On ‘Queen,’ Nicki Minaj’s Only Competition Is Herself And Her Past Success

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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?

Not the pop Nicki tracks, which is unfortunate — in the past these were often the tracks Nicki took the most creative risk on, fly or fail. “Chun Swae,” the album’s true standout moment, owes more to Swae Lee than Nicki, as she bounces along like a gumball down the chute. It’s a sweet pop of flavor on Queen right when it needs it most, but like a gumball, the flavor is gone too soon, leaving you to chew on the rest until you’re ready to spit it out. “Bed,” “Thought I Knew You,” and “Nip Tuck” are serviceable attempts, but they sound generic, devoid of the frenetic energy that defined prior Nicki Minaj radio serves like “Feeling Myself,” “Starships,” or even the balladic quality of “Fly.” “Ganja Burns” comes closest, with its Caribbean riddim making reference to Nicki’s West Indian roots, but if anything, it shies away from embracing its sound completely, making it feel more Drake, less Rihanna.

For the most part, the beats are all Nicki Minaj originals, but even in that, it’s a little odd to see Nicki rapping on stuff you’d expect to hear her on and not pushing boundaries. Overall, the whole endeavor seems safe, like Nicki knew she’d been gone too long and needed a solid double. Eight years ago, Nicki was swinging for the fences, but it seems that having broken every home run record there was for her to break, Nicki is okay with base hits. Her ever-loyal fanbase too. That’s okay as well; after all, there’s a whole generation of young, up-and-coming female rappers inspired by her. Maybe she knows she’s broken all the new ground she needs to. She can rest on her laurels knowing her legacy as ruler is secure, letting the next generation take the next step.

Queen is out now via Young Money/Cash Money Records. Get it here.