gruff, climbing crescendos — she wilds out most convincingly and effectively on her own material, because the glitzy/dinky synth-loop Young Money production style she favors happens to complement her verbal pyrotechnics exactly. Not only do her scalding electrohooks roar from the speakers with more shameless confidence and outright delight than the norm in commercial hip-hop, but her vocal presence vitalizes music that would otherwise seem pro forma, music whose deliberate control might otherwise lock into its groove too automatically, too easily. As it stands, her verses are staggering total assaults on the senses, and her energetic, percussive dancebeats explode and abrade even when covered in sugary pop juice. That her rap hits go platinum proves beautifully how the avant-garde principle of complete and uncompromised intensity has genuine roots in what large numbers of people actually want to hear.
Although I will proudly defend the absurdly excessive Roman Reloaded, whose blander moments are redeemed by the sheer imagination of her conceits, The Pinkprint has been her most critically acclaimed album by far. But unless you enjoy the Nicki Minaj who puts on a headset mike to bellow vaguely didactic power ballads about heartbreak and following your dreams, picking-and-choosing among her singles remains the optimal way to experience her music, because as singles go, in 2014 she was on top of the world. Before dropping the final product in December, to advertise The Pinkprint Minaj released a constant stream of singles all throughout last year, many of which weren’t even included on the album. Of these, my favorite must be “Yasss Bish!!,” which combines metallic drums, church bells, and a huge golden ring of a synth pattern for a massive trap/drill monster that’s still lurking in the shadows of hip-hop radio if you listen to the right stations at one in the morning. The song wasn’t a major success, and it was left off The Pinkprint, probably because it wasn’t conceptual enough — besides Soulja Boy’s title refrain, “Yasssssss bish yasssssss,” her verses are pretty associative and abstract within the talking-shit-to-rivals tradition, even though this is some of the fastest and sharpest rapping she’s ever done. “Anaconda,” on the other hand, had a clear message: big butts are better. Sampling Sir-Mix-A-Lot’s 1992 smash “Baby Got Back,” the track completely jumbles up its source material to come out harder and more disjointed than the original, making the bass louder and slinkier, keying the refrain to one of Mix-A-Lot’s many ridiculous lines and looping the beginning of that line just to highlight how silly it is: “My anaconda DON’T! My ANACONDA DON’T! MY ANACONDA DON’T want none unless you got BUNS HON!” Then, towards the end, she breaks down the track even further so she can start maniacally cackling about her fat ass. As a reward for her brash sense of humor, “Anaconda” reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, as yet her biggest hit.
However outrageous “Yasss Bish” and “Anaconda” are, nothing prepared me for “Only,” a brazen show of attitude so magnificent that The Pinkprint might be worth buying just to own this song. “Only” rides a minimal, hypnotic, laid-back keyboard loop and understated drums. Minaj, Drake, and Lil Wayne all get verses, with a chorus from Chris Brown in between each one. When I first heard the song, my jaw dropped; I couldn’t believe this song actually existed. For Minaj to begin her verse with “I never fucked Wayne I never fucked Drake/on my life man fuck’s sake” is one thing, given the occasional and probably false accusations that she became a famous rapper by sleeping with other famous rappers. But when Drake and Wayne proclaim, respectively, “I never fucked Nicki cause she got a man/but when that’s over then I’m first in line/the other day in her Maybach I thought goddamn this is the perfect time” and “I never fucked Nicki and that’s fucked up/if I did fuck she’d be fucked up/whoever is hitting ain’t hitting it right/cause she act like she need dick in her life,” and then each proceeds to describe obscene sexual fantasies about the rapper whose song they are currently guests on — oh wow that is unbelievable. Generally, this is not how guest artists are supposed to behave. How on earth did Minaj let them do this, I wondered, before realizing that she probably wanted them to, that she probably wrote their verses for them, that she’s in total control. Minaj is sublimely angry, Drake cheerfully matter-of-fact, Wayne dazed and amused, and they all share a style of wordplay that will make your head spin as each punchline sinks in. Chris Brown’s relaxed refrain is crucial, providing a pleasant break from the aggressive excitement elsewhere in the track and tying the whole musical construction together. The blooping hook will slither around your head for months. It’s the slowest song ever to qualify as a supremely turned-up dancefloor explosion and the funniest song ever to qualify as an empowerment anthem. It drips hedonism from every syllable and will reawaken sections of your id that you thought long dormant.
A month and a half later, The Pinkprint came out. As an album, it peaks insanely high, but parts of it are godawful. The first three weepers establish a sensitive, confessional tone unmitigated in its mild blanditude, complete with some very sincere autobiographical reminiscence. The next five songs, just like that, shazam, are prime Nicki Minaj, utterly scathing and defiant and invigorating, yoking cool electronic backup to rapid-fire rapping like she always does. Fast forward to tracks eleven and twelve, the restrained dancehall tribute “Trini Dem Girls” and the aforementioned “Anaconda,” then check out deluxe-edition bonus tracks “Shanghai” and “Truffle Butter”; skip the two bleeding-heart exercises before “Trini Dem Girls” and the four infuriatingly saccharine sledgehammer-powered megapop horrors that the album ends with. Well, actually, the penultimate “Bed of Lies” is pretty catchy, thanks to guest singer Skylar Grey’s haunting, melodic voice, not husky exactly but tinged with wisps of smoke in the corner. But it’s still a pleasant trifle compared to her hip-hop mode — a mode that, if anything, has on the new album grown closer to that of her contemporaries in the Young Money group, more focused on clean, discrete beats/hooks rather than the louder, fast-paced club cacophony of Roman Reloaded. Theoretically, I suppose both sides of her personality are unified by The Pinkprint’s shiny pop aesthetic, with everything from the high siren on “Feeling Myself” to the solemn keyboard on “Grand Piano” sharing the same manufactured plastic surface. But like crazily twisted Lego bricks, pop comes in all shapes and sizes, and solely on the musical evidence it seems to me that Gleeful Minaj and Emotional Minaj are two incongruent halves that don’t click.
What to do with such an inconsistent artist, an artist whose very inconsistency might well be the reason she’s selling records? My advice is to listen to all her albums in depth, explore her vast plethora of non-canonical singles and guest appearances, and make yourself a personalized mixtape. Mine goes like this: 1) “Roman Holiday,” 2) “Roman Reloaded,” 3) “Anaconda,” 4) “Check It Out,” 5) “Come on a Cone,” 6) “Only,” 7) “Roman’s Revenge,” 8) “Did It On’Em,” 9) “Beez in the Trap,” 10) “Get On Your Knees,” 11) “Dance (A$$) Remix,” 12) “Feeling Myself,” 13) “Stupid Hoe,” 14) “Yasss Bish.” I could probably add a few more, but those are my very favorites. Before The Pinkprint came out, I was hoping that it would be all rap, the awesome rock-solid long-playing record her talent deserved, and I was being stupid. At this point in her career, there’s no reason she would shake up such a lucrative formula now, especially since she’s gradually earning some critical respect anyway. No one album of hers will ever get rave reviews across the board until she successfully melds dance-pop and battle-rap, which will probably be never. But once her greatest hits package comes out in retrospect and possibly sooner, she will occupy a fond place in the hearts of pop omnivores and hip-hop obsessives alike who crave the juicy charge of crackling, stylized swagger.