The last time Nicki Minaj released an album, Obama was president, manspreading became an official word, and the Ebola virus was the world’s biggest fear. Four years ago, Nicki Minaj released the smash-filled multi-platinum, The Pinkprint. That album was a perfect reflection of Nicki as an artist, and from there she was poised to get even bigger and better. Yet, somehow during these last four years, Nicki got lost in the sauce.
Remy Ma’s lie-filled, but still scathing diss track, “Shether,” put a damper on the original rollout plan for Nicki’s next album. Cardi B had an extraordinary rise to fame that included accomplishments Nicki, herself, has not achieved. Then, there were the things that Nicki (and her label) were partially responsible for: the seemingly endless stream of features (some incredible and some tepid), the constant pushbacks of the album’s release date, attacking her critics in Twitter DMs, songs leaking, multiple versions of the album allegedly being scrapped and shelved, and the list goes on. Nevertheless, Queen is finally here. Preceded by the bombastic freestyle “Chun-Li,” the middling “Bed” and yet another Lil Wayne collaboration, “Rich Sex,” the Queen has arrived.
We enter the Queen‘s palace through the somber “Ganja Burns.” Nicki ruminates on her hiatus: the new competition, the enemies, the lovers, the haters, all of it. Over an uptempo afro-pop influenced and guitar-anchored beat, Nicki opens Queen with a strong start. Importantly, she is not rapping just to rap, she sounds comfortable and laid-back. Her attitude on “Ganja Burns” foreshadows the atmospheric nature of the Queen album. She effortlessly switches between rapping, singing, and mumbling on the track, previewing the wide breadth of artistry that Queen displays.
From “Ganja Burns” we move into the ruthless one-two punch of “Majesty” and “Barbie Dreams.” The former, a collaboration with Eminem and Labrinth, is an anthem of strength and confidence. Eminem, after his lackluster Revival album, delivers his fastest rap verse ever; he raps 123 syllables in 11.8 seconds according to Genius. Labrinth delivers a haunting hook peppered by a stark piano, while Nicki switches in and out of various tones searching for her next victim. Again, Nicki sounds comfortable. Many critics and detractors have painted this narrative of Nicki being uncontrollably angry at her new competition, but on Queen, Nicki sounds secure and self-aware. She isn’t proving herself, as much as she is returning to her roots. The Nicki on Queen is a more mature version of the Nicki we first saw on those steps in The Come Up, and she is incredible.
“Majesty” flows right into “Barbie Dreams,” where Nicki raps over The Notorious B.I.G.’s classic “Just Playing.” Anyone familiar with Biggie’s music, or just rap in general, knows that “Just Playing” is a song where Biggie essentially lists all the R&B female artists that he wants to have sex with. On “Barbie Dreams” Nicki flips the originally misogynistic script and puts herself in the role of Biggie as she lists (and roasts) a plethora of male rappers. Nicki delivers one of her best songs and flows in years. OG Nicki fans will remember that Nicki sampled this song on her ’07 mixtape, Playtime Is Over. Although the production is all Biggie, Nicki’s lyricism and flow are more reminiscent of Eminem’s wit and sarcasm. Closing out of the first part of the album, “Barbie Dreams” flows beautifully into “Rich Sex,” which has grown on me since my initial review.
The transition to singing and more atmosphere track begins with “Hard White,” which appears to be a previously leaked track then-titled “Half Back.” This track came from the same recording sessions as the Remy Ma-diss track, “No Frauds.” “Hard White” is solid, she sounds hungry and ready to scrap with whoever comes at her next. Unfortunately, it is followed by “Bed,” the worst and most boring of Nicki and Ariana Grande’s five collaborations. “Bed” precedes “Thought I Knew You,” a purely singing collaboration with The Weeknd. “Thought” is at that key intersection of vibey-R&B and atmospheric trap with a keen pop edge; this is sure to be a big radio hit. “Run & Hide” continues the vibey feel of this section of Queen. Nicki sounds like an actual R&B singer on these tracks as her voice floats in and around the fluid production, it’s almost like she’s swimming through the beats.
The album heads back into rap mode, beginning with “Chun Swae.” I’m conflicted because Nicki’s verses are ferocious and some of the best on the album, but Swae Lee’s parts drag the song down. “Chun Swae” has killer flow switches and cadences that move straight into the triumphant comeback single, “Chun-Li,” which I reviewed here. Now, we’ve reached “LLC” one of the best tracks of Nicki career; she rips through every single verse with such fire and ease, it’s almost scary. “LLC” is one of the best rap songs of the year, she rides the beat like no other rapper could and her double (and triple) entendres rival even Jay-Z’s. “Good Form” follows “LLC,” and it’s like the less-serious more club-oriented version of “LLC;” it’s a straight up banger.
The final handful of songs return to the atmospheric vibe that Nicki explored earlier. Her singing has vastly improved and songs like “Nip Tuck” and “Come See About Me” are album, and even career, highlights. The last full song on the album, a dancehall-influenced track featuring the legendary Foxy Brown is everything a female rap collab should be. The two rappers are not trying to out-rap each other prove how good they are, they are having fun in their own little world like no is watching.
On Queen Nicki displayed the full extent of her artistry and versatility; she out-rapped the vast majority of her peers and sang just as well as, if not better than, some of the new R&B stars. Queen was worth the four-year wait and it is worthy of its title. This is her least feature-reliant album, and she proves that she can take down anyone with just her mic and her pen. The production shifts from the “boom-bap” of classic New York rap to the spacey alternative sound that currently dominates R&B with epic precision and ease. Nicki took the best parts of all her previous albums and mixtapes and created an opus that will be one of the crowning jewels of female rap and rap in general.
Nicki Minaj has never been a one-note rapper or artist, hell, she even brought back her Roman alter ego for a quick minute. Queen is not self-absorbed, it’s empowering and enlightening, and so much more. Now, there are definitely a few songs that could have been cut (“Sir,” “Bed,” “2 Lit 2 Late”), as is the case on many long albums. The album suffers significantly because of its length. At times it can be a chore to listen to which detracts from the greatness of the vision and the plurality of the tracks. Many critics and casual listeners will listen to Queen within the context of the rise of Cardi B, the Remy Ma diss, and Nicki’s recent bad press and controversial persona. Listen to Queen with a fresh set of ears, and listen in to it multiple times.
Nicki delivered some of the best music of her career and one of the most interesting albums of the year, regardless of genre. There is no longer a debate as to who is the best female rapper, her name is Onika Tanya Maraj, professionally known as, Nicki Minaj.
KEY TRACKS: “Barbie Dreams,” “LLC,” “Nip Tuck,” “Majesty”