Young Money/Cash Money Records
Highsnobiety

4.0/5.0

It’s been almost ten years since Nicki Minaj first scaled the rungs of rap royalty, carving out a throne with the help of her various personalities, but heavy is the head that wears the crown. Prior to the release of her fourth album, the self-proclaimed queen boasted that her next project will be “my best body of work,” ushering in an era that’s “a billion times more epic than anything ‘Anaconda’ could have delivered.”

However, behind her typical bravado, numerous delays and last minute changes to the tracklist hinted that Minaj actually felt genuine pressure for perhaps the first time ever, and it’s easy to see why. After all, much has changed in the four years since “Anaconda” and its accompanying album first slinked its way up the charts. Where Minaj once sat astride her throne alone with only the voices in her head for company, the last year has seen other female rappers rise up and vie for her crown too, including a certain Love & Hip-Hop star who trended on Twitter immediately after Queen dropped, despite never being explicitly mentioned on the album.

The last 12 months haven’t been easy on Nicki’s loyal subjects either. Early single “Barbie Tingz” was quietly cut from the final tracklist early on, and other songs like “Bed” and “Rich Sex” didn’t perform to the usual high standards of previous releases either. An eagerly awaited song sampling Tracy Chapman also didn’t make the finished product, and controversial career choices have soured the public perception of Minaj at a crucial moment in her career. Even in the early hours after Queen finally hit streaming services, the Trinidadian star continued to tweak the album, promising fans that she’ll rework sung vocals and some specific bars too in the coming weeks.

A lesser artist might have crumbled under such pressure, but instead, these hardships have crystallized Minaj’s resolve, sharpening her focus once again like the diamonds that adorn her crown. Album opener “Ganja Burn” is quick to make “them cunts learn,” reminding fans and haters alike that “a Queen is what I embody.” Over a tropical island beat, Minaj calls out her rivals with a dexterous flow, explaining that “You can’t wear a Nicki wig and then be Nicki.”

It’s not just her bars that impress here either. Whether you read “Ganja Burn” as a savage takedown track or a melancholic rumination on success, the ascending hook in the chorus is tinged with just enough emotion to support both interpretations in different ways, and this newfound complexity becomes the mission statement for everything that follows.

On her new Apple Music radio show, “Queen Radio,” Minaj told the Barbz fandom that Eminem’s work on the album’s second track, “Majesty,” would “go down in history as one of the best verses in the history of rap.” With his lightning-fast delivery, the rap god certainly does make an impact on Queen, but her highness is smart enough to contrast this standout moment with an eerie, child-like voice at the end which slowly and dutifully informs rivals to say their prayers because “you ’bout to die slow.”

However, if the initial online reaction is anything to go by, then “Barbie Dreams” is the true jewel in Minaj’s crown this cycle. On this album highlight, the Queen puts her own spin on The Notorious B.I.G. song “Just Playing (Dreams),” swapping out his love of women for a savage and hilarious roasting of numerous men in the industry. Although Minaj insists that the song isn’t a diss track in the conventional sense, the scathing lyrics on display number among her best and most brutal, even taking aim at friends like Drake, who are “worth a hundred milli, always buying me shit/ But I don’t know if the pussy wet or if he crying and shit.”

With an old school flow reminiscent of her mixtape days, Minaj is truly feelin’ herself at this point, while also calling out the sexism that characterizes the music industry at large. DJ Khaled in particular is read for absolute filth, and although he’s since congratulated the Trinidadian star online, we’d like to think that the following couplet has encouraged him to at least momentarily question his previous views on oral sex: “Had to cancel DJ Khaled, boy, we ain’t speaking/ Ain’t no fat n*gga telling me what he ain’t eatin’.”

The bars that Minaj drops here leave a dent on the album that’s hard to match, but Queen still earns its royal title thanks to a streak of songs that could be Nicki’s most consistent yet. “Rich Sex” didn’t blow up on release, but the hypnotic trap beat combined with Lil Wayne’s guest verse works far better on the album, and later tracks like “Hard White” and “Good Form” prove that Minaj is still on top of her game lyrically, playing around further with her signature combination of humor and bravado.

As her wordplay on “Barbie Dreams” proves, Minaj’s lyricism is usually at its most effective when directed against others. What’s most surprising about this latest album though is that the Queen doesn’t just fight to defend her crown, but also celebrates those who she considers to be her peers. While taking out her pretenders on the record’s opening track, Minaj simultaneously pays homage to artists like Kanye West, JAY-Z, and André 3000, and she’s clearly humbled by the impressive list of guest stars that join her on the rest of the album.

Despite the fact that Minaj is often maligned for doing little to help the women who try and follow in her footsteps, the star’s aforementioned adoration for other rappers also extends to some female peers here too, including Lauryn Hill and Foxy Brown. Plenty of fans believe that Foxy is one of the three influencers mentioned above, but whether that’s true or not, the fact remains that their duet together on “Coco Chanel” paves new ground for Minaj, delivering a filthy one-two punch that brings out the very best in each other’s work.

Minaj has no time for rivals, explaining on Queen that if anyone tries her, she’ll “double back, kill bitches, bury the body,” but you can’t deny that there’s something rather empowering about the way she openly talks about money and sex with such confidence, subverting traditional gender roles with lines like “My body’s a work of art, he eatin’ this Van Gogh,” and “I got the money and the power now.” If this swagger summed up the extent of Queen, Minaj’s fourth album would still be one of her best. What’s most impressive about her latest effort is how she opens up emotionally too, moving beyond just cocky brags into more introspective offerings that build upon the intimate material she started playing around with on The Pinkprint.

Last October, Minaj discussed the process behind recording Queen, telling T Magazine that “I am getting Nicki Minaj figured out with this album and I’m loving her,” but it seems like things still get lonely at the top. Intimate moments that explore the pain of loss and loneliness are threaded throughout the tapestry of Queen, most notably in songs like “Run & Hide” and The Weeknd duet, “Thought I Knew You.” Although “Chun Swae” also impresses with a dreamy soul hook from Swae Lee, adding an almost fairy tale like texture to the record, it’s towards the end of the album where Minaj becomes most vulnerable on the song, “Come See About Me.”

Ever since Minaj released “Right Thru Me” as a single off her debut album, R&B ballads have always played a role in her discography, but on a record that largely eschews typical pop leanings, the chart-friendly hook of “Come See About Me” nonetheless stands out as one of Queen’s most memorable moments. Minaj herself admitted online that she cries every time that she hears the song and now that the album has been released, she’s since teased the possibility of a reconciliation with the mysterious subject of the song too.

On an album full of A-list collaborations, it’s heartening for fans to see that most of the standout verses come from Minaj herself. While Queen could have used a few more flashes of the eccentricity heard on the killer lead single, “Chun-Li”, it was smart of Nicki to evolve in this more open and mature direction. After all, there’s no point sitting up on high as the Queen of Hip-Hop if no one can relate to you anymore.

Like its predecessors, Queen spans a potentially exhausting length, but Minaj’s fourth album also differs from the others in one vital aspect. Much like her personality on record, Nicki’s work has often been split in two, flipping back and forth between mixtape realness and pop/dance numbers that bid for chart success. Queen might lack some “Va Va Voom” in the singles department, failing to match the airplay she won with songs like “Starships” and “Super Bass,” but the pay off is that Minaj has finally managed to combine these two sensibilities into one cohesive whole, appealing to both mainstream pop lovers and the hardore hip-hop crowd without ever compromising for either.

Sure, her highness could have drawn some inspiration from the G.O.O.D. Music rollout and trimmed the album down a bit, but with this fourth record, Minaj has created her purest hip-hop album to date, and perhaps her very best too. Whether Queen is the “classic hip-hop album” that Nicki wanted remains to be seen, but in a year where the competition for the throne is stronger than ever, her subjects should be thrilled that such pressure has brought out the very best in their monarch, proving once again why she’s worthy of the crown. Long may Barbie reign supreme.

Nicki Minaj’s ‘Queen’ is available to buy or stream. For more of our album reviews, head here.

Words by David Opie
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