Nicki Minaj’s new album sounds like the queen of rap resting on her laurels

Nicki Minaj has never been afraid to speak her mind, but in the five years since her last studio album Queen, the pop-rap diva’s penchant for controversy – including her now-infamous claim that the Covid-19 vaccine might impact male fertility – has frequently overshadowed her actual music. Pink Friday 2, a sequel in name to her 2010 studio debut, in many ways suggests that Nicki is going back to basics. But more often than not, the album sounds like a queen resting on her laurels rather than proving why she still deserves the crown.

A decade ago, Nicki was largely an island unto herself in a male-dominated rap game; the success of rappers like Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion has opened the gates for a flood of female voices like never before, many of whom owe an obvious debt to Nicki. But without the novelty of being the only major female talent in town, she seems to be struggling to redefine herself: her recent collaborations with younger artists like Ice Spice and Sexyy Red can feel more like clout-chasing than genuine mentorship from one generation to the next.

On Pink Friday 2, Nicki finds her identity in motherhood: not just as Mother to her creative descendants or ravenous stans, but as a literal mother to the son she gave birth to in 2020. The first sound we hear, on opener “Are You Gone Already”, is Nicki playing with her child, and the track radiates a newfound level of introspection that’s come with bringing a life into the world. In the most unexpectedly profound moments of Pink Friday 2, like the outright gospel banger “Blessings”, Nicki slows down and looks inward. Notably, she more overtly embraces her Caribbean roots on the Drake-featuring tropical house bop “Needle” and the straight-up dancehall of “Forward From Trini”.

But Nicki is always ready to go on the attack, and such glimpses behind her armour are fleeting. Just in case you thought she’d gone soft, she immediately reminds you how hard she can go, riffing on the relentless flows of Biggie and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Notorious Thugs” on “Barbie Dangerous”. There’s still a frisky dexterity to her delivery, as she shifts the pitch of her voice and slides in and out of patois. Nicki can still rap faster than almost anyone, regardless of gender. Beneath the fake English accents and bratty delivery, there’s a playfulness to how she writes her verses; on the club-ready “Everybody”, she duets with a sample of Junior Senior’s “Move Your Feet” using the sampled word “body” to end each of her bars.

While some moments of interpolation are more inspired, like the distorted strains of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” on “My Life”, Nicki’s increasing reliance on recognisable samples can start to feel like cruise control. Aside from the obvious Rick James flip on single “Super Freaky Girl”, there’s also “Pink Friday Girls”, which adds relatively little to Cyndi Lauper’s anthemic “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”.

Nicki still demonstrates an ear for surprisingly left-field sounds, such as the electric fiddle on moody ballad “Fallin 4 U” and the indie pop-tinged “Cowgirl”. But mostly, the samples that Nicki calls upon demonstrate some of her worst tendencies as an artist: instead of creating her own formulas, as she’s proved more than capable of doing countless times before, she all too often borrows one that already exists, whether that’s hopping onto the latest trend or writing to a prefabricated melody. Pink Friday 2 shows flashes of the inventive brilliance that made Nicki such an undeniable superstar, but like so many legacy sequels, it mostly just makes you wish you were listening to the original.

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