Delays. Date changes. Dick jokes. Diss tracks that she insists aren’t really diss tracks. And a last-minute release-date-change announced on her new Apple Beats 1 radio show, followed by fantastically weird commentary. We’d expect nothing less from Nicki Minaj and the album she’s titled “Queen,” an epic 19-track album that stands as her best and boldest recorded work to date.
Minaj’s fourth album is powered by more-focused-than-usual melodies (showing the influence of Trinidadian/Jamaican reggae and Middle Eastern musicality), infectious samples and her trademark mix of foul-mouthed, cocksure rap attacks and sonorous but equally ribald vocals. There’s less quirk than quake to the production, which has an oddly direct, elevated uniformity of tone, despite collaborators ranging from Boi-1da and Supa Dups to J. Reid and Mike Will Made It. And while there are cameos from Eminem, The Weeknd, Ariana Grande, Future and Foxy Brown, Minaj is always the focus, working at the top of her game through exquisite space-soul ballads such as “Come See About Me” or ominously melodic hip hop tracks like the pillow-talking “Rich Sex.”
Defending her crown and rude (yet hilarious) sexuality are the main points of tracks such as the horrorcore hop “Hard White” (“I’m who they wishin’ to be/ These hoes is on the ‘gram”), and the ragga lullaby “Miami” (“Too much money, I ain’t never need a sugar daddy/ I’m LaBelle of the ball, you could call me Patti”). But when it comes to the hard stuff, the album’s two best tracks come early and swiftly, threatening to front-load “Queen.”
On the moody “Majesty,” Minaj uses a menacing voice in her display of money and power, while guest singer Labrinth breathily introduces her highness during its chorus. Then Eminem bursts in with a sneeringly clear and lightning-quick bit — even faster than the syllables-per-second of “Rap God” — that ranges from the lameness of new-fangled hip-hop to sex with strangers. Minaj wraps with a creepily weird, child-like coda, slowed for chilling effect as she hoots, “Say your prayers, ’cause you ’bout to die slow.”
The only track more barbed is “Barbie Dreams,” a hilarious rap attack modeled after the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Just Playing (Dreams)” and its rip on popular female R&B singers of his day — except this time, it’s the men of hip-hop who get a playful beat-down. “Drake worth a hundred milli, always buying me sh–/ But I don’t know if the pussy wet or if he’s crying and sh–”; “I tried to f— 50 [Cent] for a powerful hour/ But all that n—a wanna do is talk Power for hours”; ex-boyfriend “Meek [Mill] still be in my DMs, I be having to duck him/ ‘I used to pray for times like this,’ face ass when I f— him”; and arguably best of all, “Had to cancel DJ Khaled, boy, we ain’t speaking/ Ain’t no fat n—a telling me what he ain’t eating.”
Elsewhere, Grande and The Weeknd make back-to-back appearances on the vaguely romantic, vexingly sensual “Bed” and “Thought I Knew You,” respectively; and the late-night AutoTune of “Nip Tuck,” and the dreamy, space-soul of “Sir” — featuring tourmate Future — allows Minaj a melodious shot at soft, subtone rapping in a manner not unlike a saxophone’s gentle toot.
Yet there’s little preparation for the righteous and surprisingly conventional “Come See About Me,” a soft, sculpted ballad that allows Minaj’s rap-singing romanticism to nestle in a richly opulent setting, not unlike an Ed Sheeran melody.
It’s a rare moment of tenderness from an artist who, with “Queen,” is doubling down on both her toughness and her regal status.