Nicki Minaj's 'Queen' Caps a Mediocre Summer by Rap's Titans
The rap superstar's fourth studio album shows flashes of her greatness, but follows a trend of poorly edited projects by the genre's top tier artists this year.
Photo by Paras Griffin/VMN18/Getty Images for BET
Summer 2018 was supposed to be a legendary one for rap. Kanye West, amidst his flagrant outbursts and rants, announced that there’d be an onslaught of new material from G.O.O.D. music. Drake announced that his fifth studio album, Scorpion would arrive in June. Shortly after, Nicki Minaj shared that she’d be dropping her first album in four years in August (after a few push backs). In the moment-driven digital period we’re living in right now, there weren’t many scenarios that would outweigh the prospect of having new Ye, Drake, Nicki, Nas, Pusha T, and Kid Cudi to add to our libraries within the span of two months. But as these projects unfolded, the majority proved to be more successful at making an internet splash than leaving lasting material behind that could outlive instant virality.
Drake’s Scorpion was one of the strongest of the summer as it maintained what his fans have grown accustomed to over the years—ballads about being treated unfairly by love interests and sharp raps about still being overlooked despite his accomplishments. Its 25 songs and nearly 90-minute run time did him no favors, though, and the album fell short of ranking anywhere near the best in his catalog. Drizzy’s messy, summer-starting beef with Pusha T was a much more exhilarating experience to be a part of, and Pusha T sucked the feud for all it could offer, earning him more mainstream relevance than he’s ever had as a solo act. Kanye’s ye expectedly satisfied in terms of production, but the seven-song album’s best moments often came from contributors rather than West himself, who, in a scatterbrain fashion, used the project to talk about his bouts with bipolarism and lend a sympathetic shoulder to people like Russell Simmons. Nas’s NASIR came and went, being overshadowed by a joint album by Beyonce and JAY-Z within a day of its release. And with the tragic death of rapper XXXTentacion coming shortly after, The Carters’ tour-boosting effort didn’t spend much time at the top of digital discourse either.
The implied promise from rap’s titans that the music they were dropping would be something to cherish wasn’t exactly met, but when looking back on this summer, most of their legacies will likely remain unscathed. Depending on who you ask, Kanye West has at least three albums regarded as classics ( College Dropout, Late Registration, MBDTF). Nas is on a number of people’s hip-hop Mount Rushmore. Drake, though rare in the sense that he doesn’t have a consensus classic, is at least credited with ushering in a softer, more melody-driven brand of rap.
The latest rap superstar to release an album, Nicki Minaj, on the other hand, is in a more precarious position than any of her peers. For a decade, she’s executed some of the best rapping done by anyone in her field. But now, as rap’s audience is a microcosm of larger society and perpetuates the idea that there can only be one top tier woman in the genre, Nicki is being pit against fellow New York superstar Cardi B. That, joined with some questionable online behavior and musical choices has put a larger microscope on Nicki’s latest release Queen. Her fourth studio release is an extremely high stakes album that does plenty to affirm her greatness, but, in all, joins the heap of overhyped, underperforming releases from her peers this summer.
Nicki Minaj has always operated in extremes. In interviews, she’ll jump from having a heartfelt conversation about her process to letting off a convincing, villainous laugh within seconds. During her rise to becoming a fixture within the mainstream, she took her Barbie persona to new, animated heights with cartoonish depictions of herself and out-of-this-world vocal inflections (somehow, inspiring even weirder variations). On Queen, the extremes that Nicki operates within are more tied to the overall flow of the album: when she’s on, there’s not many better than her. But when she’s off, it’s really off.
The album’s first two songs are on the more off end of the spectrum, as they are strange choices to kick off a career-defining album with. The intro, “Ganja Burn” is a solid attempt at afropop, but does little to establish any sort of theme or big picture look at what’s to come. It’s followed by an outdated-sounding collaboration with Labrinth and Eminem, who effectively sucks what little life the song has with his insistence of rapping like a madman, regardless of how it will derail the track’s flow. The previously-released “Rich Sex” with Lil Wayne also sounds like it was recorded closer to when her previous album, The Pinkprint, dropped in 2014—or earlier.
But just like she’s shown in some of her most iconic moments (like 2010’s “Monster” verse and 2014’s “Lookin Ass), there are times on Queen that Nicki Minaj can make you forget about any missteps she’s ever taken, all while displaying a particular skill set that no one in her stratosphere can duplicate. “LLC” is the quintessential Nicki track: relatively bare production, giving the floor to the Queens native’s penchant for nearly breathless delivery. It’s on that song that she reaffirms her prowess, “Tryna make a new Nicki, where the factory?/ They'll never toe to toe on a track with me/ There'll never be another one after me / 'Cause the skill level still just a half of me.” Her range (and underrated skill for singing) is on full display on The Weeknd-featuring “Thought I Knew You.” She recruits personal hero and fellow Trinidadian-American, Foxy Brown, for a proper crashing of dancehall and rap on “Coco Chanel”. The combination of aforementioned songs are all spot-on Nicki Minaj—an artist who can rap with the best of the best, hold her own while singing, and authentically inject Caribbean culture into her more often-used skills.
The album’s highlight is “Barbie Dreams,” Nicki’s second try at covering a famed Notorious B.I.G. deep cut from 1994 in which he imagined what it’d be like to hook up with his day’s most popular R&B stars. In 2007, she went over the same beat to ponder on what kind of time she’d have with the likes of Rich Boy, Hell Rell, and Gilly da Kid, among others. This time, she hilariously pokes fun at her ex Meek Mill (“‘I used to pray for times like this’ face-ass when I fuck him”), Young Thug (“caught him in my dressing room, stealin' dresses and shit”), Drake (“I don't know if the pussy wet or if he cryin' and shit”), and more. What makes the song special is that it shows off the best things about Nicki Minaj’s artistry: sharp lyricism, voice changes, a seemingly effortless gift for humor, and a natural knack for entertainment. And more importantly, the ability to drive dialogue within the rap community.
But much like her Young Money teammate Drake, Nicki’s high points on Queen are shrunken by her inability to be an effective editor. The album is gravely long-winded, to a point that makes listening feel like an exercise by the time you reach the halfway point. And it’s not just the album in total, many of the songs could easily be shaved in half. “Chun Swae” with Swae Lee could have been one of Queen’s best had it not unnecessarily ran for over six minutes. It’s so long that when the song nears its end, Nicki begins to thank her fans as if the song was the album’s outro. It’s like a joke she’s not even in on.
The promise of streaming numbers suggests otherwise, but for the sake of quality, one has to imagine that (ridiculously long) rap albums can’t continue to exist just for chart placement. And when placement isn’t the priority, the prospect of breaking the internet is what seems to be exciting established artists the most. But, how is this sustainable? Are we going to continue supporting flash-in-the-pan releases just so we can get fire tweets and gifs off for the timeline? Maybe this is just how all media will continue to move as longevity feels less and less important to consumers. But something should be learned from artists like J. Cole, Cardi B, Jay Rock, and Travis Scott—artists who stole the show this spring and summer by treating their albums with care and driving home a cohesive theme. One has to wonder if artists like Nicki Minaj and her royal peers are paying attention to the playing field around them and noticing the strongest efforts are not coming from who they are supposed to be coming from.
On the whole, Queen is fine. But for an artist who is deservingly regarded as one of the genre’s best, there are some real obstacles one would have to maneuver around to prove that this album stacks up to Minaj’s perceived position on the rap food chain. The runtime is a challenge within itself, but having to spend 67 minutes listening to songs that very rarely prove to have any connective tissue makes Queen drag and it places Nicki’s effort square with the performances from a substantial chunk of her contemporaries throughout this summer.
There is a shift happening in hip-hop right now in which the titans we rarely witnessed make missteps for the majority of this century are needing to go back to the drawing board and recalculate how they will present themselves now that a generation of rappers born in the early-to-mid 90s are considered as OGs to the youth. What artists like Minaj and Kanye West have had tucked in their back pockets for over a decade is that their outlook and opinion were so influential among the young people that engaged them, that their art was bolstered almost as a byproduct. Just being a part of whatever moment they orchestrated felt like something necessary for the consumer. But as time moves on and they become more removed from what unconsciously excites the masses, it’s curious to ponder what they will have left if they don’t pull it together. Moments are fleeting, and the more our most celebrated artists chase them, the more their work will render the same results.
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