Rating: 2.5/5Few knew what to make of Nicki Minaj when her buzz began to runneth over back in 2009. While some knew of her past selling mixtapes hand-to-hand in New York City, it was hard to see the voice-changing Barbie-obsessed rapper who wanted “more cheese, lots and lots of cheese” as anything but contrived. The next year, she gave us her career-making atomic bomb of a verse on Kanye West’s “Monster,” effectively stealing the show from West, Jay-Z and Rick Ross. When you’ve outshined the three biggest rappers in the country, that’s usually a good omen. She then followed one of the best rap verses of 2010 with an album that contained next-to-no actual rapping. The less said about Pink Friday (which received a 1.0 on this very site) the better. It seemed Minaj was at a crossroads: either be the esoteric eccentric MC her “Monster” fans wanted, or a full-blown pop star. On Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded Minaj comes to the fork in the road and uses it to pry the demons from her skull.
Things begin incredibly promising with “Roman Holiday,” the type of bizarre rollercoaster we all anticipated after “Monster.” While most weren’t talking about the song itself after her performance of it at this year’s Grammys, those borderline blasphemous visuals really distracted from an infinitely more chaotic (and interesting) soundscape. Minaj’s voice bounces from coliseums of crescendos to rapid-fire Nerf gun-esque verbal assaults. The unapologetically grotesque lyrics smashing against the kinetic backdrop is among the most entertaining creative meltdowns you’ve ever heard committed to a rap song.
From this point on, it should be noted that Nicki Minaj isn’t so much a “Female MC” as she is a total weirdo. The error most critics make when deconstructing her is to attempt to juxtapose her with her contemporaries and snuggly fit her into some easy history of women in hip-hop. It’s a mistake to get caught up into how Minaj “toys with gender constructs” because she’s much more interested into being a sideshow. Critics accusing her of using her sexuality to sell records really have never heard Nicki at her most unhinged. Attractive as she might be, the music on this first half of Roman Reloaded isn’t as un-erotic as it is anti-erotic. Minaj is the rap equivalent of a Tex Avery drawn cover of a Goosebumps book. No other female in the pop stratosphere is going to sing about putting her “dick in your face,” making much of this record uncharted territory.
That is, until we get to “Right by My Side” with Chris Brown. Until now, we’ve had a flat-out brave run of seven unconventional yet traditional rap songs. “Right by My Side” is the turning point where the album becomes R&B songs with less-and-less rapping. Track 10, “Starships,” turns Roman Reloaded into a pop radio Fergie-Ke$ha-B.O.B. headed Cerberus, giving us even less rapping until track 15, “Marilyn Monroe,” does away with the rapping altogether. We just get Minaj singing for the rest of the album until “Stupid Hoe” pops up at the end to give us another fleeting glimpse of the artist we “Monster” fans prefer.
Due to such mid-album departures, Roman Reloaded is very difficult to judge. Had this album just been the opening seven tracks and “Stupid Hoe,” it would easily have been one of the best rap releases this year. But because of how much of the album enters a realm that can’t be classified as rap songs, it’s a challenge to quantify a rating that concludes that these songs are all part of the same whole. It’s not like with Pink Friday or B.o.B.’s Adventures of Bobby Ray where we were promised a rap album by a promising rap artist and given a release that didn’t have rapping in mind whatsoever. It’s more like we’re given two EPs of different genres on one disc with three songs of yet another genre (albeit a more radio friendly one) sandwiched in the middle to help with the transition.
That being said, the rap aspects of this album are stellar. The production’s absolute disregard for resembling anything popular right now really allows Minaj’s unique voice to flourish. The guest verses are largely excellent, especially Rick Ross and a rejuvenated Cam’Ron on “I Am Your Leader,” reminding us how fun and spectacular he can be over great production. However, the only thing nearly as bold about the pop half is that it’s sharing a tracklist with these aforementioned experiments. For such a forward-thinking artist, a lot of the melodies here give a heavy 2008-vibe and some of the songs (“Marilyn Monroe”) don’t sound like Minaj but a writer trying hard to emulate her. Either way, it makes no difference to the artist herself. The one unifying factor of Roman Reloaded is that the entire time, Minaj sounds like she’s having an absolute blast. Yes, she’s balancing being a mixtape monster and a pop princess, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a long strange trip, but you’ll enjoy at least half of it.