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Nicki Minaj contains multitudes – berserk Barbie, poly-voiced rapper, hands-in-the-air pop star, R&B balladeer and more, writes Tom Ewing.
"It's Barbie, bitch!" was a Nicki Minaj warcry from her mixtape days, and it fit. The Trinidad-born, New York-bred rapper with a thing for pink wigs took the ultimate American girl's toy brand and strapped it to the centre of her wild carousel of characters and voices. Last year, Barbie owner Mattel decided to play along, creating a one-off Nicki Barbie and selling it for charity. It's as neat a symbol of Minaj's success and newfound status as she could wish for.
But the thing about being Barbie is that everyone wants to play dress-up with you. Minaj contains multitudes – berserk Barbie, poly-voiced rapper, hands-in-the-air pop star, R&B balladeer, not to mention Roman Zolanski, the loose-cannon gay male alter ego who gives Roman Reloaded its name. Thus everyone has their own dream version of a Nicki Minaj album. Fans who discovered her via her mixtapes long for a record that shows off her hardcore side: her skill, rawness and screwball invention. These same fans feel all the industry wants from Minaj is her pop incarnation, posing and declaiming over gleaming, club-ready beats by the same super-producers everyone else uses.
That isn't a dilemma anyone else in Minaj's league faces – nobody urges Katy Perry to rediscover any inner authenticity. But Minaj is aware of her divided fanbase. Every time she releases a single such as trancey juggernaut Starships – precision-tooled for the modern pop environment – she seems to judiciously leak a track such as LP highlight Beez in the Trap, a lunar landscape of bass pulses and sonar blips that Minaj plays relatively straight, throwing a bone to the listeners who just want to hear her rap.
The first half-dozen tracks on Roman Reloaded are what those long-term fans have been waiting for – Minaj has said she wanted the album to be more about "spitting" than pop, and at first she keeps that promise gloriously. The themes don't vary much – Minaj is very successful, rivals not so – but everything else bounces with invention. Minaj in full cry isn't about wordplay but voiceplay – in just the first track you get her growling as Roman Zolanski, her endearingly godawful English accent, a stab at hymn-singing, and a vocal tone that lurches from slapstick to terrifying across a single word.
Minaj's voices get called "personas" but – aside, maybe, from Roman – there's no character-building going on, just a manic, comic vocal shuffling: on Come on a Cone she lets the hook degrade into yelps and gasps, on I Am Your Leader she drops a couple of octaves to gleefully pompous effect. Her vocal shifts are used for punchlines, internal commentary, and just the joy of doing funny shit with your voice. Is it gratuitous? Of course: Minaj's stardom is – like Lady Gaga's – half about conspicuous waste, being able to throw away ideas others might mine for half a short career. And when she chooses to be direct – on the excellent Hov Lane – it's all the more thrilling.
Minaj doesn't drop her wildness for her pop tracks, but applies it piecemeal, outsourcing her excess to the music. In the middle of the record are a suite of songs by producer RedOne, which sound much like the tracks RedOne makes for Gaga or Alexandra Burke, but even more shameless. Minaj's own vocal armoury is bolstered by all the effects modern production can muster, like the chipmunk chorus on Whip It. If you've no tolerance for modern pop, these tracks are particularly gross, but if you enjoy it, Minaj's presence adds a touch of misused class – it seems to push the producers into going more over the top. Starships doubles down on its stadium trance synths with beefy glam chanting; Whip It mines Eurodisco trashiness so well you can almost smell the Piz Buin.
The full-on pop monsters aren't the problem here. It's the gentler tracks that bring the record's energy down: drizzly songs such as Fire Burns or Sex in the Lounge, on which nobody sounds engaged. But there are gems – the woozy, snaky production on Champion and the triumphant Beenie Man duet, Gun Shot, which invents the ragga power ballad.
You can see Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded as a great rap album dragged down by pandering, but you could equally see it as a triumph that one of the biggest pop records of the year leads off with a half-dozen tracks of blistering, filthy, idea-jammed hip-hop. The record is too long, horribly inconsistent, and makes no attempt to marry its rap and pop impulses. But that doesn't matter – at their best the styles are wedded anyway by a particular frenzy, a sense that Minaj comes with no off switch or lower gear. As long as she doesn't slow down, she's the best pop star we have.