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review: Nicki Minaj is back and wants the ‘Queen’ of rap title

Nicki Minaj Queen

Nicki Minaj wants to remind you that she can rap. She’s embraced pop over the years, and if you’re cynical about her music, this is probably part of why (as was infamously the case for Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg). But her ability to rap (as evidenced on her early mixtapes, her “Monster” verse, etc) is what got her to where she is in the first place, and that ability hasn’t gone anywhere. Her last (and still best) album, 2014’s The Pinkprint, did a fine job of balancing out the various sides of Nicki’s sound, with cutthroat rap like “Shanghai” nestled alongside atmospheric R&B like “I Lied,” radio pop like “The Night Is Still Young,” piano ballads like “Grand Piano,” and more. But Queen is her most wall-to-wall rap album since her mixtape era. Even the song with Ariana Grande is a rap song.

And Queen is very successful at reminding you that Nicki can rap. Still today, very few rappers at her level of fame have the versatility, technical skill, or uniqueness that she has, and that’s obvious just from listening to Queen. (Also obvious on Queen is that Nicki wants you to know that she writes her own rhymes.) Nicki borrows the beat from Biggie’s “Just Playing (Dreams)” to dish out old school-style bars and get into some friendly competition by (playfully) taking shots at… almost everybody. She shouts out the late Prodigy on “Hard White” and Eminem shouts out A Tribe Called Quest on “Majesty.” She brings in actual ’90s rapper Foxy Brown to trade verses with her on the vicious “Coco Chanel,” and it simultaneously proves that Foxy’s still got it and that Nicki can easily get on the level of a legend. Nicki sounds just as deadly when taking on the elder stateswoman role on “LLC,” telling her hard-working come-up story on “Hard White,” or boasting about her bedroom skills on “Good Form.” Queen doesn’t find Nicki in rap mode 100% of the time — she sings a few choruses and offers up stuff like the silky downtempo R&B of “Run & Hide” or the pop ballad “Come See About Me” — and that’s not a bad thing. Her own singing was always a part of what made her so multi-talented, even in the mixtape era.

At 19 songs that clock in at over an hour, though, Queen suffers from what a lot of hour-plus rap albums suffer from. It’s just too long and the songs are too similar to justify the length. There’s no obvious filler or skippable song — though I guess the one weighed down by the overly self-indulgent Eminem verse should’ve been the first on the chopping block — but Queen feels like it would’ve had more of an impact if it was cut down to its 10 strongest songs. The Pinkprint‘s lows are lower than Queen‘s, but its highs are much higher, and The Pinkprint makes up for a filler song here and there by presenting itself as a larger-than-life, capital-A Album. Queen feels more like a collection of good songs, and if Nicki is gonna take that approach, 19 is too many. (And it presumably would’ve been 20 if the Tracy Chapman sample cleared and the Nas-featuring “Sorry” made the record.) Queen‘s similarities to Mixtape Nicki are exciting, but Queen lacks the depth shown on The Pinkprint, a depth that Mixtape Nicki never had. Even more exciting than the Mixtape Nicki-style moments are the ones where Nicki breaks from her usual formula. The tropical-sounding opener “Ganja Burns” is like little else in Nicki’s discography, and it puts Queen off to a running start, but the album remains predictable from there.

By naming it Queen and releasing it as the followup to a modern classic, there’s a lot of pressure for this album to immediately feel like a potential classic itself. It doesn’t, but that doesn’t make it a failure. It still has a finer display of rapping than a lot of 2018’s other superstar rap albums have, and it’s still a fun album to listen to. With all the ups and downs Nicki’s decade-plus career has been through, that’s no minor accomplishment.

Queen is out now via Young Money/Cash Money/Republic. You can stream it, watch a couple videos, and hear the Nas-featuring non-album cut, below. Nicki is soon headlining Philly’s Made In America festival, and will then be on tour with Future, including NJ’s Prudential Center on 10/7, Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on 10/11, and more.

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