Despite what her album’s title might suggest, America’s foremost female rapper has not had the easiest of years. After releasing a couple flop tracks in 2017, Nicki sought to make a comeback with a feature on Migos’ hit single Motorsport, only to find herself quickly locked in a media-manufactured feud with then-rising rival Cardi B. Where Cardi has seen herself propelled almost effortlessly to the top of the global charts, Nicki has been forced to grind harder for her success. She may in many ways remain rap’s “Queen”, but in 2018, she has had to defend her title relentlessly through some impressive guest verses on the year’s biggest releases (Post Malone, Playboi Carti, Ariana Grande to name a few) and now with her own record.
The first thing apparent about Queen is that much of the album is carefully-yet-chaotically constructed to illustrate Nicki Minaj as a character. A track like Majesty, on which Labrinth’s crooning takes on the tone of a loyal subject begging his mistress, can be viewed as in some ways a “title track” around which the album is centred. Nicki swaggers and bounces on the bass-ridden main beat, before switching to her signature high-pitched “alter ego” of sorts on the outro. This dichotomy is key to the character of Nicki Minaj, who at once plays up both to a “bad girl” image while also balancing it with elements of more delicate femininity. Some songs – such as the much-discussed Barbie Dreams – feature exclusively Bad Girl Nicki, utilising an unrelenting braggadocio to playfully knock down the scene’s most prominent male rappers in a way that, perhaps, only a woman could. Other songs, like the opener Ganja Burns, see Nicki showcase her vocal talent impressively so as to bring her more feminine appeal to the forefront.
Indeed, though most listeners will note the distinctly more hip-hop leanings of this record compared to Minaj’s prior work, I was particularly drawn to the hints of sultrier R&B on display here. Nicki appears to have traded in the glitzy pop sound she was known for in the early 2010s in exchange for a more genuine rhythmic form of melody. Come See About Me is the most blatant demonstration of this, as Minaj allows her hard exterior to be drawn back so as to reveal vulnerability in a pop-R&B format. It almost leaves one wishing that she would sing a bit more on her own tracks, rather than passing hooks over to guest stars.
And it is with the album’s guest appearances that, in some cases, flaws start to show. Several of the match-ups on this tracklist are certainly eye-catching, only for the songs themselves to leave the listener a bit wanting. Thought I Knew You seems to make lacklustre use of The Weeknd’s talents, with the Toronto singer chiming in for only a verse and some intermittent backing vocals rather than delivering a truly standout hook, as one might expect. Chun Swae has a satisfying beat and an intriguing hook from Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee, but rolls on for about 5 minutes without ever really reaching the climax I hoped for. Meanwhile, Sir featuring Future is a decent track, however it appears more like a promotion for the duo’s upcoming collaborative tour rather than a natural musical combination in its own right.
But on the other half of the album’s collaborative numbers, Nicki and her guests seem to hit the mark spot on. Eminem’s verse on Majesty is simply astounding, featuring perhaps his most speedily delivered bars ever, and is another indication of the way criticism of his alleged decline has urged Slim Shady on to prove his detractors wrong. Bed sees Minaj and Ariana Grande deliver a performance that deserves to be one of the year’s biggest hits. The song itself is simple, but the soaring melody from Grande makes the track irresistible. If the two ever feel compelled, Nicki and Ariana could certainly make a worthwhile collab album if their chemistry on songs so far is anything to go by.
Coco Chanel, featuring Foxy Brown, is a highlight of the album also, with foreboding production and a menacing performance from Foxy combining to close the record in sinister fashion. It’s also very nice to see Nicki joining forces with another female rapper for once, given all the media furore around her many woman-on-woman beefs.
Where Queen falls short is, clearly, in its length. Nicki has obviously fallen prey to the very 2018 sin of filling her album with as many tracks as she can get away with to boost streaming numbers. Run & Hide, LLC and Miami are just a few of the songs that could have been cut in order to refine and refocus this album. But, still, I find it hard to criticise Minaj too much for her creative choices here. Even the tracks that might be described as “filler” are enjoyable and aid in assembling the pieces of just what makes Nicki, in her mind, a Queen. But how many casual listeners will really want to sit down and bear a full hour of the Queen’s speech?
Many will point to sale numbers and career trajectories to make the point that Nicki Minaj is no longer a Queen, and that her title is fast being passed over to the young upstart Cardi B. That may be true. It’s hard to see Nicki maintaining her crown as female rap’s finest when the music industry is so fickle, and a younger alternative is available. But Queen the album is, to my ears, a distinctly positive step for Miss Minaj. This is by far her most mature and well-crafted album, and perhaps the first on which both her raps and her hits measure up to the potential originally displayed during her 2010 come-up. Nicki might not be Queen of Sales anymore, but her performances on this album certainly indicate that she could be Queen of Quality, should she stay determined. And, after all, as the woman proclaims herself, “at least she can say she wrote every rap she spit”.