Don’t worry about that televised exorcism at the Grammys, Nicki Minaj fans. Apparently, it didn’t take. “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded,” Minaj’s second official disc and first since becoming a pop star, confronts her image problems head on: How to reconcile the fierce, foul-mouthed, probably sociopathic (it’s really for a licensed professional to decide), street-spitting Minaj of her vaunted early mix tapes, with Minaj’s current occupation as a candy-coated, pink-bewigged Super Bass Barbie?
“Roman Reloaded” splits the difference, dividing its 19 songs into “rap” and “pop” sides, which means that Minaj isn’t so much subverting expectations as giving in to them. Twice. Your enjoyment of “Roman Reloaded,” pop’s most tuneful hollow victory, will probably be inversely proportional to your level of attachment to the original, “authentic” Minaj. The hip-hop songs — some so dirty they should come with their own hazmat teams — are feature-heavy, unerringly sharp and almost entirely great. But they can’t help but seem less fierce against the pink fluff of “Roman’s” second half.
The first side is all business, less concerned with beats — most are minimalist and perfunctory — than with a raw display of Minaj’s increasingly formidable MC skills.
On “Come on a Cone,” Minaj delights in the trappings of her newfound fame, which apparently include six-figure feature appearances and a seat next to Anna Wintour at, of all things, an Oscar de la Renta show. There are other great bangers, such as the sticky 2 Chainz coupling “Beez in the Trap” and the R&B-minded “Right By My Side,” a three-way teaming of Minaj, Chris Brown and an overly zealous vocoder. (All of Minaj’s guest stars are men: In case “Stupid Hoe” doesn’t make it plain, she isn’t much for the sisterhood.)
Elsewhere, the Female Weezy and the Actual Weezy tangle uninterestingly on the virtually beatless title track, which demonstrates Minaj’s eagerness to take a howitzer to a series of paper targets: Lil’ Kim, Bubbles the Chimp, crusty hoes.
“The only thing that’s pop is my endorsement op,” Minaj rasps, although the song is, paradoxically, the gateway track to the album’s pop-on-steroids second half. The next seven or eight tracks are a multi-car pileup of ridiculously great, immediately forgettable hooks. The garish “Starships” is a bubble-gum Top 40 striver that makes “Super Bass” sound like a song by Tyler, the Creator. It makes matters painfully clear: Minaj’s competition is no longer the ’90s ghost of Lil’ Kim. It’s Katy Perry.
Minaj doesn’t have a natural instinct for hooks, but that’s what superstar producers are for, and “Roman” ships them in by the truckload. Sometime Lady Gaga producer RedOne is responsible for a cluster of club songs that follow Rihanna’s “We Found Love” down the EDM rabbit hole. They’re so heavenly, you won’t notice how empty they are, and, next to the “street” songs, how indistinct.
As you might expect on a 68-minute album, filler abounds. The fame-makes-me-sad-sometimes “Marilyn Monroe” shows off her semi-impressive range but otherwise needn’t exist. Unlike for many celebrities, vulnerability doesn’t make Minaj more interesting.
Minaj seems to have made her peace with both stardom and unnecessary R&B songs — you’ll have to do it, too, someday, Azealia Banks — but that’s no excuse for “Sex in the Lounge,” a half-hearted jam that’s mostly about sex. You know, in the lounge. It’s simultaneously so unnecessary and so far from where she started that you half expect a crooning Usher to show up and seal Minaj’s mainstream fate once and for all.
Stewart is a freelance writer.
“Beez in the Trap,” “Come on a Cone” (Roman side), “Right By My Side,” “Whip It” (Barbie side)