Nicki Minaj, “Queen”
YOUNG MONEY/CASH MONEY
A lengthy hiatus can create breathing room, allowing artists to dodge overexposure and creatively regenerate. Nicki Minaj’s recent absence, though, threatened to inflict permanent damage on her status as one of rap’s commercial behemoths. As Minaj prepared to launch a comeback with her fourth album, Queen, its extended rollout was plagued with false starts, delays, and controversies. Her first attempts at singles landed with a thud; she raised eyebrows with her embrace of 6ix9ine, who faces prison time for using a thirteen-year-old in a sexual performance; she also sparked an online pile-on targeting a writer who criticized her on Twitter.
But while its mismanaged promotional cycle suggested an album steeped in uncertainty and defensiveness, Queen is sleek and confident. While each album since her debut has sharpened her tendencies in important ways, she has never released anything truly essential. Queen doesn’t break that cycle, but is a step forward nonetheless: it is her first album that doesn’t feel painstakingly focus-grouped. It sounds exactly like the statement Nicki wants to make right now.
As such, much of Queen boasts Minaj’s best balance of her varying personalities and skill sets yet. Her delivery here often recalls peak Nicki, nimble and colorful in its versatility. “Barbie Dreams” has garnered the most buzz, and deservedly so; it floats on the personality and humor that made her superstardom feel like an inevitability. The blurry-eyed late-night debauchery of album midpoint “Chun Swae” extends Swae Lee’s hot streak, but is commanded by Minaj at her most effortless. “LLC” is fiery and funny, with some of her best verses on the record (even though “Pink Friday had Eminem / Spit hard but I’m feminine” was almost certainly ghostwritten by LFO).
Refreshingly, Queen is Appropriately Long, recalibrating from hip-hop’s recent trend of albums that are either Too Brief (Kanye’s Wyoming records) or Fucking Endless (the latest from Drake, Rae Sremmurd, and Migos). Its sixty-six-minute duration, though, still enables some real missteps. “Thought I Knew You” is a bloodless breakup dirge that underscores how stale The Weeknd’s formula has become (“You play the victim every time, too” may be the year’s least self-aware lyric), and the final act of the album—particularly around the time “Miami” hits—sags considerably. But in a summer where scores of hip-hop heavyweights failed to whittle their work into a concise artistic statement, the sins of Queen are hardly glaring or unforgivable. They do, however, obscure the album Minaj should have released—one that finally, definitively justifies her self-coronation.