By Jeremiah Tucker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
I haven’t listened to too much rap yet in 2012, but with the warm weather settling early, I’m anticipating summer and long days.
Last week was a good one, brining new music from both Kanye West and Nicki Minaj, arguably the reigning king and queen of that sweet domain where rap meets pop -- the commonwealth of commercially viable hip-hop.
I haven’t paid much attention to Nicki Minaj since she showed up on my radar after out-rapping Jay-Z, Rick Ross and Kanye West on West’s 2010 single “Monster.” Her verse was virtuosic and unhinged and, like the first time I heard Eminem in his Slim Shady persona, I realized someone totally unique and weird had arrived on the scene.
But after that, I stopped paying attention to her. Part of the problem is whenever I saw her on television, she seemed self-consciously “weird” in a way that was neither thought-out nor all that interesting. And aside from “Super Bass,” her big single from last year, her debut album “Pink Friday” was boring, mostly unsuccessful pop.
It soon became clear Nicki Minaj wasn’t interested in being a great rapper, but rather a composite: a little bit Lady Gaga, a little bit Lil Kim, a dash of Katy Perry.
The incredibly strong first third of her sophomore album “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded” however, puts everyone on notice that if she wanted, she could rip your throat out on her ascent to the throne of most interesting, if not greatest, rapper alive.
With a collection of adventurous, sonically stacked beats, Minaj burns through the most exciting 22 minutes of music released in 2012 so far. “Beez in the Trap,” the album’s highlight, is pitch black and mean with Minaj flipping the casual misogyny of rap on what sounds like an IV drip distorted into a percolating, hypnotic drone.
It’s a jarring shift from songs such as “Come on a Cone,” with its swarm of cyborg bees and Minaj’s threats to put her male genitalia in your face, to the warmed-over Eurobeat and generic Top 40 retreads that make up the rest of the album.
Minaj is such a gifted rapper -- nimble, quick, able to make maniacal shifts in tone without losing the song’s thread -- that it’s puzzling why she’d rein in her personality to make the kind of music any halfway decent “American Idol” reject could pull off.
Still, I find it difficult to knock Minaj for not being something I want her to be -- an album-oriented rap star. Sure, another five to seven songs as strong as the first six, and “Roman Reloaded” would be the kind of album rap nerds would talk about for years. But what Minaj released is safer in an age where the album is on its way out; it’s better, at least commercially, to be a little something to everyone.
Which is why I’m thankful for artists like West who, for better or worse, follow their muse and make pop music come to them. West has earned enough clout over the years that he can afford to be the kind of album-oriented rap star who makes no concessions for the market.
And yet last year he and Jay-Z released the hardest of hard rap songs “N***** in Paris” -- whose sonic architect also provided the beat for Minaj’s “Come on a Cone” -- and it still became one of the biggest singles of the year.
Last week West released both a new solo single “Theraflu,” which contained some of his best self-lacerating boasting to date, and a group track, “Mercy,” that’s speculated to be the first song from an upcoming album featuring all the artists from West’s GOOD Music label.
If Minaj enjoys making mediocre Top 40 pop, good for her, but if she’s just doing it to be radio viable she should look to West as a role model--which is perhaps the only instance where anyone should regard West as such--and trust that her talent and indomitable personality will bring her success on her own terms. Because I suspect it would.