Did Nicki Minaj Just Kill the Album?

Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded's split personality is perfectly suited for playlist culture.

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Nicki Minaj isn't crazy, but she acts like she is. That's acts in the Shakespearian sense: She's invented a psychotic, male alter-ego named Roman Zolanski who slobbers out his consonants and, on the opening track off her new album, proclaims himself "a lunatic that can't be cured by no elixir." Minaj's ouevre—various mixtapes, 2010's Pink Friday, lots of guest spots on top-charting songs, and, this week, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded—is littered with references to her own madness. The first real song on her breakout Beam Me Up Scotty mixtape is entitled "I Get Crazy" and sees Minaj muttering about straight jackets and padded cells. It's a shtick that fits Minaj's mercurial vocal style. When rapping, she caterwauls from valley-girl scoff to Count Chocula bellow. When singing, she veers from competent croon to a purposefully incompetent karaoke warble.

But Minaj's new album is getting labeled "bipolar" and "schizophrenic" for none of these reasons. Yes, she, as usual, feigns crazy, but the really disconcerting thing is the breadth of the record: 19 songs in all, with the first half in hip-hop mode and the second, for the most part, delivering the house-inflected club pop produced by the same people behind some of Lady Gaga's and Rihanna's biggest smashes. The differences between the two parts of the record are drastic. In the first half, Minaj's madwoman persona is inescapable—she crosses death threats with boasts about working as a voice actor in the new Ice Age—and in the second half, it's nearly vanished. A good number of these tracks are unmistakable hits, though they're not unmistakably Nicki Minaj songs.

Double-sided albums are nothing new, but there's something mercenary in the album's shotgun-style approach. Minaj's major-label debut sold well enough but didn't produce a true, radio-conquering hit until fans rallied behind bonus track "Super Bass" and Minaj's label released the song as a single. That's not likely to happen with Roman Reloaded: At 19 tracks (22 on the deluxe edition), there's a sense that nothing's been held back. As a few critics have pointed out, it may be among the first major pop albums to fully embrace playlist culture—by barely even trying to present itself as an album. Turns out, pop's greatest self-styled mental case might just be its most Machiavellian.

Here's Alex Macpherson in Fact:

...it's not a classic album, but its contents implicitly argue that the concept of a "classic album" has become irrelevant in 2012 anyway. In an age when music fans of all persuasions cherrypick only the songs they choose for their iTunes libraries or Spotify playlists, making an EP's worth of material for each of your fanbases while ignoring unimportant details such as whether they flow together seems eminently sensible: one wonders why more major label artists don't take this route.

In The Los Angeles Times, Randall Roberts points out how Minaj and her handlers seem to have absorbed the lessons of recently huge pop albums:

This is only an album in the commercial sense -- a grab-bag of potential singles that may or may not hit, but that will be strategically worked over the next 18 months. Katy Perry's organization perfected this business model on "Teenage Dream," and Adele's people are following it on "21" -- a gradual, patient release of singles over the course of a year or two, maximizing on the investment in what has become an iffy financial proposition.

As for whether the record's any good—well, yeah. It just depends on which tracks you listen to. Spin gave its initial verdict in a three-sentence review: "Download tracks 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 18 and 19. You'll have one of the best rap albums of the year and will save yourself $4.07. Forget the rest exists." But if Minaj's plan works like it's supposed to, forgetting those other songs won't be an option. You'll be soon hearing them everywhere.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers pop culture and music. He was previously an editor at Patch.com and a staff writer at OC Weekly. He has written for Spin, The AV Club, and RollingStone.com.

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