Somewhere along the line I decided that Nicki Minaj was not living up to her true potential. I heard the “Monster” guest verse, got chills and then waited for her to do it again on her own terms, only to be met with more and more exhausting pop tunes. I was amazed with her guest verses in general. She kicks down the door, insults everyone beautifully, reminds you that her ass exists, steals the show and then leaves gracefully, leaving you feeling slightly shocked and glowing — wanting more. And we do!
After firing most of her cotton candy- and bubblegum-happy stylists a couple of months ago, she waved good-bye to the green mermaid-haired Minaj frolicking in a pool filled with pink goo and the Minaj rolling around on the beach completely covered in glitter while a spaceship flew overhead. She decided that that was all a ruse — we always knew it was (that “Monster” verse!) — and that she was going to return to her roots as an unrealized hip-hop queen. Yes! we said. Finally! There were two Nickis we knew so far: the featured rapper, amazing in her agility and wit, and the pop transmogrifier with as many kawaii faces as we required. But which was real? Or was she someone else completely? I was ready for The Pink Print to wash all of the ice sculptures and Day-Glo paint away, revealing the REAL NICKI MINAJ. Which, of course, is what I have been after all this time.
The “Lookin Ass” video came out soon after she announced the firing of her stylists. It promised change. She wore minimal makeup and seemed to mean business while she shot machine guns in the desert. Everything was pointing to some sort of high pop honesty — or at least a distillation of the “real” Nicki Minaj, the Minaj she wanted the world to see — easily named and known, clean around the edges and packaged just for me.
Taylor Swift is the queen of this kind of distillation. I know who Taylor Swift wants me to think she is. She is a sweet, kind girl next door, trying the pop thing. A shrewd businesswoman who has designed her fame. She loves New York. She loves her new friends. She doesn’t need a boyfriend right now (but they never go out of style). I have seen and read about these things, and I am at peace with who Taylor Swift is. I know who Katy Perry is, I know who Lady Gaga is, I know who Eminem is.
These stars have all provided me with (very) succinct backstories through their press campaigns, cover stories and websites. I feel like I know them, but only because there is clarity in the limited information they have given me. They are characters, mascots, cartoons that I adore for their simplicity and daring. They are easy to love, because they are easy to understand and identify with. I believed that it was Minaj’s turn to pick a persona instead of switching back and forth. I was excited to meet “her.”
And sure enough, the record opens with slow waves of synths as Minaj announces “I had to reinvent/I put the V in vent.” It is not necessarily exciting, but you get the sense that she is opening up in her own way. She is an emotional and vulnerable Minaj — not what I expected, but I’ll take it. Minaj sings more than I was expecting, too, and there is a good voice peeking through the Autotune. Oddly, instead of defining the “Minaj” sound, you can hear the clear influence of Drake here. You get comfortable with this sex jam/bummer jam one-two punch after a couple tracks, but then she flips on us.
In “Want Some More,” she is the guest-verse Minaj on her own terms, and it’s great. “You n***gas don’t know it yet?/Football touchdown on the Boeing jet/You my son, but I’m just not showing yet/wrist icy but it ain’t snowing yet.” Glory of all glories. Is there a better way of owning dudes than saying you are their mother? Swoon town. She is a juggernaut. “Four Door Aventador” is laid-back and filled with beautiful room sound. She is reaching towards Missy Elliott — and it is delicious. She has married the pop Minaj and the hard-edged badass. It rules.
And then it breaks. “Anaconda,” with its amazing loon sample, followed by “The Night Is Still Young” — and we are back to the rainbow-haired, babydoll Minaj, the character we were told had been shrugged off like snakeskin. The ultra-vague hook — “The night is still young/and so are we” — points directly at top 40 radio, It’s going to be a club hit, and it is a bummer. The record winds down with more emotional ballads (“Pills n Potions,” “Grand Piano”), which seem to be providing new insight or showcasing a side of Minaj that we have not seen, but instead of clarifying who she actually is, they just add more faces to an ever-growing geometric shape. The revelation of a “true” Nicki Minaj is never seen, only glimpsed, and is then changed before we are comfortable.
I do not feel that Minaj has fulfilled the potential that I, at some point, for some reason, and with great presumption, have decided that she has. My lizard brain feels entitled to this opinion, and the ability to make such broad judgements about her career, because I feel as if Nicki Minaj is mine. I feel like all the pop stars are mine. Minaj is a flawless if unfocused product, surrounded by sponsorships including some truly questionable detox tea, her own brand of moscato (a variety of wine so unknown to me that I now only associate it with Minaj) and so many Beats speakers. Both she and her music are as malleable as she promised to be in the “Monster” verse that made her known.
While figuring out what route Sylvan Esso was going to take through the music industry, I called up a pal who has worked on a couple of hit records. “If you want to appeal to the most people, just make it easy,” he said. “Come up with one sentence and then drill that into the public eye.” Like a basketball player doing interviews, e.g., “We gave it 110 percent,” but more in line with “I am sexually explicit and like S&M” (Rihanna) or “I am angry and I love my daughter” (Eminem) or “I am heartbroken but healing” (T. Swift 2012). I would never want to flatten myself out and become a mascot, but I demand it of Minaj so I can quantify and identify with her. I assume that I will be able to consume both Minaj’s music and her personality. What a weenie I am.
To clarify, Nicki is doing an absolutely great job at being herself. She is owning. I am the one limiting her, deciding she needs to be something and then being disappointed when she does not deliver. I am acting like a teenage boyfriend. I am so used to other pop personalities making themselves consumable and two-dimensional that it almost feels like a personal affront for someone in her position to be an openly multi-faceted human being. Those take so much more work to identify with and then not be bothered by. I always feel like I want more of our pop stars, but what I really want is less.
(Editor’s note: Sylvan Esso’s label, Partisan Records, is run by the publishers of the Talkhouse.)