With her second album, “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded”, Nicki Minaj faced an interesting problem of definition. The success of her debut had left her in an uncertain position: she needed to maintain and even increase her commercial and popular projection without setting aside some of the characteristics of her artistic personality that had got her to where she was. Her frenetic raps, her minimalist sound, her variety of flows and registers - and her uncontrollable attitude - were expressive, conceptual features that couldn’t be tarnished by a conscious search for a more commercial aesthetic and form. Herein lies one of the big questions that this return had to answer, part of the new expansive wave of the Young Money emporium, on its way to total domination of today’s mainstream hip hop.
It may be for this reason that the album at no time hides its bipolar intentions. In a way, this is Minaj’s way of telling us all that she has the same talent for manufacturing hits to fill the dance floors as for songs with an experimental profile; and that she has no intention of sticking to either of these two options exclusively. She also seems to be declaring her creative freedom to do whatever she feels like without having to answer to any kind of pressure or criteria. Furthermore, to make this even clearer than ever, she divides the recording into two large parts: the first, from “Roman Holiday” to “Champion”, covers eight tracks that try to recreate that more solid, twisted, anticlimactic version that characterised her mixtapes before the debut. The second, starting with “Right By My Side” and running to the end, is focused on thoroughly exploiting her more pop, danceable side, the one that she had already given us a taste of with “Starships”. The only question remaining was to what extent she would squeeze all she could out of the latter version of herself.
The first half of the album co-stars Roman Zolanski; her psychotic, uncontrollable alter ego, the artist’s more “street” side. In it, Minaj gives free rein to her battle lyrics and gets into various episodes of straightforwardly vindicating herself, reinforcing her talent for confrontational rhyme. A brilliant example to corroborate this on “Roman Reloaded” is the following, among the best lyrical constructions on the album: “If I had a label I would never sign you hoes / Take you bitches to school then I Columbine you hoes / I hear the slick shit, bitch you washed / All you hoes cryin’: Christopher Bosh”. She has more than enough guts and poetic force. In this frame of mind, it doesn’t seem at all random or coincidental that the singer has included all of the vocal collaborations on the album except Beenie Man’s in this first part of the album, a collection of stars including Cam’Ron, Rick Ross, Drake, Young Jeezy, Lil Wayne and Nas. In a way, they seem to be put there with the intention of rubbing her detractors and rivals’ noses in her position of success and recognition among the big names.
Added to this more combative climate is a wonderful production job. Minaj leaves the responsibility of finding a personal, complex discourse, far from pop connotations, in the hands of Hit-Boy, Kenoe, T-Minus and Blackout Movement - which counteracts what is coming. All of them provide intricate, twisted sounds, hard for the larger public to digest, and a real incentive for the artist’s more demanding fans. This section of the album calls to mind those years when big mainstream stars gave themselves the luxury of incorporating complex, experimental productions into their releases. As the songs go by, you see even more clearly the reason for this insistence on upholding her more nonconformist, unclassifiable side: after twenty-five minutes of fascinating sound strangeness, when we come to “Starships”, it’s like walking into a spinning class led by a sadistic, impenitent teacher.
It’s strange that on “Roman Reloaded” Minaj raps “So I laugh at hopefuls; Nicki pop!, only thing that’s pop is my endorsement / I fuck around I have to go and reinforce the glock”, laughing her ass off at those who say that she has gone over to pop, when the last half an hour of the album is so sweet. “Starships”, “Pound The Alarm”, “Whip It”, “Automatic” and “Beautiful Sinner” - all in a row, and all handled by RedOne - guarantee pedalling with the bike’s resistance at its peak, but they are also a tad embarrassing. “Whip It” and “Starships” are the best of the five, the ones where the near-trance drive of the production helps to create two undeniable hits, but the rest just abuse a formula that is clichéd, conventional, and a little tacky. There are moments that the ghost of Katy Perry peeks out, putting more wood on the fire of the David Guetta-ization of current rap. It doesn’t get any better in the home stretch, focused on the other big stereotype of the diva major albums at the moment: ballads. In “Marilyn Monroe” and “Gun Shot” Minaj goes Rihanna in the worst sense of the word. Beyond contradicting herself, she ends up proving those of us who think that the artist is a much better rapper than singer right.
The purpose of “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded” is clear then: to please everyone, without offending or bothering anyone any more than necessary. The question is whether this represents an act of bravery on Minaj’s part - resisting making an album entirely at the service of the radio formula - or whether the decision to divide the album into two parts, showing both positions clearly, is pragmatically conservative; it doesn’t compromise her artistically and also acts as a sort of thermometer. Time and her third album will make things clearer.