Everyone loves Nicki Minaj: she's a self-described Harajuku girl with a potty mouth and a dementedly theatrical fashion sense to match. Much like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Ke$ha, she's also a brand in constant flux, repositioning herself from video to public appearance to newly released digital single. The series of teaser tracks for her second album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, brought a variety of fresh guises, including the usurper of Lil Kim's rap queen throne on "Stupid Hoe" and the nightclub siren of "Starships." (One early single, "Roman in Moscow," didn't make the final cut.) Helpfully, she cleaves this follow-up to her 2010 hit Pink Friday into two distinct halves. Lovers of her face-melting rhymes get "HOV Lane" (as in Jay-Z, aka "Jay Hova") and ciphers with Rick Ross, Cam'ron, and Nas. And fans who adore her radio confections get clubby house tracks like "Starships," made by Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" producer, Red One.
This was supposed to be an hour devoted to Nicki's manic id, Roman Zolanski, the one who upstaged Kanye West on "Monster" and swiped credit for Big Sean's hit "Dance (A$$)" -- the self-described "lunatic" who battled with Eminem on "Roman's Revenge." Roman is essentially a stand-in for Nicki the emcee, but Nicki the emcee doesn't pay her bills, at least when it comes to her solo success. Her biggest hits, like "Super Bass" and "Moment for Life," featured her singing front and center, and even though she rapped on both songs, it's the flat voice and Trinidadian lilt we remember. So Roman the rap lunatic takes a backseat on Roman Reloaded, while Nicki the multiplatform pop sensation gets the majority of the face time.
As a guest artist, she has asserted her primacy as a rap virtuoso -- Minaj is as good as Jay-Z, Rick Ross or anyone else worth mentioning at the moment. But Roman Reloaded has what may be her first great rap song as a headliner. "Beez in the Trap" has a catchy hook and a sinuous rhythm reminiscent of Chris Brown's "Look at Me Now," Tyga's "Rack City" and any number of "swag" hits. The hook is the main thing, as are her claims of spittin' that crack "like I'm in that trap." The other rap cuts in the first half are satisfying, too. She brags about watching fashion shows with Oscar de la Renta and Vogue editor Anna Wintour on "Come on a Cone": "When I'm sitting with Anna, I'm really sitting with Anna/ Ain't a metaphor, punch line, I'm really sitting with Anna," she says, before repeating in a hilarious gasp, "My ice is so cold/ It should come on a cone." Further braggadocio comes with "I Am Your Leader," where she flaps jaws with Cam'ron (remember him?) and Rick Ross. Overall, the production on Roman Reloaded is much stronger than the stuff on Pink Friday, thanks to professional and competent tracks from Hitboy, Kenoe, T-Minus and others.
The dance-pop half of Reloaded isn't bad. She even raps on "Starships," "Pound the Alarm" and "Whip It," breaking down her flow into an emphatic spoken delivery that matches the stomping beat of Red One's progressive house tracks. It's what's popular among the mainstream audience at the moment, and she's as good at sublimating her personality to those fizzy one-drops as Flo Rida or Will.i.am. It's hard to remember any of these songs, though, as they quickly disappear into forgetfulness moments after ending, at least until their expected ubiquity in nightclubs and on the radio hammers them into our heads as surely as her David Guetta collaboration "Turn Me On." Yet the current (and probably brief, at least in the grand scheme of things) dominance of electronic dance music on the pop charts not only turns pop stars into automatons chirping in an automated 100-BPM machine, it also heightens their "star" status: only the biggest VIPs get to stand next to the DJ and say or sing a few words on the mike.
As much as we want Minaj to be as cutthroat as Eminem -- another rapper with a viciously aggressive alter ego in Slim Shady -- she's unabashedly girly and sincere. When she adopts these different poses, she's playing dress-up, not expunging personal demons or angrily confronting her enemies. One of the reasons why her "Stupid Hoe" rap works is because she doesn't bother taking Lil Kim seriously -- she laughs and mocks her as a desperately fading relic, and we enjoy it because, rightly or wrongly, that's how we see Lil Kim, too. Her essential optimism and sentimentality reappears on "Marilyn Monroe," where she worries that the media spotlight will permanently scar her: "Call it a curse/ Or just call me blessed/ If you can't handle my worst/ You ain't gettin' my best/ Is this how Marilyn Monroe felt?" The politics of celebrity is a fraught topic for a pop song, requiring the constant assessment of an artist's marketing prospects and a tenuous grasp on their cultural significance as they ascend from modest Internet meme to iconic pop-star status. As a solo artist, Nicki Minaj seems to excel at these equations, while the debate surrounding her solo work and its curious flights of pop fancy remains, for now, unsettled.
However, those of us who wish Nicki would stick to rapping should acknowledge that she can't be a Marilyn Monroe-like sex symbol if she's grinding it out in the blogosphere with the likes of Gucci Mane and 2 Chainz (who guests on "Beez in the Trap") for the temporal delights of rap nerds and indie snobs. It's more effective to bait the US Weekly and TMZ audience with cheery dance-pop candy like "Starships." It may not be what we want, but perhaps we should wonder why we care in the first place. Whether we admit it or not, we're just as invested in pop politics as everyone else, and for the moment, Roman Reloaded has our attention.