When Nicki Minaj premiered her "Roman Holiday" single two months ago via the most baffling Grammys performance ever, fans who had high hopes for her second album began to express concern about the focus on her alter-ego character, Roman Zolanski, pausing from uttering "WTF" just long enough to say: Please, God, not a concept album.
Those particular worries could hardly have been more misplaced. "Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded" is about as concept-less an album as has ever been made.
It was telling that Minaj dramatized a gaudy exorcism in her Grammy number, because there are definitely two spirits fighting for control of the singular body of "Roman Reloaded." Most of the first third of the album is straight-up hip-hop — usually vulgar, often clever, mostly discordant and hardly dull.
Then it suddenly transitions for most of its last two-thirds into a personality-drained pop-dance album in which Minaj seems possessed by the evil spirit of Katy Perry.
In other words, it's an album with something to annoy everyone. If you're one of Minaj's hardcore fans, or even just would rather hear her rap than sing, there's a good chance you'll want to take the disc off after track 6… with 13 songs still left to go on the bloated standard version (and 16 still left to go on the super-extra-bloated deluxe edition!).
If you just want to hear Minaj sing generic pop, well, you're probably 16 and will cherry-pick singles off iTunes anyway, rather than buy this entire behemoth. But if you do listen from the start, you will rightfully have all kinds of questions about the wacko opening numbers, starting with why Nicki is singing in a Sharon Osbourne British accent at the beginning. Also, you will learn a lot about oral sex.
Ah, yes, this is the Nicki Minaj who put in an appearance at the Kids' Choice Awards two days before release date, right? Any parents fooled by Nickelodeon's loose standards for kid-friendliness or Minaj's adorable Day-Glo-glam persona into imagining that "Roman Reloaded" is suitable preteen fare should probably be slapped, if not slimed. It's an album that would make Harvey Weinstein go, "Oh, yeah, NC-17, for sure."
Initially, it's a relief just to realize that the titular character won't be making any more appearances after the opening "Roman Holiday" — nor will Roman's irritating Cockney mother, or anyone else to remind us that Nicki did some theater in high school. But ultimately it's a dispiriting sign of how the reins got away from such a promising artist that she ditched her central idea in favor of bulking the album up with lame Top 40 bait while keeping the title as a testament to her compromised ambition.
"Come on a Cone" provides the record's most fun moments, early on — and it's probably the only track that's slightly less salacious than it sounds. The rapper spends the entire tune basking in high fashion, wealth and media attention, not sex. (Funniest lines: "When I'm sitting with Anna, I'm really sitting with Anna/Ain't a metaphor punch line, I"m really sitting with Anna!")
By the time she starts chanting "My ice is so cold, it should come on a cone" in a series of maniacal voices, you realize you're listening to the world's most gleeful representative of the One Percent.
The materialism just keeps on comin' in "I Am Your Leader," in which Minaj brags, "When I fly it's one letter and one number," encouraging her fans to share her disdain for all the losers who fly commercial first class. It's a old joke, all this hip-hop money-hoarding, but unlike some of her male contemporaries who've exhausted the gag over the years, she's at least in on it, as is clear from the unbashful comic extremes to which she takes her hysterical voice on these Richie Rich Bitch raps.
Then, in the title track, Minaj defensively raps, "Only thing that pop is my endorsement op… Gotta run and reinforce the glock." Which, inexplicably, is her cue to go pop for nearly all the remainder of the album. Maybe if she'd knocked on wood when she said it, it would have come or stayed true.
On a few transitional selections, she does some singing and lets superstar male guests round it out with some rapping. On "Champions," over some uninspiringly new-agey synth riffs, she sings "This is for the single mothers," and even names a few. Sweet, right? Then Drake comes in with lines like: "Makin' hits in 3-acre cribs…/Lots of bad bitches, but they good to me/I make her do the splits for a rap." Yep, he's every bedragged single mom's dream.
Things get even more balladic and less rap in the duet with Chris Brown that follows, "Right By My Side," which is extremely innocuous by recent Brown standards. You've got to wonder what they were thinking, though, in light of what we know about the instigation of the Brown/Rihanna incident. when Minaj says, "Wait, let me see your phone," followed by another reference to "bitches."
That's followed by the leading contender for Worst Song of 2012, the R. Kelly-style "Sex in the Lounge," a collaboration with Lil Wayne and crooner Bobby V in which Minaj barely even shows up. Yes, it is literally a song about the joy of annoying people by making love in the club. "Get on that [sex organ] and get that money/Go Oprah for me," Weezy raps. Won't Oprah looooove finding out she's invoked as a metaphor for prostitution on one of the year's most anticipated albums?
As if chastening herself for Lil Wayne's sins, Minaj spends the rest of her album being kind of a bore. The current single is a rave-pop number with the hook, "Starships were meant to fly…" You suppose they'll run into any fireworks up there?
"Beautiful Sinner" is competitive with the worst of Madonna for sheer banality ("You are the type of bad that feels so good" — did she really want her name on these credits?). The uncharacteristically self-pitying ballad "Marilyn Monroe," another one you can't believe Minaj had a hand in at all, is basically an extreme narcissist's version of "Candle in the Wind."
"Gun Shot" and the impossibly hokey "Young Forever" sound right of Rihanna's reject pile and prove that just because Minaj can easily adopt RiRi's subtle patois doesn't mean it's all advisable that she should.
When Minaj eventually makes one stab at returning to bad-ass status at the end—with the previously issued "Stupid Hoe," where her idea of a brilliant girl-on-girl putdown is "I'm Angelina, you Jennifer"—you might not be sure whether to prefer the bland Nicki or the sometimes bluntly nasty one. But at least Mean Nicki knows how to have some oddly rhythmic, tonally bizarre fun. If we're to pick one side or the other of her to exorcize, it's got to be the sellout.