If there's any disappointment today in The Pinkprint, Nicki Minaj's just-released third solo album, you can blame Minaj herself for creating false expectations. Since her last effort, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, she made clear that she was going to focus on hard rap on this record. "I'm choosing to get back to my essence and feed the core hip-hop fan," she told Hot 97 in May of last year.
Now, with that in mind, listen to "Grand Piano," the final non-bonus track on the album. You'll find no rapping—no hip-hop, even! It's a piano ballad, and quite a lovely one at that. But the reason it doesn't feel odd as part of the record is because this isn't a hardcore hip-hop record. It's also not a pure pop record. This is a wig-free confessional statement, sans bizarre alter egos with weird accents. (Farewell, Roman Zolanski! We won't miss you.) This is an introduction not to Nicki Minaj, but to the woman behind the work, Onika Maraj.
Minaj and co. have never been the best at picking singles; these are the folks who attempted to launch Minaj's pop career with songs like "Your Love" and "Right Thru Me," while "Super Bass" laid dormant among Pink Friday's bonus tracks, just waiting for Taylor Swift to come save it. So it's no wonder the pre-release singles for The Pinkprint haven't represented the album well. "Pills N Potions" is a bit maudlin for a lead single; "Anaconda" seemed like a blatant attempt to re-create "Super Bass"/"Starships" magic. Others were just plain boring, like Skylar Grey collab "Bed of Lies." But most of all, put them together (along with tracks like Drake/Lil Wayne/Chris Brown team-up "Only" and the "Flawless (Remix)" follow-up "Feelin' Myself" with Beyoncé), and the question becomes: What in the world is this album?
It's a pleasant surprise, then, that in the context of the record, all these songs make sense as the different stages of heartbreak, from post-breakup sex ("Anaconda") to the more insular moments ("Pills N Potions"). Most of this is thanks to album opener "All Things Go," which sets the stage for a deeply confessional 16 songs (22 with bonus tracks). The track goes to some dark places: the death of her cousin in 2011, her abortion as a teenager, a proposal she didn't seem ready to fully accept ("Just yesterday, I swear it was '06 / Ten years ago, that's when you proposed / I looked down, 'yes, I suppose'"). It also talks about popping pills—a dark theme in other songs like "Pills N Potions" and "Bed of Lies" that never quite gets resolved. Much of it is brutal to hear, especially from a woman who's really never made talking about her personal life part of her career.
Go back to "Grand Piano" for a second and listen to the first few lines: "Am I just a fool? / Blind and stupid for loving you / Am I just a silly girl?" It's not the only time Minaj refers to herself as a young girl or woman on The Pinkprint, and considering her previous bright-and-candy-colored public image, it's easy to think that Minaj wanted to come off as childish not long ago. But Onika Maraj, a 32-year-old woman, has lived. This album is her sharing that life with us.
As a personal statement, The Pinkprint works effectively. As an album ... it has some issues. There are absolutely highlights: The Beyonce-featuring "Feelin' Myself" is a delightfully cocky boast for both queens. The two Meek Mill collaborations—"Fat Daddy" and "Buy a Heart"—practically bounce through the listener, they're so energetic. On "Shanghai," Minaj boasts her rap credentials while insisting that yes, she can also sing a song or two, over a killer production by Chinza//Fly and Minaj herself. And Jessie Ware, who can already claim one of the most beautiful pop vocal performances of the year, adds a gorgeous chorus to the superb "The Crying Game."
But there are cuts that just don't work. "Truffle Butter," which is stuck in bonus-track hell, is a far better Drake/Wayne collab than the messy "Only." Minaj's second collab with the spiritually tweenage Ariana Grande is a fairly icky ode to receiving oral sex, and pales in comparison to Grande's Minaj-featuring single "Bang Bang." "Anaconda" may make more sense in the context of the record, but it's still a noisy mess. And though the entire middle of the album ranges from good to very good ("Trini Dem Girls" will be in every gay dance club this weekend, if not before), the songs tend to blend together a bit. Minaj could have used another pass at editing the thing down; the deluxe 22-track length takes it away from being a tight, cohesive statement and lets it wander a bit.
But really, who cares if Minaj wanders? It may not make for the best album, but it makes for the best Minaj. From the beginning, she's been about subversion—and, in fact, she's been most frustrating at her most commercial. So while annoyances at the fact that The Pinkprint isn't the hard rap album that was expected is understandable, in truth, zagging when people expected her to zig is true to the Minaj mission. It's worth celebrating the fact that the public got such an impressively personal record from Minaj—or, rather, from Maraj.