Four years ago, Nicki Minaj shook the rap world so thoroughly, her haters never got over it. She spoke of her future with clarity and precision—plans to have a child and get married. She told a true story of heartbreak and falling in love—a story that even now continues to haunt her, as she spends her current album rollout arguing back and forth on Twitter with her ex. There exists no black woman who’s unaware of how many lives she will live before she dies. And if you are blessed with black women in your community, you’ve more than likely seen one go through crisis. While back then, it seemed the Barbie was ready to grow up and past her strife, the Queen of today seems to have lost her vigor and purpose.
It took four days and countless listens of Nicki Minaj’s fourth album, Queen, to find the words to describe what was playing in my headphones. When I finally sat down to write this, the word “erratic” seemed to be the only concise description of a long-awaited and seemingly ill-fated album from the rap icon. Four years after the dominant power display that was her press run and release of The Pinkprint, Onika seems a bit fogged and bogged down by life. The highs on Queen are so potent, you’re left with something akin to misplaced rage when she hits the lows. It isn’t the listener who’s missing the message, but rather Our Royal Highness, sending us mixed signals.
The Queen who greets us on this album comes off rather tired for someone fresh off a four-year rest, and immediately the repetitive issues seem like some sort of toxic, karmic contract we Barbz are trapped in with Onika. Album sequencing has never been a strong suit of the Young Money set, but the smart and fresh afropop style of “Ganja Burns” is completely forgettable as an opening track. After a contentious rollout that saw only “Chun Li” stick, out of four singles, a queen should not walk into her court with anything less than a slick-mouthed dart of solid, structured, shady delivery. What Nicki’s audience was missing was her ability to display herself as not just a formidable opponent, but as a self-assured, standard bearer. You can do whatever you want, but Nicki did it first, and/or Nicki did it better.
Instead of this rousing reminder, we’re punished with an amped-up Eminem, doing his best impression of Nicki (a cosign she no longer needs in 2018) just to literally fall into one of the strongest verses on the album. For the last minute of “Majesty,” the beat drops to a simple dancehall bass in which Nicki does what I call her “chicken wings and fried rice flow.” As she repeats “jealousy is a disease, die slow”—in the kind of mischievous baby voice that could only belong to an imp—we glimpse a brief moment of the Queen of New York: bass in her voice, snarl on her lip, licking her own sauce off her fingers to remind motherfuckers of her true nature. The grittiness of someone who may wear head-to-toe Chanel but would still love to put some rocks in $1,000 socks and make an example out of you without breaking a sweat.
At this stage of the hip-hop game, reselling the narrative of nostalgia is quite hard for any New York rapper. Not even the top men can find checks with that storyline—an unfortunate aftereffect of New York’s aloofness to the cross pollination of internet rap and its younger set. Many older rappers have found life in being the gritty and grown counterparts to today’s face-tattooed, anarchist children, so much so that the trend cycle of pop continues to bend towards that story arc. The game may be consumed by the youth, but rap is a genre of street wisdom, not whimsy. Nicki Minaj, however, has an empire built on the blood of the young. Her most rabid fans are not even old enough to buy her Myx alcohol creations, but she also maintains a stronghold with her original fans, many of whom are now also 10 years older—those who evolved with her and can understand coming into your own power quite intimately.
Nicki often acts as if catering to her older fans is somehow less validating, but the greatest moments on Queen come from her being a messy West Indian Auntie. After a decade, we don’t want infantile voices spitting about what it’s like to inherently know better than to date broke dudes. Worse, there’s no proof that the younger fans do, either. On the buoyantly shady “LLC,” she boasts that “only two girls gettin’ more money and they don’t rap—they sing songs.” The irony is that the artists she’s seemingly referring to, Beyoncé and Rihanna, have found mega-stardom by sharply flipping their focus to being older, wiser and speaking to those who can understand the relief and privilege of aging. Nicki’s awareness of her peers makes the void that much more disappointing.
As her only counterparts become more reticent, leaving the media and their fans starving for any scrap of access, Nicki is regressing, allowing herself to become embroiled in scandals on social media and hiding her hands behind teens. Her behavior itself is reactionary and frantic. She’s lashed out in ways that are not only irregular for someone of her status, but also of her experience; it rings immature and amateur simultaneously. Many waited years to hear what happens when you apply the rules to being a boss ass bitch over time, only to watch and hear them be abandoned.
Even more confounding, Nicki’s rapping itself is still unbelievably good. The sloppy syllables from her latest round of features are kept to a minimum on this project, and this is what partly makes “LLC” such a banger. It is Onika Tanya Maraj at her best: impeccable timing; clever and razor sharp barbs that are devoid of campiness and annoying alliteration; egotistical and ruthless like she’s still in Cookie Monster pajamas on the Ave. These are moments where she isn’t trying to prove nor remind anyone that she can rap, just asking you to mind your own fucking business and go get her a drink as she beats you over the head with bars.
Tracks like “Hard White” and “Good Form” get lost in the shuffle as Nicki falls trap to the New York OG pitfall: good rapping over trendy lackluster beats. There is simply no amount of verbal timing that can replace a good knock. History has proven that not even New York–level arrogance can change this fact. Lil Wayne falls dead flat on the 2012 Lugeresque beat of “Rich Sex.” (One wonders how much more impactful “Majesty” would’ve been if we swapped Em for Weezy and made the final minute four times longer.) “Sir” is much more updated trap, but its appeal can be attributed to Nicki’s tour mate Future—it sounds more like a song of his, and her verse feels more like a feature we prayed for last summer.
The album’s highest note, “Coco Chanel,” is Nicki at the cookout, off the Henny, bent at the waist to remind her nieces and nephews she was dancing at parties before they were a twinkle in their dad’s eyes. As she switches from patois to hood talk to even Spanish over the renowned Showtime riddim, we remember that Onika is old enough to remember when New York made the clubs dance nasty over gun talk. She goes super saiyan from hook to verse and, like a true power player, she’s able to call on Brooklyn’s First Bad Gyal (and one of her first supporters), Foxy Brown, to drop off not so much a verse as an emcee hype-up befitting of any dancehall queen. This cosign is worth something in 2018. It’s a wink and nod to those who remember the bashments, the city and even the game as they were. Unfortunately, it also reminds us of the gift Nicki seems to bring out for special occasions rather than wear proudly. This is three minutes of the woman that gave us Beam Me Up Scotty when everyone swore the North was dead.
Nicki Minaj’s career has been unique in rap in many ways, but quite simply in the fact that she has the longest running career of any woman coming out of New York. She is, in fact, an OG, and her lack of classic albums is not simple laziness on her part, but the curse of being trapped in a lane that only allows one of you at a time. Her challengers for most of the journey have been the press and the public. However, the past four years have changed that. The new girls grew up with the internet, and as such their identities are already cross-pollinated, creating a wave that’s giving us not just more diverse players, but sounds and stories from a viewpoint rap has long erased. Because Nicki beat the curse, the new guard will not need eight years, nor four or even one. Thus she finds herself burdened with the question of what does it mean to be an older woman in an industry that works hard to make sure such things never happen?
It is possible she thought that her resilience would earn her more respect or at least less ridicule, but as black women we know erasure is precisely why we live twice as many lives. There is no productivity in chasing validation because the system is set up to compute your very presence as an anomaly. In her “Inspirations Outro” on Queen, Nicki lists all the legends who paved her way and finishes off with a smooth sleight of “any ting we wear, gyal gon try on,” begging the question: if they really follow your lead, why haven’t you picked a path?
Judnick Mayard is a screenwriter and producer born and raised in Brooklyn, now living in L.A. Follow her on Twitter: @Judnikki.