The Pinkprint is just a record, as far as hip-hop is concerned. Nothing more, nothing less. But for Nicki Minaj, it's a career-defining moment. Even after she weathered a storm of rap critic scolds unhappy with her for completely crossing over the line she once straddled so well, the dance-pop successes of her last album, Roman Reloaded, overshadowed her artistic credibility. How would she bounce back? As Nicki well knows, hip-hop will only take it so far. Onika Maraj would be a damned fool to fill her third LP with "mixtape Nicki," no matter how many purists plead for it. That style may have gotten her the attention of Lil Wayne, but it certainly didn't earn her platinum plaques or a spot on the Super Bowl halftime show. With The Pinkprint, Nicki gives listeners the right dose of everything she's got to offer.
Here the YMCMB queen offers the most honest, introspective version of the real person who exists underneath the wigs, the makeup and the red carpet wardrobes. All that has really been known about Nicki Minaj until now is that she's a multi-dimensional woman who works pretty damn hard. Remember, she's already on album number three in a four year span. That's a one-hot-album-every-year-and-change average.
Her diligence is worthy of praise, but so is the fact that she's turned out several hit records off each of those albums. It's not that it hasn't been done before; it's just that it isn't as easy as it looks. Since her first album, Nicki's never gone longer than a few months without high visibility in the game. A Billboard charting single here, a hot guest appearance there — Nicki's had quite a run. And hip-hop is about as loyal as a Chris Brown ho. Yeah, I said it. If sustaining the heat meant crossing over every so often, then so be it. Nicki's formula has to include some pop music, a few ballads and a nice ass. Or she's out of a job in this game. Seriously.
While songs like "Starships" and "Super Bass" have undeniably given Nicki her crossover success, she keeps them to a minimum on The Pinkprint. The Dr. Luke-produced "The Night Is Still Young" gives Nicki enough ammunition to keep her glow stick carrying, Jersey Shore-loving segment of fans fist-pumping. And the house-music influenced "Truffle Butter," featuring Lil Wayne and Drake (iTunes deluxe version only) bridges that audience to a more refined and well-rounded hip-hop head. It's yet another reason why Nicki is so commercially successful. Her genre-hopping is unparalleled in hip-hop. Her pop/dance hits and her theatrical personas (Roman is thankfully absent from The Pinkprint) sell the most, but where Nicki reigns supreme as an artist is in the rap love ballad genre.
When she's at her most vulnerable as a woman, she's at her best creatively. The same way Mary J. Blige's pain drove My Life, Nicki's heartache steals the show on The Pinkprint. With wrenching choruses and revealing verses, gems like the Mike Will-produced "I Lied," the Skylar Grey-assisted "Bed Of Lies" and the Jessie Ware-laced "The Crying Game" connect Nicki with her most loyal fans. This personal side of Nicki has worked for her since the beginning (see "Your Love" and "Right Thru Me"), and she's now mastered the craft the way LL did when he was alone in his room staring at the wall. Love is and will continue to be the universal language that everyone understands (but is mostly spoken to girls).
The thing about Nicki's heartache is this: it's believable.
Strained relationships with family members are a recurring topic on this album, but it's the romantic storyline that powers her narrative. All roads lead to a not-exactly-public breakup with worst-kept-secret longtime boyfriend Safaree "SB" Samuels. Their relationship is allegedly detailed on The Pinkprint, and has been whispered about behind closed doors for the bulk of Nicki's career. Any TMZ wannabe has to wonder what really happened between them. It couldn't have been easy. Friendzone rappers like Drake and Wayne making comments about wanting to screw her, Trey Songz filling studio sessions with roses, a bruised male ego with a lot of access. The hip-hop industry is designed to break the relationship between a man and a woman. And now, it seems, from the emotions on display on The Pinkprint and some recent interviews, that after a reported 14 years, it broke Nicki and SB too.
And then there's an interesting twist: the Meek Mill rumors. "Buy A Heart," which features the Philadelphia native, further fuels the industry speculation about the two rappers' rumored relationship (for quite some time, if you've been paying attention). Nicki has said in interviews that she and Meek are just friends, but Meek tells a different story on his verse, where he openly proclaims that he met Nicki in '09, she shut it down because she had a ring — fast forward the rest — "shorty mine now." He goes so far as to make a Jay and Bey comparison (which shows that Meek has his eyes on the prize). Bold statements and bad news for his baby mama, if she's still ride or die ("It's just a record," he'll probably say). Nicki responds in verse, but she doesn't fully engage Meek, not that's she's ever been one for social shenanigans. Perhaps surprisingly, her personal relationships have been safely guarded from the evils of the Internet bloggerati. She's either a master of disguise or, in the immortal words of Drake, "It doesn't take much for us to do this s—- quietly." Even if the rumors are true, Nicki's certainly not going to let that cat out of the bag now. She's prided herself on protecting her brand from the "industry ho" scarlet letter. "I never f—-ed Wayne, I never f—-ed Drake," she raps like it's a badge of honor on "Only."
But these underlying tales are only one layer of Nicki's overall songwriting ability. Nicki doesn't just write songs. She writes anthems. Verses and choruses that must be recited along with her at a show. It's the reason 50 Cent and Ja Rule ran the game a little over ten years ago (oh, just admit it). Songs like "Favorite," with Jeremih, and "Only" will be underrated and overlooked. They are simple, and designed for Nicki's core audience. A melodic rap style has been the flow of choice in hip-hop since the new millennium and, coupled with a catchy R&B hook, it's what we've come to expect. Give Nelly some of that credit too. The mainstream is notoriously late to the not-so-critically acclaimed music of the hood. But the cultural impact of songs categorized as urban becomes too big to ignore, and then the bandwagon goes rumbling by, and everyone is all over it. This, and subtle hip-hop references throughout The Pinkprint, show Nicki's still connected to where she came from. She may live in L.A., but the "he in love with that CoCo" line on "Feelin' Myself" and instructions to "take the Bruckner" to the Rucker on "Four Door Aventador," are recognizably out of the mental of a chick from one of NYC's beloved five boroughs.
And speaking of Nicki's core, it's not like the love songs ever stopped her from rapping. While she's not the best MC (kinda nice she still calls herself that) in the world, she's got enough punchlines and flows to hold her own alongside rap's current crop. Truth be told, the competition is barely there (male or female) and all she really needs to do is breathe on the track. Plus, Nicki's performance — her multiple personalities, the drawn out last syllable, her articulation — has always been more entertaining than her wordplay or subject matter in a straight-up rap verse. And that's fine. Because when your peers are talking surface level stuff all day, a little heartbreak, a hot 16 and a clever metaphor goes a long way. Nicki's a technical rapper, and her talent is, as ever, in her vocal delivery. Her quick-tongued flow and versatility speaks volumes in 2014, when a 20-year veteran like Busta Rhymes is still the one holding up the bar in this category. (Nicki goes from rap to singing to Island-inspired chant with ease on "Trini Dem Girls.")
On "Feelin Myself," a Hit Boy-produced hypnotic bounce, Nicki recruits none other than Queen Bey so the two can ooze self-serving praise all over the track. It's incredibly infectious, and not so humble. Bragging is the new feminism. Yay? And while the overtly sexual context of it, "Anaconda" (which Nicki has said was a joke) and other select verses throughout The Pinkprint (plus the entirety of her Ariana Grande collaboration "Get On Your Knees") can at times be too much to stomach, the beats and the catchy choruses will keep you sucking on that crackpipe. Keep smoking it. Eventually, you'll learn that it's killing our community.
With an album title sorta kinda borrowed from Jay Z (who sorta kinda borrowed it from KRS-One), it's hard to avoid comparison conversations. But there really is no correlation. Nicki's strength is and always has been her heart, while Jay's during The Blueprint was not having one.
So what is Nicki's purpose with The Pinkprint? Is she trying to lay a foundation for female hip-hop artists? Or female artists as a whole? Or for hip-hop artists in general? With great power comes great responsibility?
Stop putting everything on one woman's shoulders. She's got enough mouths to feed.
Kim Osorio is sometimes a writer, sometimes a producer, always a hip-hop enthusiast, and the former editor in chief of The Source magazine.