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Nicki Minaj - Queen Music Album Reviews

On her most rap-oriented release yet, Nicki jettisons all the industry madness, drowns out the noise, and creates rap the way she believes it should sound.

To reign over the charts, the critics, and the streets, a hip-hop star with pop ambitions must be everything to everyone while holding on tight to their identity. This balancing act is especially unforgiving for women, and Nicki Minaj has contended with these double standards and sky-high expectations for over a decade. Her biggest chart successes have come with songs like 2014’s bawdy “Anaconda,” and the effervescent “Super Bass” from her 2010 debut, but there are still incessant calls for some combination of the take-no-prisoners snarl of her breakout verse on “Monster” and serious art made up of reflection and maturity. But with Queen, Nicki jettisons all the industry madness, drowns out the noise, and creates rap the way she believes it should sound.

Due to hip-hop’s sexist, one-at-a-time cap on women dominating the genre, this is the first time Nicki has ever released an album with another commercially successful woman also climbing rap’s ranks. And whatever pressure—whether real or spectator-projected—is there, she rises to the occasion with Queen, her most rap-oriented full-length to date. Never lacking for charisma and attitude, her flows and cadences are a whirlwind of husky aggression and bouncing animation. She sends shots in every direction (“Don’t duck if it don’t apply,” she sneers on one track) with the confidence of a woman holding court in a kingdom she conquered. From Michael Jackson to Sizzla to Patti Labelle, she drops so many names and references that someone could get a halfway decent music (fashion and sports too) lesson if they Googled them all. They spill out as both venerating homages and a testament to her high-powered lifestyle.

With the album’s contentious rollout, marred by social media drama and middling singles, Nicki really buried the two big ledes here. “Barbie Dreams,” which adapts Notorious B.I.G.’s “Just Playing (Dreams)” and updates Nicki’s own “Dreams 07” cut from her 2007 mixtape Playtime Is Over, is a flamethrowing pink slip delivered with a wink. Positioning some of rap’s biggest names in her crosshairs, she playfully jabs at her peers, turning their reputations into reasons they won’t be seeing her in the bedroom. It highlights the kind of quick wit and humor that earned her the spotlight to begin with. And in a proud display of her Caribbean background, she enlists fellow Trini-rhymer Foxy Brown for the patois-flavored “Coco Chanel.” The two share a magnetic synergy as they trade verses over a dancehall production that interpolates the classic Showtime Riddim. The cross-generational collaboration is significant—particularly for Nicki, who is rarely caught on wax with other female rappers and considers Brown an idol.

With those peaks coming at either end of the album, the middle faces an impossible task of keeping the pace over an hour-long hike. The lows range from fine (“Bed”) to forgettable (“Thought I Knew You”), but the highs are immaculate: The electrifying “LLC” and the twerk-ready “Good Form” showcase the rapper’s inimitable technique, the one that turned heads in the first place. Little tricks, like her play on the phonetics of “good form,” which she alternates to sound like “good for him,” are the kind of flourishes that set her apart. On the slow-burner “Come See About Me,” she gives the bravado a rest and, over a swelling piano-laced production, reminisces about a past lover in a manner more hopeful than heartbroken. Like the sappy The Pinkprint closer “Grand Piano” or the yearning “Save Me” from Pink Friday, there’s always a moment of pause when she goes full-ballad. But even though singing isn’t exactly Nicki’s secret weapon, it offers an additional emotional texture that isn’t available to her when she’s flowing.

Nicki has spent her career engaged in a battle against being boxed in. The bubbly pop markers that separate her albums from her early mixtapes were evidence of her fear of becoming just another rapper. Queen is the safe and sturdy middle ground. The lyrical barbs are there, but nearly every song is glossy enough to spend some time in the Top 40. The album offers hints of nearly every era and iteration of her career thus far: the razor-tongued Nicki the Ninja, the sexually-charged Nicki Lewinsky, and even the zany Roman teases an appearance at the tail end of “Barbie Dreams.” The connections between past and present, between style and form, make Queen feel like her most creatively honest album. She remains a force—whether you’re willing to bow or not.

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