I've said before that I'm not a big hip-hop fan, but I'm loving this debut from Nicki Minaj. She's been the toast of the music industry for the past year, awash in vital internet buzz. Over the course of the year she put out a few singles, although none of them were major hits, and also made quite a few guest appearances on others' songs. The anticipation for her debut was palpable, but would it be good?
My answer is definitely "yes," as Pink Friday is one of the most enjoyable rap albums I've heard in years. Minaj exudes personality on the album and seems comfortable in all of its various musical styles. Generally, the album begins with the more hardcore rap, transitions to a slower R&B middle section (including tracks in which Minaj sings rather than raps), and then segues into an upbeat, sample-heavy pop conclusion. Along the way, some of the biggest names in the business make guest appearances, a testament to how much interest and good will she's already generated.
Among the opening numbers, first track "I'm the Best" kicks the album off with an old fashioned rap boast on which Minaj celebrates her emerging financial success. As a rap artist with a rather theatrical bent, Minaj is like feminine Eminem, matching his potty mouth with aplomb as well as a similar use of alter-ego personalities. She displays these traits best on "Roman's Revenge," my favorite track on the album, despite its frequently profane, yet always clever lyrics ("bitch if you ain't shittin' then get off the pot!"). Minaj employs her foul-mouthed alter ego, Roman, as well as Roman's mother, who's apparently British, or at least pretends to be. Eminem shows up in Slim Shady mode to add an assist. It's a great in-your-face track.
Yet Minaj can dial it down too. The smooth R&B middle of the album shows her more vulnerable side on songs like "Right Thru Me" and "Save Me," which employ mellower arrangements and slower tempos. On "Moment 4 Life," which features Drake, Minaj sounds a bit like Rihanna, who guests herself on the appropriately soaring "Fly," which could be the big pop hit that has so far eluded Minaj (apart from her guest appearance on Trey Songz's "Bottoms Up," she's yet to reach the Billboard Hot 100 top 10). All of these songs are keepers.
Black Eyed Peas frontman and uber-producer Will.I.Am gives "Check It Out" an infectious electronic beat while sampling The Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star." Cheryl Cole's vocal was added to the British single of this, although I can't say why, as you can barely make her out in the mix. "Blazin'" features the familiar Simple Minds' sample, "Don't You Forget About Me," as well as a guest rap from Kanye West. "Here I Am" has a more downbeat sound, using a sample of John B's "Red Sky." The best sampling has to be the use of Annie Lennox's "No More 'I Love You's'" on "Your Love," the album's sweetest moment.
It will be fun to see how big Minaj can break out next year. This album is certainly a great start, and has the potential to give her some big hits in the months to come. It's refreshing to hear a female voice in rap, a field so dominated by the men, but a voice that's not just female but also quite unique.
Best: Roman's Revenge, Check It Out, Fly, Right Thru Me, Your Love, Here I Am