Rap's Would-Be Leading Lady Keeps Us Waiting on Pink Friday

11/24/2010 4:00 AM |

Nicki Minaj
Pink Friday
(Young Money)

The rarified field of female MCs is a hard place to hack it, and Queens rapper Nicki Minaj is easily the most unusual entrant into that arena since Lauryn Hill led the Fugees into the spotlight over a decade and a half ago. Since then there have been plenty of excellent women rappers, but none nearly so well-positioned to take charge of the game as Minaj, with her unpredictably pitch-shifting voice—she trained as a singer before switching to rap—syrupy fluid pop persona and Gaga-rivalling eccentric wardrobe. And all that promise before even dropping her debut. With choice guest spots—including an already-legendary verse on Kanye West's "Monster" remix—and a few similarly song-stealing appearances on the Young Money posse album, she's quickly risen to superstar status. If only she'd been so selective with what made it on her album.

On the opening autobiographic boast, "I'm The Best," she raps in her distinctively nasal, New York-accented and Caribbean-tinged voice: "Cause even when my daddy was on crack I was crack/now the whole album crack/you ain't gotta skip a track." Clumsy and a little creepy, that rhyme's also a lie: there are quite a few tracks you'll want to skip. Right after that, though, she delivers one of the album's few heartfelt passages: "I ain't gotta get a plaque/I ain't gotta get awards/I just walk up out the door/all the girls will applaud/all the girls will come in as long as they understand/that I'm fighting for the girls that never thought they could win/'cause before they could begin you told them it was the end/but I am here to reverse the curse that they live in." Over Kane Beatz's swelling string sample it's a powerful moment. The next track, "Roman's Revenge," with its understated Swizz Beatz instrumental, and Minaj trading excellent verses with Eminem, is another not to skip. Thereafter, however, Pink Friday has its share of off-days—though, happily, Minaj avoids the often-obligatory excessively explicit feMC sex song.

The scatological "Did It On 'Em," doesn't deliver the emasculating battle raps promised by Bangladesh's seething soundscape of tweaking, rattling bass, just a barrage of those annoying so-called "hashtag rhymes" that Minaj falls back on all too frequently: "Just let them bums blow steam/radiator." The Beyonce-lite high school romance "Right Thru Me" is similarly unredeemable, especially with its generic electronic production, and the will.i.am-assisted and -produced "Video Killed the Radio Star" sampler "Check It Out" is insufferable—definitely not worth checking out. Other guests fare better, like Kanye producing and rapping an exceptional (and exceptionally long) verse on the retro burner "Blazin," while Minaj switches pitches, tones, cadences and flows from one bar to the next. She's at her best again alongside Drake on "Moment 4 Life," rapping over the upbeat yet weirdly melancholic track: "In this very moment I'm king/in this very moment I slay Goliath with the sling." Such moments of gender-bending aggression are among the record's best.

Unfortunately, the last few songs are all barely differentiated third-rate romances, including the so-absurdly-bad-it's-almost-awesome Annie Lennox-sampling lead single "Your Love." An EP's worth of bonus tracks including a pair of inexplicably tossed-off Swizz Beatz productions might provide some reprieve from Pink Friday's perpetually-delayed weekend–depending on where you buy (or download) the record. Mostly, though, you'll be picking and choosing your way through this one, hoping hip-hop's first lady in waiting gets it together next week.