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April 4, 2012

A Conversation About Nicki Minaj's Roman Reloaded

by Rhapsody  |  April 4, 2012

Nicki Minaj inspires many things. There's shock and awe, of course, at everything from her venomous spitting to her Alien Barbie couture. Envy of her serious skill and considerable success. Gratitude for the release of one's inner dancefloor diva. Delirious, squealing fandom -- particularly if you're a tutu-bedecked six-year-old girl (or, OK, a grown-ass woman). And, of course, she also inspires debate. Actually, she inspires quite a lot of that, as Rhapsody Hip-Hop Editor Mosi Reeves and Pop Editor Rachel Devitt discovered when we sat down to break down the weird, wild world that is Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded. Listen in as we discuss the whys and wherefores of Ms. Minaj, from the cult of her personality to its potential impact on her ability to make music worthy of her skill, from the "femcees" coming up behind her to her alter-ego Roman Zolanski, from "Beez in the Trap" to "Pound the Alarm." Come on, Barbs and Kens! Get in the Roman spirit!

MR: The last time we discussed Nicki Minaj, we concluded that on Pink Friday she seemed to be figuring out her identity. Do you feel the same way about that album now?

RD: Yes, I think so. Though in retrospect, I now think she always had a firmer concept or path in mind for herself. But maybe it was always more multifaceted. And also I think some of that conflict or tension or uncertainty we felt had probably less to do with her identity and more to do with her balancing that with other concerns -- from the label, the audience, the trends at the time, etc. In other words, I now think she maybe always had a clearer persona in mind. What do you think?

MR: I still think the production on that first album was pretty weak, though some songs have improved with repeated listens, like "Moment 4 Life." (I still find "Super Bass" annoying.) One reviewer called it "hip-hop made for Bratz," as in the line of toy dolls. But as far as her intentions, I think she has always aimed at a more pop direction. The question with her is about execution, not intent.

RD: Ha! But I think Nicki might take that as a compliment, don't you? ("Super Bass" only won me over by its lack of going away. I'm still not sure I like it.)

MR: I think she's like a more interesting extension of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, et cetera. Her ability to rap better than virtually anyone is the X-factor, in my opinion.

RD: Yeah, most of the comparisons I found myself making were to pop stars, though that may be my own bias, too. But I think even her impressive skills as an emcee get folded into this pop-star persona she creates. And I don't mean they're erased by it -- I mean, she makes them part of her pop intentions, instead of in conflict with them. Which is kind of interesting and impressive in and of itself, even as she divided Roman Reloaded almost into two halves.

MR: I thought that was the most disappointing element of an album that, overall, is an improvement over Pink Friday. It's as if she didn't know how to handle these binary elements of her personality -- the femcee pioneer and the pop brand. I mean, "Beez in the Trap" is a brilliant rap battle track. And Red One is a decent dance-pop producer who brings real excitement to tracks like "Beautiful Sinner."

RD: Yeah, I know what you mean. I feel like she does a better job infiltrating her more hip-hop material with her pop aesthetic than the other way around. It's subtle, but as fierce as that first half is, I still feel like that pop Nicki is there. But I don't hear much of the battle rap Nicki on the pop half. I wonder if some of that has to do with the pop climate right now. I think she has the personality and the star power to shine on any pop track, but I kept wishing she had come up in an era where pop wasn't so consumed by electronic dance music, just to see what she could do with it.

MR: I heard a few touches ... she concludes "Automatic" with a few raunchy lyrics. But I think Lady Gaga -- and this is coming from someone who is decidedly not a Lady Gaga fan -- does a better job of infusing her artistic persona into various types of dance tracks, whereas Nicki seems to subsume hers into them.

RD: Yes! Exactly! It's very split-personality. Even lyrically -- she gets so much more sentimental as the album turns.

MR: Nicki Minaj isn't a high-minded artist; she's very much a populist. So I think she's very comfortable in this world. It's just that her vision of what a great dance track sounds like is very different from what it could be if she created her own lane instead of just copying David Guetta.

RD: Well, or everyone's! And that goes for the hip-hop half, too. The track with Drake on it sounded like a Drake track. "HOV Lane" sounded like Jay-Z to me. "Roman Reloaded" sounds like Big Sean (literally -- do you know if those are the same beats as "Dance A$$"?). And on the pop half, it's not just Guetta, but like each track takes up a different pop persona: "Young Forever" is so close to Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream." I'm kind of embarrassed for Nicki, because I think she's more interesting than Katy. But I'm not necessarily saying she's imitative -- or, rather, not that that's simple or even necessarily bad. I feel like they are calculated impersonations. Drag, maybe (or maybe I hope they are). (Not to make every pop star into a drag queen. Which is of course my secret goal!)

MR: Some artists are essentially imitators, so that's not necessarily a bad thing. Jay-Z, for example, has taken a lot of concepts from others. But it's his personality and superior talent that help him make them his own. Which leads to the question ... do we underrate Nicki Minaj's music because she is so talented? Do our expectations for her naturally outpace what she actually creates?

RD: That's an interesting question. I think maybe so -- and not just because of the grand scale of her talent but because of her larger-than-life persona. It always feels like her actual music is lagging a bit behind her.

MR: I think she might be a part of a generation of artists who view music as a kind of multi-genre mashup that inevitably leads to derivation. To use a non-mainstream example, listen to Grimes ... she essentially does the same thing, though she's much more honest about being a post-Internet artist. But the danger of being a post-Internet artist is that you end up focusing more on your voice and persona as a conduit for these different influences instead of writing a great song that can not only sum them up, but transcend them.

RD: Then again, there are plenty of talented artists for whom that's not the case. So why doesn't Nicki have better songs? I think it's doable. I'm just not sure how. It takes more time maybe than artists allow themselves or we allow them? I felt similarly listening to both Nicki's and Lady Gaga's albums -- interesting ideas, but all of them sounded just hot-glued together.

MR: What do you think about the new generation of female emcees that Nicki Minaj's success has enabled -- Azealia Banks, Iggy Azalea, Kreayshawn, et al? I can't forget Honey Cocaine, Brianna Perry ... I would even throw OMG Girlz and Willow in there.

RD: I don't know if I know enough about them to speak to that. And none of them has reached the levels that Nicki has. Which is interesting -- she's been up on the charts for a while, but she hasn't been joined there by many other "femcees" like I'd hoped would happen. She was such a huge presence through cameos and singles way before her debut dropped, and I haven't seen that translate for other artists yet, really. Kreayshawn, for instance -- I can see/hear the connections, but she was so meme-ish.

MR: These artists are the next generation, if you will, so they won't have any releases out until later this year and the next. Many of them just signed major-label deals, but that's entirely the result of Nicki's huge success and the labels' current receptiveness to female rap artists. For me, it's bittersweet, because talented female rappers like Bahamadia, Jean Grae, Invincible and so on went ignored for years because they weren't seen as marketable. But I've come to accept that it takes more than just raw talent to succeed in hip-hop. Nicki's use of fashion, language and sexuality resonates in a way that those artists' didn't. I imagine that some of the newcomers will just turn into memes, like Kreayshawn's "Gucci Gucci." But the opportunity to reach a wide audience is there in a way it wasn't before. At the end of the day, sexuality matters as much as ever when it comes to female rap artists. But Nicki's found some interesting ways to subvert it, and many others are beginning to follow in her footsteps.

RD: Yes, agreed. I think that's one of the things that's so fascinating about her: she kind of messes with those expectations even as she uses them to her advantage. I think that's also part of the problem with her. She's juggling a LOT of cultural strains and expectations and ideas and it doesn't always translate into a cohesive album or even track. Which is why, maybe, she's still at her best in guest spots -- short bursts where she can really concentrate all that before it runs out of steam.

MR: I agree. I wonder if it's because when she jumps on another artist's song, like Big Sean in "Dance (A$$)," all she has to do is play off and subvert someone else's creative vision? I'm not underrating that ability. Let's give her credit -- she's dropped some of the most memorable rap verses of the past two years. But it's far different from writing a great song on your own. You could argue that she's a better sideman than leader, except her extraordinary solo success effectively kills that argument from a commercial standpoint, if not necessarily an artistic one.

RD: And her personality is too big and too multifaceted for it, too. But yeah, it is like she took the concept of a sideman and translated it to center stage/the spotlight. What do you think of her Roman alter-ego?

MR: In regards to the "Roman Zolanski" persona, I find it ironic that Nicki would choose a brilliant director who has not only had relationships with underage women, but allegedly drugged and raped an underage model, then tried to use the argument that "she's had sex before" to justify it. Of course, she was using the name as a pop meme, not the actual person Roman Polanski.

RD: Do you think she means it ironically?

MR: No, I think she was just flipping the name. I don't think she was referring to the person at all.

RD: You're probably right. Though I had all these hopeful, crazy ideas of the kind of commentary she was trying to make about the relationship between genius and power and feminine sexuality in pop culture and her role in it by connecting him to herself, but in a flipped-up way.

MR: Nicki promised that this would be a Nicki/Roman album. We got plenty of Pink Friday Nicki, but did we get any Roman?

RD: I don't think so. I think we got gestures to mixtape/guest spot Nicki and Pink Friday Nicki, with a few bits and pieces of Roman sprinkled in here and there. Even Sasha Fierce got more time on  Beyoncé's I Am Sasha Fierce than Roman on Roman Reloaded. Maybe it's more of that quintessential Nicki problem: BIG ideas, quickie execution.

MR: It sounds like the dance/R&B stuff -- which starts around track 8 (of 19) with "Right by My Side" (featuring Chris Brown) and doesn't stop until the final track ("Stupid Hoe") -- made more of an impression on you than the first seven rap cuts.

RD: For me? I wouldn't say that. I actually loved the first half, though numerically, it didn't dominate as much, I guess. I just didn't hear much Roman in there. I heard more old-school Nicki.

MR: Which Nicki songs personify Roman Zolanski? Or is that the problem -- we can't see Roman Zolanski as a transformative figure for her in the way that, say, Slim Shady personified Eminem's wife-killing, serial-murderer side?

RD: I think that's a big part of the problem -- I don't feel like we hear Roman's voice enough. It's possibly because one alter-ego isn't enough to encompass all that Nicki does. Or maybe that concept is too binary for her in general. Which is part of the problem with this whole album, right? I don't think a binary split suits her, frankly. Her aesthetic is schizophrenic, not bipolar, despite her pop and hip-hop "halves."

MR: I just want to throw out this sentence from her Wikipedia page: "If you're not familiar with Roman, then you will be familiar with him very soon. He's the boy that lives inside of me. He's a lunatic and he's gay." I definitely didn't hear that. 

RD: Oh my! I don't think I would have used a single one of those words to describe the Roman I heard. Interesting. I want to hear more of that guy, actually.

MR: In fact, there's a lyric where Nicki talks about picking up "hoes," then quickly clarifies that she's talking about men. So I think that Nicki has pulled off the pinkface (I'm referencing your series of blog posts on straight performers who don "gay" disguises for fun and cultural profit). Maybe Roman is a relic from that "pinkface" experimentation, but is too valuable commercially to give up.

RD: It's interesting that she switches genders, too, though. Unlike a lot of pinkface artists who play at being the "gay version" of their own sex. Which Nicki has done, of course. But there's really none of that on this album, is there?

MR: We've been pretty hard on Nicki here, and I want to emphasize that Roman Reloaded is a pretty good follow-up. There were some songs I actually liked, which is more than I can say for Pink Friday. I liked "Beez in the Trap" and "Come on a Cone," and even "Automatic" was fun.

RD: I hope we didn't sound too hard on it. I thought there were a number of great cuts. I liked "Come on a Cone" and "Beez in the Trap" a lot, too. Also "I Am Your Leader" and "Pound the Alarm." "Sex in the Lounge" was the sweetest booty jam I've heard in a long time. I really enjoyed the album overall. It definitely wasn't a bad album in any sense. I just want even more from Nicki -- and maybe that's the price she pays for being so charismatic and talented. We're never satisfied!

MR: I liked how she held her own with Cam'ron, Nas and others. I mean, it's clear that she's one of the top emcees in the game in terms of technical ability. But with someone of her ability, and especially in hip-hop -- where great artists are supposed to make at least one "classic" album -- it's easy to focus on the fact that she hasn't come close to that goal yet.

RD: My closing thought on this is that, while I agree that it's nowhere close to a classic, it definitely makes me excited to continue watching Nicki and to see where else she can go. And that's a really important thing for an album to do -- especially a sophomore album.

Pink Friday ... Roman Reloaded

Pink Friday ... Roman Reloaded

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