Nicki Minaj is a rapper, but she might be done trying to be a rapper. Already a pop star on par with Katy Perry and Ariana Grande, this year Minaj ascended to become a peer of Beyonce, featuring on the remix for “***Flawless.” While mainstream radio lapped up the saccharine, easy-sell Jessie J and Grande collaboration “Bang Bang” and tittered at the campy bounce of Nicki’s own “Anaconda,” the rap world looked on in awe at Minaj’s year-long torrent of filthy one-offs (“Boss Ass Bitch,” “Lookin’ Ass”) and quote-worthy guest verses (Trey Songz “Touchin,’ Lovin,’” and remixes for YG’s “My Nigga,” Young Thug’s “Danny Glover,” and Rae Srummurd’s “No Flex Zone”). These loosies amounted to some of 2014’s best rapping, bar none, and a refreshed, stripped-down new dress code prompted speculation that her third release, The Pinkprint, would be some kind of rootsy, return-to-mixtape form.
But instead of being feted for torching rap, Minaj spent most of the year roped into an imaginary rivalry with a much-lesser, and fielding a storm of condescension about her ass. It got so tired, she spent an entire interview asleep. Almost 20 years after The Source paired a shot of Lil Kim and Foxy Brown with the reductive cover line “Harlots or Heroines?”, it’s like Nicki is bored with defending why a woman has a right to be in rap. So yes, on The Pinkprint, Minaj sticks with what she knows and really likes—and tosses off a few mighty rap tracks, just to say she did it.
The Pinkprint opens with vulnerability. “All Things Go” and “I Lied” are mid-tempo rap ballads, similar to Pink Friday’s “Here I Am” and “Letcha Go” from the Playtime Is Over mixtape, where she excavates regret and pain, directing apologies to family and former lovers. Careerism takes a toll, she confesses, without ever backing down about her ambition. And so a partner has to swallow this: “I can’t let you think that I’ma let the game stall for you.” A Jessie Ware power soul duet, “Crying Game,” closes the cathartic, if lukewarm, suite.
Minaj has never been afraid to get personal on record, and her singing has improved considerably, but she’s best at classic Sagittarian extroversion. So when pals Ariana Grande and Beyonce show up—two singers whose careers float on coquettish visions of sexuality—Minaj lets loose a birdcall and turns them out. “Get on Your Knees” is a steamy retread of Dr. Luke’s “Dark Horse” template: drippy, hollow synths and percussive rapping meets a beat change and soaring pop hook. “’Cause we are just animals/Baby, it’s primal/I want you on all fours,” purrs Grande, as Nicki goofily solicits for brain. “Feeling Myself” picks up where the “***Flawless” remix left off. (In a neat feat of continuity, both tracks are produced by Hit-Boy.) Beyonce continues to be emboldened by her new partner, and they sound incredible, even tour-worthy, together. Nicki sets up a series of neat couplets and works through, as she tells us, four different flows, while Bey—ostensibly spinnin’ with her foot up—ad-libs and spazzes. Like BFFs finishing each other’s sentences, they meet at the song’s peak in a line referencing O.T. Genasis’ “Coco,” after trading verses comparing their bodies to, well, coco.
There are more brilliant moments throughout. Nicki and Drake pay homage to Wayne pyramiding their own far-out verses beneath his on “Only.” The three reprise the cipher on iTunes exclusive “Truffle Butter,” which mellows out the neon house of Maya Jane Cole’s “What They Say,” and, at least energetically, sounds like a “0 to 100” B-side. On “Want Some More” she curls her voice around a couple of cutesy flows while listing personal milestones: “Who had Eminem on the first album? Who had Kanye saying, ‘She a problem?’” Meek Mill, jubilant and free, whoops and hollers over an Alicia Keys vocal sample on “Buy a Heart.” On “Four Door Aventador,” Nicki cedes to the canon, pledges allegiance to New York rap, and slyly conjures Lil’ Kim by trying out Biggie’s funky, loose diction. “Trini Dem Girls,” a skeletal, handclappy dance track with a blown out dancehall bassline, improves upon “Pound the Alarm,” although she still needs to go full bacchanal and drop a soca anthem. And the sino-grime-y “Shanghai,” where Minaj exhorts, “I’m always at fight weight,” toughens up a second half dominated by radio singles “Pills N Potions” and “Bed of Lies.”
Nicki is good at making pop songs and presumably enjoys the challenge of flexing a variety of voices and moods, though her albums have suffered because these sounds haven’t been organized in a way that feels organic. Less cartoonish than her prior albums and, yeah, far more stripped down, there’s still an emphasis on bombast and arena-sized maximalism here (curious, since she rarely tours). But The Pinkprint is her most fully-realized record to date, a personal, imaginative, sex-positive, expanded vision of Pink Friday and Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded that isn’t a radical shift, but instead improves upon what Minaj can execute well: rapping for both pop and hip-hop audiences, instead of trying to prove shit to either.
It’s a weird, gendered burden, but it's 2014, and men no longer hold provenance over rap. We have options. For the first time since maybe the early 2000s, music is flush with women who have different perspectives and are skilled rappers: Tink, Gangsta Boo, Trina, Remy Ma, Angel Haze, Azealia Banks, Princess Nokia. And with The Pinkprint Nicki’s done fighting for what should’ve been buried when she out-rapped everyone on “Monster.”