Usually when a pop star utters anything resembling the phrase, “This is the album where I show the real me,” it’s time to run. “The Pinkprint,” ambitiously titled after Jay-Z’s creative watermark, was created by Niki Minaj hoping to return to the urban roots that launched her and appeasing the rapheads who had turned on her for “going pop.”
The album takes an overtly biographic tone, and while she has boxed up the alien mother wigs that defined her, it’s more dramatic than the goofy voiced “Monster” feature that put her in the greatest rapper alive conversation. It’s good to think of this album as “Nicki Minaj: A Dramatic Life in Five Acts.”
The opening trio of songs are the 15 most captivating minutes of a modern star’s album since “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” It begins with “All Things Go,” describing the rubble left behind by romantic and familial relationships ending, and the album’s highlight comes with Jessie-Ware-assisted “The Crying Game,” a unique play on the poker game/relationship metaphor that shows Minaj can still crack a punchline when she’s sad. (“Hit you with the Ace of Spades, in your face, and shrugged/ Blood drippin’ out your arm on my Asian rugs/We was—just planning a wedding, Caucasian doves.”)
Once she sets the scene, the rest of the album isn’t so smooth. The next group of songs features her most famous label-mates (Drake, Lil’ Wayne) and the foremost R&B divas in music right now (Ariana Grande, Beyonce, Chris Brown) on subjects such as sex, masturbation and Young Money inter-label sexual relationships.
Grande is the only guest star who nails it here, while Drake and Lil Wayne seem to be having a “who can embarrass themselves more?” contest on “Only.” (Lil Wayne takes the win with, “I piss greatness, like goldish yellow.”) None of it’s as particularly captivating or sexy as it wants to be.
It gets better around the middle of the album. The loose flow “Four Door Aventador” shows that Nicki Minaj is the closest thing alive to Notorious B.I.G., and dancehall-infused “Trini Dem Girls” is a jamming club track that makes you wonder why Minaj is just now musically harvesting her Trinidadian heritage. “Anaconda” is still weird even in the context of the rest of the album, but at least it’s kind of clever.
The end is not exactly a whimper, but it’s definitely not a bang. There’s the Dr. Luke selections (“The Night is Still Young,” “Pills N Potions”), which are fun but sound half-finished. “Bed of Lies” features some of Minaj’s best rapping, but one of the weaker hooks (the snoozy Skylar Grey somehow snuck out from underneath Eminem’s thumb onto this album).
The bonus tracks are for the most part wacky and interesting, featuring probably the first ever rap shoutout to Manu Ginobili. A couple of the songs (“Win Again,” “Truffle Butter”) sound like far better revisions of songs that made the non-deluxe edition, which might be a Minaj Corporation strategy for getting you to buy the deluxe edition.
A lot of the criticism of Minaj is that she doesn’t seem really aware of where her strengths lie, often preferring to sing when she should just be rapping. Minaj’s voice was weak, generic and colorless on her early albums, but she sounds better here. Her voice, while still thin, sounds bruised and wearied by the events leading up to this album, and on songs like “Grand Piano,” it’s a pretty effect.
“The Pinkprint” as a whole is a whole lot better than the first two albums. Nicki Minaj is clearly a great rapper, and she can soar with the right material. Minaj’s peeling away of the kooky bubble gum rap queen veneer that glossed over her previous albums might end up costing her pop radio play (there is nothing as instant as “Super Bass” here), but she’s made one of the more interesting rap albums of recent years.
Winning is the topic du jour of most rap, but Minaj soars creatively here when she focuses on what she lost in exchange for being famous.