Mert and Marcus/Cash Money
August 14, 2018 at 02:06 PM EDT
We gave it a B

At its core, chess is a game of strategy, one of calculated death and death-dealing, with the queen the most powerful piece on the board. The unspoken dynamics are familiar to Nicki Minaj, both as an artist and as a creator in an industry that has not always wanted to make room for talented women who play by their own rules.

On the New York-bred rapper’s fourth studio album, Queen, Minaj positions influence and prestige as the two things she is not willing to compromise on. With a total play time of just over an hour, the project could be described as an all-you-can-eat banquet offering everything from the boom-bap production of classic hip-hop to trap, dancehall, reggae, and Minaj’s singular twist on pop. Reflections on relationships, the nature of success, and professional jealousies are underpinned by Minaj’s impressive creative range.

The album opens on “Ganja Burns,” which ultimately finds the rapper commiserating about any and all who would see her downfall (although some fans are already theorizing the track contains a subtle jab at Cardi B). In Minaj’s estimation, part of queendom is developing an impenetrable defense against a constant stream of enemies — real, imagined, and those yet to come. While “Ganja Burns” is an off-the-rip introduction to New York Nicki, the uninhibited emcee who dismantles her foes with impeccably timed, lyrical one-two jabs, it’s only a warm up in the grand scheme of things. With 19 tracks to make her own, Minaj has plenty of time to hurl verbal molotov cocktails in the direction of her detractors, ex-boyfriends, and friends alike.

From there she transitions into the Eminem-featured “Majesty,” a swaggering, boastful affair that ultimately makes it known that Minaj can and will have it her way. Produced by Em and singer/songwriter Labrinth (who also sings the hook), the track’s high-energy nature spurs the duo to go bar-for-bar with the same intensity of their last collaborative song, “Romans Revenge.” Minaj leans into her talent for crafting clever two-liners — “The MAC movin’ like crack/I’m selling powder now” (a double entendre that references her sold out MAC collection and drug dealing) — while Eminem pushes his delivery to the tongue-twisting speeds of his heyday.

The woozy, anti-broke boy anthem “Rich Sex” similarly rouses Weezy F. Baby’s competitive spirit, and with both rappers favoring a parallel cadence and style, a battle of wits unfolds — even as Minaj playfully proclaims, “If you let that broke n— f—, we tellin.’” “Sir,” which features Minaj’s former collaborator (“The Baddest”) and current co-headliner, Future, reveals a similar phenomena. Having spent core parts of their careers in Atlanta, Minaj and Future are completely at home finessing Zaytoven and Metro Boomin’s driving trap beats, leaving nothing else to do but see who can flex harder.

Even when Minaj has no featured artist to outwit, it is still braggadocios tracks like “Hard White,” “Good Form,” and “Barbie Dreams” that display her innate lyrical skill. Minaj thrives when she has an adversary — whether it’s haters or even a good-natured jab at friends. “Barbie Dreams,” a brilliant modern flip on Biggie’s “Dreams,” sets Minaj up as the sole assassin in the Red Wedding of rap. From rehashing the Bow Wow challenge to re-igniting our memories of Future’s alleged affair with Scottie Pippen’s wife (“I’ma do that n— Future dirty, that’s word to Scottie), and scolding DJ Khaled for claiming to not give oral sex, Minaj unapologetically gorges herself on wordplay at everyone’s expense.

The success of Queen lies in these moments. In fact, it seems almost imperative that Minaj can direct her words toward a tangible target. Unfortunately, when there isn’t one, her larger-than-life persona can lose some of its dimension. For instance, “Thought I Knew You,” an R&B-facing offering featuring the Weeknd, hints at a betrayal of trust within a relationship. However, the lyrics are so open-ended they do little to connect on an emotional level.

That isn’t to say Minaj isn’t capable of creating lasting connections with her audience. Her fans, infamously known as the Barbz, are probably only rivaled in passion by the Beyhive, and they respect Minaj and her ability to master the art of the performance — particularly in the context of being the underdog. Queen is an extension of this ideology, and ultimately a celebration of embracing one’s own power. B

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