Nicki Minaj became a legend before she even dropped an album. Back in 2010, she stole the spotlight on one of the biggest, greatest rap albums of all-time, producing the furious, instant-classic, schizoid 32 bars that defined Kanye West’s “Monster” (off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). Not only that, she spent the start of her career making relatively bland top-40 radio hits infinitely better, going on an unprecedentedly killer run of guest verses that would showcase her seemingly unlimited drive and talent, blast loudly at high-school dances and induce nostalgia today.

The Pinkprint

A
Nicki Minaj
Young Money


Unfortunately, Minaj’s first album, Pink Friday, was a disappointment. A few strong verses here and there were overwhelmed by bland pop songs. While there were obviously plenty of incentives ($$$) to go for hits, all of Minaj’s character was lost in the meandering tracks (bonus-track-turned-surprise-smash “Super Bass” notwithstanding).

Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded seemed to fix that problem. The delirious weirdness of “Come on a Cone” and the legit hip hop of “Beez in the Trap” found a comfortable home next to sugary pop numbers. Minaj’s sophomore release struck a perfect balance between all facets of her personality.

Minaj’s new record, The Pinkprint upsets that diverse balance a little bit, but all in the name of artistic evolution. It’s more subdued, developed and mature, and it’s definitely a must-hear release. At 60-plus minutes (even longer with bonus tracks), it’s a beast of an album, a sprawling work that presents one of today’s strongest, most versatile artists in a creative sweet spot. Minaj never lets up or coasts throughout the entire album, and she delivers a new high for an already impressive career.

Opening track “All Things Go” is a stark beginning, with Minaj getting deeply personal right off the bat. She raps about her teenage pregnancy and abortion and the shooting that killed her little cousin, starting the album with sober, powerful words that make you take a deep breath when the track ends. The production on “All Things Go” and many of The Pinkprint’s other tracks recalls Drake’s Nothing Was the Same. The droning keyboards and slow tempos evoke a dreamy, reflective mood, though instead of Drake’s often drug-induced haze we get Minaj’s more wistful remembrances.

The Pinkprint starts to accelerate after the first few songs, and really gets into gear once the guest stars show up. Track four, “Get On Your Knees,” is a solid, well-produced pop song, even if perpetual-preteen Ariana Grande still seems way too young to be singing what she’s singing. And then things really turn up on the subsequent song, “Feeling Myself.” The absolutely stellar dream team of Minaj, Beyoncé and Hit-Boy (can you even imagine a better pop-music trio?) join forces to produce a more-than-worthy follow-up to “***Flawless (Remix).” Wrapping themselves in a blanket of utter coolness, Hit-Boy once again pushes boundaries with his heavy, sway-inducing instrumental, Minaj fires off lines like machine gun rounds and Yoncé literally stops the world for a moment before allowing us all to carry on.

Elsewhere, Dr. Luke handles a plurality of the production duties. Putting recent unsettling allegations aside, the hitmaking super-producer does exactly what he’s supposed to do and does it well. He brings a sparse, chilly beat to the recent single “Only,” which showcases a confident-as-always Minaj but also contains a juvenile verse from Drake, some uninspiring bars from (still relevant!) Lil Wayne and Chris Brown, for some reason. Dr. Luke also pilots the formulaic-but-catchy “The Night Is Still Young,” with its M83-esque chorus and fierce Minaj verses, and first single “Pills n Potions.” The beginning of the album’s comedown, “Pills n Potions” would be a typical slow-burn lighter-waver in most hands, but Minaj elevates it with her meaningful lyrics and emotional delivery, creating a hip-hop “Someone Like You” that’s sweet and wistful with a shade of darkness layered in.

Hm, am I forgetting anything? Oh yeah, just “Anaconda,” one of the craziest, most talked about songs of the year. In a party-starting, furiously chaotic career highlight, Minaj subverts the misogynistic rap classic “Baby Got Back,” turning it into an empowering celebration of her own sexuality. Almost all of Minaj’s work on The Pinkprint is more subdued than in her early days when she tore “Monster” to shreds like a hungry lioness would devour a zebra, but “Anaconda” brings back the unpredictable maniac Minaj, and my god is it glorious.

2014 was certainly not the year of the hip-hop album. Aside from probably ScHoolboy Q, there were no huge album releases this year, with most rappers electing instead to release material as quickly as possible over the Internet, or not release anything at all (looking at you, Yeezy). But Nicki Minaj changes everything. At over an hour long, The Pinkprint is almost impossible to swallow whole in the Internet era, but even on a track-by-track basis the work is still stellar. Minaj is confident and impenetrable, not failing once while taking even more artistic risks. On the last track, “Grand Piano,” she even brings a beautiful singing voice out of nowhere. Even if the song gets a little schmaltzy, it’s just so impressive that Minaj continues to achieve success beyond her audience’s high expectations. As fantastic as she is, she’s still continuing to grow as an artist, and I already can’t wait to hear what comes next.

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