Nicki Minaj Queen review – uneasy coronation for rap’s manic monarch: Not everything connects on the rapper’s regal fourth album, but when it does, she shows what a unique talent she is.
As recently noted in these pages, the campaign for Nicki Minaj’s fourth album hasn’t been a charmed one: combative and snippy with fans on Twitter, she has not had a major hit with any of its singles.
Her chart success has instead come from guesting on FeFe with 6ix9ine, the rapper who could be jailed and put on the sex offenders register for using a child in a sexual performance – perhaps not a great look for a woman trying to assert herself, from her album title downwards, as hip-hop’s head of state.
And across 19 tracks, there are inevitably some that are not even fit for a lowly viscountess in a leaky manor house, particularly the R&B numbers. Despite their heartfelt accounts of trust issues, Nip Tuck and Run & Hide evaporate from your memory as soon as they end.
Thought I Knew You is as disappointing as the romances that she and the Weeknd complain about. Her single with Ariana Grande, Bed, is melodically underpowered, even if Minaj vividly admires some oral lovemaking skills (indeed, the sex on the album is all about queenly cunnilingus, Minaj airily receiving rather than giving).
But her singing voice – audibly influenced by Grande’s delivery – has strengthened, and, when given a robust song in Come See About Me, she creates an authentic lighter up moment.
The reason why most people show up for Minaj though is her rap flow: always on point, yet elastic and mutable. Perhaps her closest analog is Eminem, someone else who plays with persona and sometimes lets their technical excellence do the heavy lifting rather than truly interesting lyrics. Amid “are they aren’t they” romance rumors, he turns up for a spectacular long-form verse on Majesty as he continues to rail against mumble rap with his fastest bars of all time.
Minaj’s delivery is hefty too, but Labrinth’s catchy chorus is not finessed into her verses. Elsewhere she is slightly upstaged by a couple of other guests. Swae Lee makes Chun Swae perhaps the album’s best track, sweeping around his upper vocal register like a bird of prey catching thermals, while Foxy Brown’s percussive, rat-a-tat-tat patois on Coco Chanel is riveting.
But when her own flow reaches equilibrium – vowels pitching and rolling in her Queens accent, but always kept in alignment – there are few who can match her.
The verbal musicality to Chun-Li’s chorus is masterful, and while her manic, cartoonish-side might immediately distinguish her, as on her previous masterpieces such as Beez in the Trap, it’s her slower flows that are the most satisfying: there’s a certitude to her delivery on both Rich Sex and Miami which is truly befitting of a monarch.
Her knowingly cutesy and babyish “Barbie” flow, meanwhile, is used immaculately on the Mike Will Made It-produced bounce track Good Form, with lines like “he tryna smash like when the whip flips/I hit licks just to floss with this wrist” hugely satisfying for their lip-smacking symmetry.
Then there is the uproarious Barbie Dreams, a kind of celebrity roast that clowns some of the biggest names in rap for their physical and intellectual frailties as well as their sexual prowess.
DJ Khaled’s unwillingness to give head to a woman is given particularly short shrift from the orally-fixated Minaj; Drake seemingly does go down on her, “but I don’t know if the pussy wet or if he cryin’ and shit”. It is the perfect track for a gossipy, meme-obsessed age, and Minaj smartly puts herself at the front of the social media conversation.
Perhaps as a result of having to be, per the cliche, twice as good as these men to be even half as successful, she is obsessed with status and domination. “New Slaves, but I’m still the master … Miss Aretha, I think I just passed her” she states proudly, having broken Aretha Franklin’s record for the most US chart hits by a female solo artist earlier this year; she clearly enjoys the sport of jostling for supremacy.
But her zeal to cling to power means she makes a cheap shot at stripper-turned-chart-topper Cardi B – “I ain’t ever had to strip to get to pole position” – and throughout, the constant announcements of her own majesty muscle out other topics.
There are some very strong tracks here and Minaj’s flow remains utterly unique, even if she only puts it to use disparaging her subjects. She still has a good case to be the queen, but uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, perhaps.