When Nicki Minaj first rose to prominence on the strength of her insanely popular commercial mixtapes and jaw-dropping “Monster” verse, the rap game looked a lot different than it does now. Streaming wasn’t yet a thing, Lil Wayne was in the middle of one of the greatest runs in rap any artist has ever had before or since, and Nicki herself was still refining the multiple personalities and animated flow that would come to define her rap persona. Contrary to popular belief, there was plenty of competition for her at the time, she just stood head and shoulders above the majority.
However, since then, it has felt like there actually has been a dearth of female talent in the rap game. Labels largely stuck to their “female artists are more expensive to promote” party line, and any viable female hip-hop artists tended to either flame out spectacularly or fade away quietly, leaving Nicki in a strangely enviable position.
Since critics and fans couldn’t pit her against other female rappers (ugh), she could freely compete with the men of rap. She proved herself more than capable of accepting the challenge, outpacing even some of rap’s top performers as she reigned supreme. Recently, however, that has changed. A whole pack of empowered, unapologetic women have risen up to start slicing up rap’s spotlight between them; labels, sensing an opportunity, have stocked up. Nicki, no longer standing alone, finds herself with something a lot like competition for the first time.
Queen, the latest volley of sneering punchlines and freewheeling beats from Nicki, feels like it should be a coronation, a regal reminder why Nicki reigns over all — it was certainly marketed as one. A few years ago, it would have been. However, the game has in fact, changed. Where once Nicki had to compete with other female rappers, then with her male counterparts, and eventually, with only herself, now she must compete with our expectations of her in a world where she is not the only representative of her sex, her gender, or even of her pinwheeling, cartoonish style. More of the same just isn’t good enough to wow her audience anymore, but maybe she doesn’t need to wow us either. She just has to give us more signature Nicki Minaj, which is exactly what she does here.
Nicki’s style has come to be defined by three major modes: Rugged, mixtape Nicki, animated, whimsical Nicki, and straight-up pop Nicki. Each is represented in equal measure, making Queen a well-balanced collection if not a particularly groundbreaking or expansive one. The rugged Nicki tracks — “Hard White,” “Chun-Li,” the Foxy Brown-featuring “Coco Chanel” — serve their purpose, proving Nicki can still spit that gutter slang, even if her circumstances are far removed from it.
The best of the bunch is the surefire viral hit, “Barbie Dreams,” a female-centric remake of The Notorious BIG’s “Just Playing (Dreams)” that borrows the same sample as the original. It’s also telling that not only did Nicki’s predecessor Lil Kim already put the same twist on her own version (“Dreams”), but Nicki herself already tread this familiar territory on her mixtape Playtime Is Over, where the only difference is the echelon of male rap talent she references on the newer version (there’s no doubt Drake is an upgrade over Red Cafe, and Meek Mill is certainly a more well-known name than Murda Mook).
Animated flow Nicki pops on “LLC,” “Good Form,” and “Miami,” doing the sort of things you’ve probably come to expect from that version of Ms. Minaj over the years. She does the baby voice on “Good Form,” she flexes the double-time flow on “LLC.” The elastic qualities of Nicki Minaj’s vocals and her varied approach to beats is storied by now, but with four years worth of potential material to cover, the lyrics themselves are surprisingly staid. You’ve heard it before: “Took a lil’ break, but I’m back to me / Tryna make a new Nicki, where the factory? / They’ll never toe to toe on a track with me / There’ll never be another one after me,” she yelps on “LLC,” but it was never in question. What else is new, Nicki?