After ‘a few’ lengthy delays – leading the Guardian to crown her ‘the queen of the chaotic album campaign’ – and an even longer list of controversies along the way, Nicki Minaj’s fourth album Queen dropped (kinda) a week early on Friday.
The sceptic in me wondered if this was to avoid sharing the streaming stage with Ariana Grande, whose new album is due out next week. The rest of me just wanted to hear if Queen lived up to the (largely artist driven) hype. Could it finally be Nicki’s long form crowning glory?
After giving it multiple spins, here’s five hot takes and my final verdict.
The are some air tight beats. Metro Boomin, Mike Will Made It, Boi1da and Murda Beatz all have production credits (the last two also having hands in two of this year’s biggest albums – Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy and Drake’s Scorpion). But that doesn’t mean the sounds are all strong and interesting. On the A+ side, the tribal underbelly of Ganja Burns and the Biggie sample on Barbie Dreams are standouts. And of course, Coco Chanel. Overall, the sounds simmer rather than boil – as does Nicki – which says to me that she was more interested in craft than charts this time around.
Which is probably why there are no hits. Nicki hasn’t had a number one single yet – Anaconda and Super Bass making 2 and 3 respectively. There are no such chart domination grabs on Queen and that sounds deliberate. It’s like Nicki is looking to cement herself as the rapper’s rapper. A quest for credibility is dripping all over this album. Nicki’s rapping and singing are as pointed and controlled as she’s ever sounded, although sometimes to her detriment. The absence of a potential sleeper or even unintentional hit feels like a symptom of the same-ness that often lingers across Queen. And while it’s a solid, curious and at times even satisfying listen, it’s often less enjoyable for it. On Coco Chanel Nicki says “they call me Miss Bitch, but I don’t miss, bitch” (like it) but I would’ve liked it more if she just coloured outside the lines on the bullseye a little more.
It’s also at least 7 tracks too long. There’s been a lot of chat about album length this year – with Kanye’s 5 albums in 5 weeks production streak – where each was 7 tracks long, to Nicki’s label mate Drake’s hyper-inflated 25-track double-sided Scorpion. What even constitutes an album anymore? With streaming, it’s not like it makes it better or worse value for money. But too short makes an album’s life span shorter. Too long leads to challenges with quality control or consistency.
Queen comes in at 19 tracks and I can’t help but thinking there’s one consistently banging shorter album in here, plus maybe an interesting idea for a mixtape. Still, the length of Drake’s album helped it be played more than any other album in streaming history (or something like that), so there’s undoubtedly a strategic calculation behind the number(s).
Nicki is at her best when she’s owning the track. And when the personality in the performance and the music find their sweet synchronicity. Coincidentally, that happens as she owns just about every rap-man and his dawg on Barbie Dreams, a brilliant and playful few minutes of shade. Coco Chanel sees Nicki go rapid-fire rounds with Foxy Brown on another moment when all the stars align – specifically the ones from yesterday and today.
Otherwise, the features from Ariana Grande, the Weeknd and Swae Lee all feel more like tracks of the guest than Nicki’s own. Majesty (with Eminem and, umm, Labrinth) has a few interesting ideas that don’t quite all seem to land when brought together into one. Nicki is also the least memorable thing on it. I even like Rich Sex with Lil Wayne more on the album than I did as a single because it feels like Nicki. Hard White and LLC are other examples where Nicki elevated the track and mood with her personality.
That Tracy Chapman sample didn’t make the cut. As Nicki said on Twitter, “Sis said no”. BUT, then Nicki dropped it as a non-album bonus track today and it features Nas. As far as bonuses go, it’s more hundreds than thousands. From what I can tell, it basically just uses the chorus from Baby Can I Hold You and sugar coats it. I’m not really feeling it. Tracy did ‘Sis’ a favour by saying nah. Meanwhile, how did Nicki not know this was a Tracy Chapman song? Shocking … if it’s true.
Final verdict: Despite my criticisms, which admittedly are influenced by expectation, it is still a solid album – probably Nicki’s best – that somehow finds a way to hang together, just not on the back of a common striking theme.
Nicki is yet to make her career defining album, the one that consistently lives up to her potential and hype. I want Nicki to make that album and I’m genuinely confident she can. Despite its moments of brilliance, unfortunately Queen isn’t it.