So here it is: the long-awaited debut album from one of hip-hop’s most exciting up and comers. The woman who found her niche next to Lil’ Wayne and Drake (everyone’s favorite formerly paraplegic Sprite cyborg) as part of the Young Money team. The woman who slayed it all up and down Wayne’s mixtapes, but remained still a relative unknown. The woman who had (and has) one of the most powerful verses released this entire year featured on Kanye West’s explosive track “Monster” – no easy feat when you consider she was spitting next to hip-hop moguls Rick Ross, Kanye West, and the Godfather of Rap himself, Jay-Z. Obviously, the bar’s been set extremely high for Nicki Minaj and her first solo release. Unfortunately, she didn’t quite get there.
Now, that’s not to say she utterly failed to reach the mark; she just fell short by a few inches, which is human considering how insanely high that mark was. We expected the work of a seasoned master of her craft; instead, we received an album that showcases a very talented youngster with endless potential, who only uses it 80% of the time.
We’ll start with the negative, so we can end with a big pool of praise for who will, with time, become this decade’s female rapping’s north star. For now, however, Nicki Minaj is a mere mortal, and makes the mistakes any mortal would make on their debut album (were said mortal a budding rap star). Bouts with poor production, repetitive messages, and boring/obnoxious rhymes are the only things holding this album back from being the next College Dropout.
Despite being friends with everybody who’s anybody in hip hop, the production on this album is surprisingly lackluster. Minaj salvages the mediocre sampling and beats by throwing down especially hard, which speaks volumes about her rap ability, but also begs the question: shouldn’t she better at choosing which beats to rhyme to? She could have any beat in the world, and she went with these? From the tinny siren sounds of “I’m The Best” to the cheesy high school montage piano on “Dear Old Nicki”, the sounds that surround Nicki’s voice at times do not hold a candle to the stellar level at which she is performing. But we can’t blame everything on lame beats.
Some of it comes from the performer herself. We were introduced to how capable a rapper we were dealing with when we first heard her verse on Kanye West’s “Monster”. She weaved through her intricate rhymes flawlessly, all the time jumping octaves and switching accents and voices altogether. Let me spoil the fun and say that very little of this spectacular spaziness is shown on her solo effort. In fact, you should expect a much slower, calmer voice than you heard on “Monster”. That voice also forgets to rap sometimes and just gives us some straight pop songs like “Your Love” and “Save Me”, which aren’t wholly disappointing, but definitely leave one pining for something harder.
Furthermore, even when that voice is interesting, it’s not saying things that are unique, even to itself. With titles like “I’m The Best”, “Check It Out, and “Here I Am”, it’s not hard to guess what Miss Minaj is getting at: she thinks she’s great. And she is! But there are only a certain number of self-aggrandizing “I came from nothing” comments the human mind can take before it says, “Okay, we get it,” and Minaj skews dangerously near to breaching that number. But we’d be lying if we said she’s the only rapper guilty of this one-track mindedness.
On the positive side, Nicki Minaj is her own woman in so many different ways. She says it best herself on “Fly”: “Everybody wanna try to box me in/suffocatin’ everytime it locks me in/paintin’ they own pictures then they crop me in/But I will remain where the top begins/’Cuz I am not a word, I am not a line/I am not a girl that could ever be defined.” As far as self-analyses go, that is more apt than most. She isn’t held by the constraints of any one person, even with all the hype surrounding her release, she does exactly what she wants to. She’s her own woman, not the Lil’ Kim to Biggie, not the Foxy Brown to Jay-Z, and certainly not the Nicki Minaj to Lil’ Wayne, which she might well have become had she not been so determined to carve out a name for herself.
And carve a name, she does. Don’t let the previous paragraphs mislead you – this album is pulsating with raw talent and unbridled energy. From throwing down on insanely catchy club beats like “Check It Out”, to getting existential on minimalist track “Roman’s Revenge”, Nicki Minaj makes it clear: she’s here to stay. And she isn’t afraid to get by with a little help from her friends, either. Eminem, Rihanna, Drake, will.i.am, Kanye West, and Natasha Bedingfield (who still exists, apparently) all lend a helping hand to varying degrees. I say varying very deliberately, as Nicki gains more from the presence of some more than others. Rihanna drops a breathtaking chorus on the track “Fly”, and Eminem spits the most venomous track on the album, on par with his total comeback earlier this year, on the track “Roman’s Revenge”. Drake even steps out of his mediocrity for a second to drop a pretty solid verse. But the contributions of will.i.am. and Natasha Bedingfield are forgettable, but look good on paper (or the back of a CD cover).
Big things are in store for this rapper; bigger than Pink Friday. But everybody’s gotta break into the game somewhere. For some it’s at the bottom where they belong with a debut like Ja Rule’s Veni Vetti Vici, for others it’s a platinum Jay-Z Reasonable Doubt debut. For Minaj, it was a very near the top release that will surely make way for great things to come.