After the release of the bad-relationship ballad “Pills N Potions” in May, it seemed like Nicki Minaj’s next album was going to showcase her personal side. But when “Pills N Potions” failed to make the desired commercial impact, a few months later Minaj released “Anaconda,” a hit that felt better suited to the cartoonish pink-wig Nicki than the more stripped-down version of “Pills N Potions” Minaj. The difference between “Anaconda” and “Pills N Potions” was striking. The singer of “Anaconda” was superwoman; the singer of “P&P” was introspective and vulnerable, and less likely to produce obvious radio smashes like “Starships” and “Super Bass.”
When the release of her new album was delayed, it felt ominous. Were music executives scared of showing the real Nicki Minaj, afraid that audiences wouldn’t like finding out the superwoman of Pink Friday fame was a female mortal after all? Was Nicki Minaj afraid to expose herself as Onika Maraj? What would happen when she lost the alter egos, the Barbie hair, the mask of “Nicki Minaj”? Would audiences still love her when they found out that she’s just a girl from Queens who fought her way to the top on her own talent, bar by flawless bar?
Minaj is one of the best-selling female rappers of all time, with two platinum albums even in a pizza-downloading world. “Anaconda” became her highest-charting single to date. But gray clouds seemed to be gathering over the Minaj dynasty. We’d been worried about Nicki since she told the audience at the BET Awards in June that she had a near-death experience, and then said, “I don’t want to talk about it,” when pressed for details afterward. While Nicki was on the “Anaconda” press circuit boasting about her sexual prowess in public, privately she was struggling with the end of a decade-long relationship. She and Safaree “SB” Samuels had begun dating before she was famous, and some speculated that the breakup was brought about in part by the pressures of Minaj’s exponentially growing fame. Carrie Battan wrote about Nicki and Samuels recently on Grantland, suggesting “Minaj’s decision to keep her personal life so private is, in part, a way of avoiding the disdain and judgment that people have for relationships in which women hold the reins — essentially, she’s protected Samuels’s masculinity.” Samuels took to social media to let it be known that the breakup wasn’t contentious, just a bummer for both: “Cheating was never the issue. ppl grow apart and it is what it is.. and thats all ill say about that.. a lot can happen and change in 12 yrs. you all see a public figure. I’m with the real person. we will always love each other no matter what. peace n thats the last ill say bout it.” But the long, tumultuous relationship included a 2011 domestic violence call that Minaj has never discussed in public; she ultimately decided not to press charges. As recently as a month ago, Minaj beat up the Benz that she bought for her ex. She may have money, fame, power, and boundless skill, but Nicki Minaj was in deep conflict.
Minaj has always made it a point to keep her personal life out of her music. Sometimes it seems like she has tried to seem not human. Her star-making album Pink Friday presented her as a cyborg Barbie. At 32, though, she is changing — breaking up and growing up. Image reinvention is traditional in pop, but in rap consistency is key. A change in sound or style can be seen as a desperate move. But Nicki is a new sort of star — a rapper and a pop star, and not less of one for also being the other. And on The Pinkprint, released yesterday, she becomes yet another thing: a singer-songwriter, processing the changing ocean tides of her life through her lyrics.
The Pinkprint moves away from the fantasy escapism promised by “Anaconda” into the dark places that “Pills N Potions” signaled it could. The Pinkprint is a downtempo breakup album that pushes Minaj’s verbal artistry to a new plane of emotion. Like Frank Sinatra’s tragic romantic classic In the Wee Small Hours, The Pinkprint is designed to be listened to late at night, after the clubs have closed, in twilight hours of contemplation and regret. It’s the sound of someone deciding whether to send a text they know is ill advised. The album works through the stages of a breakup, opening with three very strong songs that directly address deeply personal issues, not only her split with SB but the death of her cousin Nicholas Telemaque. The breakup with Safaree haunts the entire album. Self-aware, she also cops to a growing reliance on pain pills to relax, which becomes another marked Pinkprint theme. For Minaj to reveal so much doesn’t feel calculated. It feels genuinely surprising. Somehow, all of these revelations don’t feel manipulative toward the listener, perhaps because before the album she went so far out of her way to keep the general public from knowing she even had a boyfriend. There’s also a mention of a long-ago abortion in the very first song, which immediately signals the tone of the album: intimate, sometimes uncomfortable, and deeply feminine. Nicki has often rapped about having a dick as a way of conceptualizing her power, but this is the first time she’s rapped about her womb.1 These extremely personal revelations seemed somehow bigger than Minaj’s individual experience, transformed into art.
She does rap about how other rappers are her “sons” a lot though!
The Pinkprint is a cohesive album, a twist that nobody expected from a supposedly singles-oriented artist like Minaj. It’s musically consistent — minimalist and minor-keyed, venturing into the realm of the sensual. It’s a quiet storm rap album, the logical rap outgrowth of singers like Frank Ocean and FKA twigs. Nicki sings a lot on this album, displaying the humanness in her voice, not burying it under Auto-Tune or vocal effects. The song “Grand Piano,” which closes the album, is sure to be the most talked-about track. It’s a straightforward tragic torch song. “The people are saying / That you have been playing my heart like a grand piano,” Nicki sings in the chorus. With a vibrato in her voice, this comment on the dissolution of her long-term relationship is Minaj’s most ambitious gesture yet, and it pays off beautifully.
On her previous albums, Nicki reconciled her mainstream pop and mixtape rap sides by separating them. There was the family-friendly Nicki with the massive tween fan base, and the hard-as-nails Nicki who could upstage Kanye and Jay Z. She received hip-hop pushback for having success with the EDM-friendly super-hit “Starships,” even though Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded also contained the gangsta minimalism of “Beez in the Trap” and the unprecented proggy Kool Keith weirdness of “Roman Holiday.” The song that really summed Nicki up was “Moment 4 Life” — on which she sang and rapped, the multiple facets of her talent all operating in harmony. Even if balancing her G-rated and X-rated sides was difficult, Minaj made it sound effortless.
The Pinkprint, though, does something even harder. It closes the gulf between the fearless persona and the person. The Pinkprint is experimental, and most of it works. The album’s weakest tracks are its most traditional, and its standouts are its wildest bets. “Bed of Lies” is a bland repeddling of Eminem and Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie,” due in part to the presence of that song’s cowriter, Skylar Grey. But the melancholy thump of “The Crying Game,” which features U.K. R&B chanteuse Jessie Ware on the hook, is a triumph. “Four Door Aventador” has a lax spoken chorus that turns its Neneh Cherry out, and underrated genius Jeremih helps Minaj tap her earnest romantic aspect without any corniness in “Favorite.” If the album has a connective tissue, it’s minimal techno. Minaj’s voice is equally minimal.
The album’s sound reflects the lonely feeling. The beats are often murky and bittersweet, and even when surrounded by colleagues, Nicki sounds like she’s out on her own, alone in the HOV lane. The Pinkprint often feels like it was recorded in a series of massive, empty, cold rooms. The arctic chill is offset with a few poppier songs — the pop-soca of “Trini Dem Girls” and the lascivious “Get on Your Knees,” cowritten by Katy Perry and with a hook sung by Ariana Grande.2 But except for a brief resurrection on “The Night Is Still Young” for one of the album’s few throwback throwaways, the augmented Vocaloid of “Starships” has been buried.
Word is that Grande replaced Perry at the last second on the hook, perhaps to cross-cash in on the popularity of the Grande-Minaj–Jessie J summer collabo “Bang Bang.” Minaj makes reference to Perry in the verse, suggesting that she may have recorded it before the Perry-Grande switch was made.
Nicki Minaj is acknowledging that it is difficult to be a woman in rap, and certainly different to be a black woman than it is to be Iggy Azalea. To paraphrase the saying about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Minaj has been ass clapping backward and in heels. And she’s been doing it all this time without wanting to let us know that it sucks sometimes, because it would run counter to an image she was working to build, that of an invulnerable queen. Her bigger-than-life superwoman image could have sustained her through another album of “Super Bass” clones. But Nicki was doing herself and her talent a disservice by not aiming to dig deeper than “ideal.” Like Beyoncé, who turned the cracks in her perfect wife image from a liability into a new asset, Nicki is making a brave choice in opening up about her hardships.
But it’s also a necessary change, for her growth and credibility. Nicki’s change in sensibility mirrors the confessional sensuality of Madonna’s Erotica, which was not coincidentally also a breakup album, written about Warren Beatty. Madonna pioneered the pop star narrative of revealing a few more of your secrets each time, in tandem with showing more and more of your body. Minaj released a highly sexualized 2015 calendar full of the sort of porny selfies that were once so controversial in Madonna’s Sex book, which, thanks to apps like Instagram, are now hilariously commonplace and mundane. Minaj’s video for “Only” wisely eschewed the Nazi themes of the lyric video in favor of a not that much less controversial sexy Guantanamo Bay scenario.3 Minaj is still unapologetic about connecting her sexuality to her power. The envelope-pushing Kink.com armory dominatrix themes of the “Only” video are reminiscent of the “Justify My Love” and “Erotica” videos, as well as Beyoncé’s own Madonna-ish surprise album. The Pinkprint, like Erotica, deals explicitly with issues of femaleness, power, and the human need for reciprocal love. The salad-tossing jokes and sexual fantasies are interspersed with romantic fantasies about finding a partner worthy of her love. She does a duet with Meek Mill called “Buy a Heart” that samples Alicia Keys’s Drake-penned slow jam “Unthinkable (I’m Ready)” that has already stoked dating rumors about the two.
Nicki Minaj built herself into the biggest, baddest bitch in the game, and now she is pulling back the curtain to reveal that the Wizard of Oz is, in fact, a funny, cute chick from Queens who can rap her fabulous ass off. She’s been hinting at it all along, but on The Pinkprint it becomes abundantly clear: Nicki Minaj has feelings. She has hard days, bad boyfriends, and sad thoughts. Having proven, endlessly, that she is as hard as any dude, she affords herself the ultimate extravagance: getting to be soft, too. If Nicki’s previous albums suggested she was the female Weezy, The Pinkprint suggests she is the female Drake. She lets herself open up about real emotional issues in her life, things deeper than just killing the game and snagging every hot guy in sight. Not that she doesn’t still kill the game and win the love of every man around. On The Pinkprint, Minaj is ready to stop compartmentalizing and start letting all the Nickis thrive and coexist in one realm: soft and hard, rapping and singing, bullshitting with the best of them and telling the unvarnished truth. Nicki Minaj admitting that even Nicki Minaj has moments of weakness, plenty of them, turns out to make her even more powerful.