Nicki Minaj, Queen review: The most important album of her career so far

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A review by Ella Jukwey for London’s Independent.

For nearly a decade, Nicki Minaj has enjoyed dominance as thefemale rapper in hip-hop. The Trinidadian-born star became a sensation when she was discovered by rapper Lil Wayne in 2009 with her wordplay-packed raps and many alter egos. She appealed to the mainstream with pop smash hits such as “Super Bass” and “Starships” while an appearance on Kanye West song “Monster” silenced critics as she outshone hip hop’s heavyweights, such as Jay-Z.

Although successful, Minaj has remained a polarising figure in hip hop. Her heated feuds with female rappers such as Lil Kim and Remy Ma have dented her public image. Recent career missteps such as her collaboration with rapper 6ix9ine – who previously pleaded guilty to the use of a child in a sexual performance – raised eyebrows. Now the biggest threat posed to Minaj appears to be the arrival of fellow New York rapper Cardi B, who has broken records across the board since the release of her viral hit “Bodak Yellow”. Her whirlwind success has pitted the two female rappers against each other.

Nicki Minaj finds herself at a career crossroads with her fourth studio album, Queen. With her soured public image, she might not be the queen of hearts… but does her latest album prove that she is still the queen of rap?

Queen starts off with “Ganja Burns” and the sweet contrast of her singing voice against her cutting bars, flexing lyrical muscles against a tropical beat. She raps: “They done went to witch doctors to bury the Barbie”, a reference to the supposed hate train that is attempting to stall her career. She is even more direct when she raps “Unlike a lot of these hoes whether wack or lit, At least I can say I wrote every rap I spit” – surely a swipe at Cardi B who has been criticised for her reported use of ghostwriters.

“Majesty”, featuring Eminem and Labrinth, fails to live up to the imposing title of the album; Eminem asserts on his super fast verse “Let me keep it one hundred, two things shouldn’t be your themes of discussion. The queen and her husband, last thing you’re gonna wanna be is our subjects.” On paper, “Majesty” should be a thrilling collaboration but in fact, it is one of the few misses of the album, running for too long and lacking a cohesiveness between its three artists.

“Barbie Dreams” is undoubtedly one of the finest cuts on Queen: a spin on The Notorious B.I.G’s “Just Playing (Dreams)”. Biggie’s original version had him rapping about R&B singers he was attracted to, but Minaj uses it as an opportunity to roast a legion of athletes and fellow artists: “Had to cancel DJ Khaled, boy, we ain’t speaking, Ain’t no fat nigga telling me what he ain’t eating” is a vicious jab at the record producer’s weight and noted aversion to oral sex. The impeccable track shows Minaj is as raunchy as she is witty.

Hard as she may be, she still shows fans her vulnerable side: “Bed”, the second single released from the album, sees her team up with pop princess Ariana Grande for a seductive, playful number while “Thought I Knew You” unites her with The Weeknd. The two play the part of warring lovers who trade beautifully harmed accusations against each other. “Run and Hide” possesses an eerie production that plays out as Minaj opens up about her trust issues.

After the disappointing “Chun Swae”, another overly long track (albeit featuring mesmerising vocal work from Swae Lee), Queenreturns to form for the rest of the record. “Chun-Li” has Minaj at her cocky best and directly references her villainous portrayal in the media as she spits: “Well it’s the last time you gonna see a bad guy do the rap game like me”.

The penultimate song on Queen stars the strongest collaboration on the album, with fellow Trinidadian-American rapper Foxy Brown. ”Coco Chanel“ is a captivating concoction of hardcore hip-hop and Caribbean sounds, with Foxy Brown’s guttural verse laced in Patois stealing the show. Then on “Inspirations Outro”. Minaj pays homage to Caribbean artists such as Bob Marley, Sizzla, Foxy Brown and Vybz Kartel.

Queen is the most important album of Minaj’s career so far. It’s the first time in her career that she has faced real opposition, and this latest record suggests that competition brings out the best in her. It may lack cohesion at certain points, but one thing is never in doubt: Minaj is still one of the best in her field.

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