by Harlow Sukhumi
Here’s how to enjoy Nicki’s 3rd and rawest album yet.
WHEN: When you just hung up on somebody.
WHERE: In your bedroom on a late stormy night. Played through a warm, deep speaker system, and at speaking volume. This is the perfect album to clean out your closet to. Making big giveaway piles of the clothes, books, and previous versions of yourself that don’t quite fit anymore. Pulling posters off your wall and throwing away old sentimental keepsakes.
WHY: Because it’s human. This is Onika-the-flesh-and-bone-being’s debut album. The other two seem to have been released by some plastic collectible doll on a shelf at the toy store, too high to reach and too expensive to take home.
The first words on The Pinkprint are “I had to reinvent.”
This record is a sonic striptease that begins with the makeup and keeps shedding until it reaches the bone. Nicki reveals her rather tender skin for real, scars and all, in a way that feels like a pretty difficult and brave process.
The album’s story progresses in 4 season-like stages. Pinkprint opens with the wintry recounting of family issues and relationship drama, then blossoms into the proud affirmations of a hardened warrior whose grandiose self view resurrects her from the disappointments of her past. The summer vibe busts open mid-album with a couple of inflated dance party anthems, then cools briskly into a long, lonely, misanthropic leafdrop of a finale.
Nicki seems to have scribbled down a few answers from her Young Money classmate Drake’s pop quiz in the production and lyrical departments for her first 4 songs on this album. The intimate, reflective, vulnerable nature of her verses slung between low-key melodic choruses remind us of the way that borrowing between members is one of the things that keeps the Young Money brand so strong.
Although she is quite well known for her rather revealing promotional images and performances, the rapper is only just now getting naked for us in the recording booth. It’s striking. In the first 4 songs, Nicki relives several vivid years from her youth, including the murder of a nephew, a terminated pregnancy, and several potentially abusive relationships.
The production on these first few tracks is stripped down, too. Warm ambient tones and minimal, understated percussion sounds wash over the atmospheric scene with pastel purple hues on a watercolor paintbrush.
Just as soon as she begins to seem unrecognizable, a gust of the classic Minaj braggadocio returns on track five for her collabo with Bey. “Feeling Myself” is a super fun, self-love celebration that feels like a seamless sequel to their previous collab on the “Flawless” remix.
With the momentum from “Feeling Myself”, the next five tracks vamp on an old school hip hop shit-talk flow that reveals occasional pull from Biggie, Kim, Foxy, and other 90’s influences.
The album does hit a lull for the duration of “Only,” — the single you’ve probably heard on the radio, in which Nicki, Drake, and Wayne despell rumors of their involvement with each other for 5 long minutes over a repetitive, menacing, and barren beat. It’s a low point, for sure. However, Wayne’s salty-sounding punchline, “Whoever is hittin it, ain’t hittin it right / ‘cause she act like she need dick in her life,“ is the shining treasure at the end of “Only”s otherwise long and boring rainbow.
Things start officially heating up halfway through the album for an international dance party vibe on “Trini Dem Girls.” The party continues through the unbearable, “Anaconda,” but then comes to a peak on the totally edible straight-ahead pop banger “The Night is Still Young,” which boasts a fist-pumping 4-on-the-floor kick drum and a rave-ready synth lead.
Ah, but summer always ends too soon. We’re already clearing away the confetti and collecting the beer cans during “Pills and Potions.” There’s a sudden chill in the air and no one around to snuggle up to. Things get dark, quick.
In this autumnal 4-song final push, Nicki duct tapes together emotionally complex verses with starburst-sweet kiddie pop choruses. It’s almost as if she’s attempting to water down the resentment-laden subject matter by sprinkling little lullabies throughout.
Pills become a reoccuring lyrical theme. The song “Pills and Potions,” conjures the addictive nature of a toxic relationship with lots of druggy imagery. Confessions of pill-assisted suicide desires flicker on “Bed of Lies.” The mention of pills also came up as an escape from guilt/regret previously, on “All Things Go.”
The album spends its last 4 tracks spiralling back down to a similar somber state as the one it opened with.
But! (Spoiler alert!) There is an interesting surprise for folks who hang on all the way until the end of the album. Pinkprint’s very last song is a true blue, bare bones, acoustic piano accompanied love ballad. If that isn’t a fittingly naked grand finale to Pinkprint’s sonic striptease, I don’t know what is.
As an general observation, it surprised me to find that this album overall is actually comprised of 50% rapping, 40% singing, and 10% saaaanging (like, putting those little lungs to WERK.) Pinkprint is full of big pop hooks, melodies, and harmonies, that Nicki is holding down by her damn self (with the exception of a sweet cameo from Ariana Grande). And she sounds great. Sure, the autotune training wheels haven’t been unscrewed quite yet, but she’s blossoming within her sense for tone, and it’s beautiful. To refine her new instrument to that degree in such a short amount of time shows admirable discipline on her part.
Where I stand on the Pinkprint as a body of work is as a proud supporter of Nicki for being strong enough to show her supersoft side. Through the course of her career I’ve taken notice that Nicki has had to pay 3 times as many dues as her male Young Money counterparts in order to have enough street cred to get away with singing about trust issues.
I think that’s why she waiting this long to take the proverbial wig off.
On the first two albums, it was as if Nicki was still trying to prove herself as a serious contender in the male-dominated hip hop world. She was having to deliver 3 times the punchlines, 3 times the clever word flips, and 3 times the shark-attack-like flow just to be given the same amount of credibility. To be credible enough get emotional without being written off as weak.
We’ve seen a similar tightrope walk taking place in her labelmate Drake’s career to a lighter degree. Drake’s persona relies on a carefully balanced credit account that requires regular deposits of machismo in order to afford him his indulgent spending sprees of lovedramabreakupmusic. But in hip hop, this ratio can be different for male artists than it is for female artists. Where Drake has to maintain a 60/40 tough guy vs sad guy ratio, Nikki has to keep it nothing short of 85/15 to achieve the same results.
To put it in Ms. Minaj’s terms:
“I’m in this bitch, I’m getting money
One minute they hate me then they love me
Ain’t got nothing for me, these dudes is funny
That’s why I’m throwing shade like it’s sunny
Who had Eminem on the first album?
Who had Kanye saying “She a problem”?
Who the fuck came in the game made her own cologne?
Who made Lil Wayne give ’em five million?
Why the fuck I gotta say it, though?
You n***as don’t know it yet?
Football touchdown on the Boeing jet
You my son, but I’m just not showing yet
Miss Icy, but it ain’t snowing yet.”
-Want Some More,