Donald Trump’s rhetoric may be coarsening most everything in America, but might the already rowdy realm of commercial rap at least be safe? Don’t bet on it. Midway through Nicki Minaj’s “LLC,” one line washed me with a nausea of familiarity: “All these low-IQ hoes baffle me.” Low-IQ as a modifier: Isn’t that Trump’s thing? The president makes a habit of invoking IQ as an insult, drawing on an aptitude test that’s otherwise been falling out of fashion due to, among other things, a historical association with racism.
Minaj may or may not be channeling Trump with that line, which certainly isn’t the toughest dis heard on her 19-track fourth album, Queen. And her rivals’ intellects have long been in her crosshairs, as heard on 2011’s delicious Lil’ Kim takedown “Stupid Hoe.” But lately, as she’s returned to a rap landscape that’s shifted in the four years since her previous album, Minaj has been particularly fixated on claims about the brain. Premiering Queen on Apple’s streaming radio station, she said it used to be that “it felt like you had to be smart to rap. And now, it’s a little bit different.” Interviewed by Roxane Gay in 2017, she said, “Do you sound intelligent? Does your flow switch up? Are you in command of the beat? I listen for things like that.”
These aren’t uncommon opinions, but it’s significant for Minaj to position herself as a high-minded genre savior given the prejudices she has faced. As an immigrant whose brand is built on funny voices, crass rhymes, and curves—a “Barbie” persona, as she calls it—she’s often a target for snobs, racists, and/or sexists who say she’s responsible for the de-intellectualizing of rap. Or else she just gets treated as simple. “Sometimes as women in the industry—if you’re sexy or like doing sexy things—some people subconsciously negate your brain,” she said in 2014. “They think you’re stupid.”
Which would be a mistake. Watching Minaj spend her career deftly reconciling conflicting imperatives has, in fact, felt like watching someone solve a multivariable equation. She raps with sharp, amped-up complexity, but she also dishes out plush, lovey-dovey pop. She affects pink-swathed girlishness, and she glowers that she’ll put her “dick in your face.” Last year, she passed Aretha Franklin as the woman with the most Hot 100 entries ever, but she’s not done convincing people of her chops. “The culture never seems to want to give me my props as an M.C., as a lyricist, as a writer,” she told Gay. “I got to prove myself a hundred times, whereas the guys that came in around the same time as I did, they were given the titles so much quicker without anybody second-guessing.”
Tension’s been heightened around Queen due to the rise of Cardi B, the first commercially dominant female rapper since Minaj broke out a decade ago. It’s sexist to assume that two women in hip-hop will need to be rivals, and Minaj cheered when Cardi became the first female emcee to earn a solo No. 1 since 1998. But relations appeared to curdle, with Minaj in April publicly complaining about Cardi’s supposed ingratitude. She now laces Queen with barely veiled jabs toward Cardi—ones that amplify others’ regressive critiques about Cardi B’s slangy, blunt style and her past as a stripper. Azealia Banks once slandered her as “illiterate,” and a wave of condescending amazement gathered when Cardi held forth on American history in GQ. That background commentary unavoidably comes to the fore when Minaj raps, “Gotta be dumb to make me your rival.”
In the confusing rollout of Queen—various release dates, singles, and videos were floated and scrapped—Minaj has emphasized sweating the small stuff. She rewrote one song because Jay-Z didn’t praise it enough. She’s talking about revising two others even after they’ve been released, so as to fix errors caused by sleep deprivation and working till the last minute.
Tinkering in public is likely a show of perfectionism, but it also reads as insecurity, and the Minaj of Queen comes off like she’s filing a term paper: frantically, worriedly, and for the sake of the grade. She does check the boxes she wants to check, reaffirming herself as a wordsmith, balladeer, and conversation starter. But a greater sense of purpose isn’t present, nor is there enough of the madness, humor, and joy that made her a force in the first place. Rather than making the most of hard-won creative freedom, she’s stressing her reputation more than ever.
The opener, “Ganja Burn,” showcases the problem. It’s mid-tempo and wistful, which means it’s a surprising—she wants you to say brave—choice for a Nicki Minaj album opener. The beat, evoking a beach party ruined by a cold snap, is appealing. The chorus quavers nicely, with Minaj singing about missing an ex. The verses capably threaten younger challengers to her crown. But what do the verses have to do with the chorus? Why doesn’t the promising arrangement evolve over nearly five minutes? What’s the point, really? All that you really take away is status anxiety. “Yo, you can’t wear a Nicki wig and then be Nicki / That’s like a fat nigga thinkin’ he can be Biggie,” she raps, a mild punch line that kicks off a litany of shout-outs to other supposedly untouchable icons like Kanye, Beyoncé, and Nas.
She then continues to reach back to rap history—and assert her place in it—in a run of pyrotechnic, stunt-like songs. The instantly viral “Barbie Dreams” is the most successful of them, using a famous Biggie flow to write impish fan fiction about male rap contemporaries as inadequate lovers. “Majesty,” by contrast, is a clunky show of force that leans hard on Eminem, that mascot for hip-hop that’s “smart” because it’s effortful. “Our genre’s lymph nodes are swollen up,” he says—calling out trendy “mumble rap”—before unleashing an unintelligible spray of syllables. More interesting is the coda in which Minaj coos glassily, “Jealousy is a disease, die slow.” It’s one of a few times on Queen where the catchiest or most intriguing bits—the ones where she seems un-miffed and ready to riff—are relegated to interludes.
Like all Minaj albums, Queen is either an odyssey or a slog depending on your patience, and the mood shifts significantly every few songs. After the initial try-hard blast of heat, the pensive R&B of “Thought I Knew You” and “Run & Hide” is like an afternoon rain shower, refreshing but ultimately forgettable. Later, “Nip Tuck,” “2 Lit 2 Late Interlude,” and “Come See About Me” offer a pleasing soft-focus saga of heartbreak, recriminations, and forgiveness. But the album’s summit comes in a run of frenetic workouts on which Minaj’s colorful flows are matched by creative production choices: the break-danceable jangling and smirky saxophones of “Chun-Li,” the Chucky doll toy-box melody of “LLC,” and the rush of “Good Form,” which has Minaj making puns about cunnilingus over a beat that plays as an answer to Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up.”
Even those songs, though, don’t touch the highlights of Minaj’s catalogue. She’s at her best when indulging a sense of freaky, taste-be-damned abandon: the Jekyll-and-Hyde rambles of “Come on a Cone” and “Roman’s Revenge,” the spacey confidence of “Beez in the Trap” and “Only,” and even the divisive sparkle-bomb smashes “Starships” and “Super Bass.” Each of those tunes gave the impression of someone on the offensive, staking out new territory. Now she’s defending turf, and more of her lyrical space and strategic mindshare appear aimed at specific, quixotic bugaboos—which has the effect of narrowing her kingdom rather than expanding it.
Already, the conversation around Queen has been subsumed by an ugly public squabble in which Minaj’s ex Safaree accused her of once stabbing him and she replied by making fun of his hairline. In the middle of the spat, he tweeted, “stop letting these ppl see you sweat … You too big to act the way you be acting,” which, to be frank, isn’t bad analysis. Cardi B, meanwhile, has feigned ignorance of Queen’s poorly disguised disses, perhaps sensing that they reflect worse on their speaker than their target. When Minaj raps on “Hard White” that she “ain’t ever have to strip to get the pole position,” it’s a clear knock on the former exotic dancer who’s outcharting her lately, but it also undermines Minaj’s broader position that women who use sex appeal and their brains deserve respect. Rather than attacking the system that has all along made Minaj feel inadequate, she spends her energy building it up and passes her damage right along. Is there a smarter way?