Roman Reloaded: The Nicki Minaj Backlash Debated

A civil conversation about the new Nicki Minaj album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, between a Nicki skeptic (Rich Juzwiak) and a Nicki stan (Emma Carmichael).

Rich: Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded is a mess, and that is not a surprise. Pink Friday was a mess, cheap sounding with lazy hooks. It contained little sense of what Nicki Minaj was other than a pop star who sometimes rapped and sometimes did so cleverly. Roman Reloaded is the Wicked Witch of the West to its predecessor's East. It's worse than the other one was.

The stakes feel higher here because Pink Friday helped turn Minaj into a standalone superstar. Now is the time to assert herself—and yet this album finds Minaj more fractured than ever. From the start, she's flaunted her duality, turning decades of the multitasking burden put on women in hip-hop into a marketing tool that allows her to be potentially all things to all people. (It's a grand tradition she's capitalizing on. Pioneers the Sequence were singer/rappers. So was Queen Latifah. And Lauryn Hill. And Eve. And Missy Elliott.) Nicki figures that if they liked it the first time, they'll like it the second time more if it's more extreme.

And so with Roman Reloaded, she delivers a Frankenpie without the taste. The first six cuts are unabashed hip-hop, which lead into lighter/R&B fare. And then it's five nuance-free house soundalikes. Then some P!nk!-chasing 808 soft rock. Oh, and an extremely loud duet with noted Beenie Man. "Stupid Hoe"—my favorite song mostly because of Mike Barthel's reading of Paris is Burning-type shade into it—is tacked on at the end, perhaps shamefully after it flopped as the lead single. That song isn't representative of Nicki Minaj the hitmaker, and if the throw-everything-see-what-sticks aesthetic is an indication, Roman Reloaded really, really wants Nicki to be a hitmaker.

Because you feel the genre divide so hard here, the truth comes off as particularly brutal: Nicki is way too eager to get stupid. I've long wished she'd say something, anything beyond reminding us of her greatness, but this album is deficient even if you go in understanding that she's a master of the line, not the bigger picture. The same woman who's capable of the terrific double entendre of "I'm in the HOV Lane," (which she pronounces like Jay-Z's nickname "Hov," illustrating how fast she's going and the ideal at which she's headed), the same woman who annihilates figures of speech for dramatic effect ("When I'm sittin' with Anna, I'm really sittin' with Anna / Ain't no metaphor, punchline I'm really sittin' with Anna," on "Come on a Cone") is also more than happy to babble.

"You got my world spinning / You got my world spinning / My head goes round and around, round and around"

"I wanna do it like you like, like / Come get me, baby we're not getting younger / I just want you tonight, night / Baby we won't do it for life"

"Take me or leave me I'll never be perfect / Believe me, I'm worth it"

Mainstream pop music desperately needs wit like Nicki's. But when she gets to the genuine pop portion of the album, she checks her brain. What a fucking disappointment.

Emma: Sometimes, artistic messes are something to be celebrated. (In the last year of music, Watch the Throne comes to mind as a colossal effort that didn't land perfectly, but still made a hell of a dent.) Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded is not a mess I want to celebrate, and that is because I am a selfish Nicki Minaj fan who wants Monster-esque brilliance from the performer on every verse she delivers. Roman Reloaded has those moments, but as much as I'd like to love this album, I've had the first third of it on repeat for the past five days for a reason: I want Nicki to spit bars, not sing meaningless hooks (what is a starship??) that sound as if they came from Katy Perry's discard pile.

I assumed that Pink Friday was something of a proving ground for Minaj. I figured—and it's likely still true—that she might have to jump through even more hoops than the typical male popular rapper because she'd have to prove to the industry that she could move units. The second album, I thought, would be the return of "Old Nicki." And yet we only got our idea of Old Nicki on seven tracks.

The problem with our outsized expectations for Minaj is that she stopped being a mixtape rapper or a guest spot rapper quite some time ago. She is a superstar who wants very much to be very famous, and she also has hordes of very young fans who want to be able to sing along with every word of her Good Morning America shows. Minaj has had the accents and the wish for an acting career since before anyone really knew her name, but she wasn't singing Ester Dean hooks until she had a record deal.

Roman Reloaded is a(nother) disappointment for those of us who want to hear Nicki rap more than we want to hear a Rihanna stunt double, but that third of the album is also a ferocious reminder that Minaj can out-rap (and especially out-perform) most emcees in the business—so long as the circumstances are right. Today, three years removed from the mixtapes on which her raps had to carry her rep and her career, Minaj reserves her best verses for two very particular instances: When she's rapping on a track with men (on this album, "I Am Your Leader," "Beez in the Trap," "Roman Reloaded"; previously, well, every guest track she's ever done), or when she's playing her male alter-ego, Roman Zolanski ("Roman Holiday," "Come on a Cone"). When Minaj goes solo, she goes bubblegum.

Rich: Indeed, Emma. With now two underwhelming albums under her belt, it's abundantly clear that Nicki is just not built for long-form. I think the biggest thing working against her is her weirdness, which reads less convincingly as time goes on. It's better when it goes by in a blur of 16 bars as Nicki packs in entertainment by the nanosecond. The accents, hyperventilation and nonsense imagery all work on an aesthetic level that requires little thinking. When she stretches out to engage you with it and it just seems flimsy—if not annoying. The opening here, "Roman Holiday," is a prime example. In it, Nicki squanders the propulsive bass track and creepy freestyle-esque keyboards with comic caterwauling come hook. "Take your medication, Roman / Take a short vacation, Roman / You'll be OK!" she wails off-key in a British accent that's less convincing than usual. She ruins her own track by acting cute. And then she sings "O Come All Ye Faithful."

She just seems to have little grasp on much of what she puts out besides the braggadocio. Her "gay" character Roman is embarrassing and honed from ignorance—mentally unstable and cowardly (Roman never called out Eminem for saying "faggot" on the track they shared last time around, nor did he apparently protest the presence here of noted homophobe Beenie Man). Her female empowerment is also tenuous. "If you wasn't so ugly, I'd put my dick in your face," could be argued as a provocative reclaiming of the penis whose lack puts her at an automatic disadvantage in such a male-dominated forum; "I am the female Weezy" (as proclaimed at the end of "Stupid Hoe") is just irresponsible, especially because female rappers have fought (and often succumbed to) being assigned counterpoints. How passé to have a male define your womanhood. The most revolutionary thing about Nicki Minaj is that she's the female Nicki Minaj.

Minaj, heretofore a critics' darling, has received a fair amount of backlash for this latest underwhelming product. Could the general consensus that this album stinks actually have affected her sales? Projections seem to suggest as much. But no amount of disdain will erase her importance. She showed those in charge that female rappers could sell, after the biggest female rapper drought since before the Golden Era. Her celebrity, via endorsements and magazine covers, is rapidly eclipsing her art. Reloaded is just a blip for her—it will spawn singles that sound better by themselves (I won't mind at all when I'm hearing "Right By My Side" everywhere I go, despite the Chris Brown presence). She'll show up with some guest verses that flash her greatness at us. She can't do just one thing because it bores her. The faster she gets sick of Roman Reloaded, the better.

Emma: What still makes Nicki's narrative so singular, though, is not just that she is kind of weird and erratic, but that she raps about being a woman. (And also often against women. The perceived enemy of Reloaded are all of the "bitches" and "hoes" gunning for her spot, and she renders them irrelevant within the first two tracks: "Why the fuck am I stylin'," she raps on "Come on a Cone," "I competes with myself.") It's easy, I think, to write off her boasts as more of rap's standard braggadocio, but Nicki's perspective is just very different. Consider a man rapping the line, "Big fat pussy, with an icy watch." Whatever. Then hear Minaj rap it on "I Am Your Leader." I love those moments, and I think the hip hop nostalgic's tendency to reminisce about that Golden Era or to wax on about how everybody's sleeping on Jean Grae (who, by the way, has a new album on the way) makes us overlook the fact that no on else could have done what Minaj did over the past four years.

I wonder, too, if we have as little a grasp of what Minaj "puts out" aside from the boasts as she and her producers seem to have. The clumsy "Stupid Hoe" addition, as well as "Massive Attack," the scrapped first single from Pink Friday, show just how uncertain a female rapper's career projection can be. There's no proven formula for ladies who rap; there's not even really an idealized standard for a female emcee's career. Lauryn Hill dropped off, Missy struggled against the industry's image demands, and Lil' Kim's been reduced to taking shots at Minaj. We have no idea what a female rapper with a career longevity like Jay-Z's might sound like on her second, third, or fourth album. I'm grateful enough that Minaj has found a way to stick around for this long, and I'm willing to give her the time to figure out how to make it last. It's important for critical music fans to demand more of the music industry; it's also important for us to think about how we contextualize or pigeonhole rappers who don't fall in line with the industry's other carbon copies.

"You ain't gotta take Nicki Minaj back to nothin'," she told Power 105's Breakfast Club yesterday. "Nicki Minaj knows who I am." Thus begins the long, fraught trip of Nicki convincing her mixtape fans that she is still hip hop and convincing her label and her tween, record-buying fan base that she's not too hip hop, even if it's more likely that neither of us have any fucking clue.

"I guess I went commercial, just shot a commercial," she raps on "Roman Reloaded," in reference to her new Pepsi deal. "Nicki pop? Only thing that's pop is my endorsement, ACK!" It doesn't land as forcefully as the "look what you made" argument she made in the inimitable "Monster" verse, but there's an unwavering sentiment here: Nicki Minaj is all up in the bank with the funny face, and somehow, we're all acting surprised she's there.