In early November, Nicki Minaj took a bat to a Mercedes Benz that she had lent to Safaree “SB” Samuels, her simultaneous hypeman, pseudo-assistant, and boyfriend of 12 years. Earlier in the year, TMZ alleged, citing a police report, that a hotel room spat between the two left Nicki with a busted lip. She and Samuels disputed the account, but rumors of the fight coupled with images that showed Samuels had covered up at least two of his Nicki tattoos, seemed to suggest that, after a turbulent year, the two had split.
In other words, Nicki Minaj suffered possibly the greatest heartbreak of her life during the biggest, most closely scrutinized phase of her career. But, under the hawkish eye of the media and through a heavily active social media presence, she carried on as usual. For months, I’ve wondered how. Now I know: Her unusually open third album, The Pinkprint, holds the weight of watching the relationship crumble; where some have public meltdowns and engage in volleys of badmouthing, Nicki has her punchlines, flows, and “an empire also.”
Since her ascent to pop stardom, the central narrative of Nicki Minaj’s work has been the divide between so-called “Mixtape Nicki” and “Pop Nicki.” After she made what seemed like a deliberate decision to put away the Technicolor wigs and fanciful costumes, sloughing off the excesses of the past few years and reverting to her natural hair color, it seemed a prodigal return to her bar-for-bar rap origins was imminent. The shiny, melodic, Dr. Luke-assisted chart-toppers had alienated some of her fanbase and, in a seriously gendered way, been co-opted by some as an excuse to deny Nicki her rightful position atop of rap. Case-in-point: a now-quashed but never forgotten feud with Hot 97 DJ Peter Rosenberg, who described her 2012 smash hit “Starships” as “not real hip-hop” and music for “chicks.”
But The Pinkprint gives little consideration to the gulf between her various musical selves. Nicki treats the obsession with her pop ambitions as an irrelevant, surface-level irritation. Rather than capitulating, she dives between ballads produced by big names in pop, confessional storytelling with sung hooks, and club-ready bangers that are littered with timely cultural references. She can do it all, and she intends to.
The album’s sequencing contextualizes songs like the breakup anthems “Pills N Potions” and “The Crying Game,” on which Nicki raps, “Ain't no smiling faces here, we slamming doors and dishes / Saying we don't miss each other, but it's all fictitious.” After the opening emotionally honest tracks comes a 10-song run that feels like the liberation that can come post break-up: Nicki rides through Texas with Beyoncé on “Feelin’ Myself,” adopts Biggie’s Brooklyn flow in an imitation that is the best since Lil’ Kim’s on “Four Door Aventador”, and pats her pussy in the islands with newcomer Lunchmoney Lewis on “Trini Dem Girls.”
Despite her apparent need for release through music, Nicki is much more successful when she is playing the weirdo and outrapping all of her peers through dozens of flows and voices, borrowed and invented. The album’s latter half sees her sinking back into heartbreak mode, with lackluster ballads “Bed Of Lies” and “Grand Piano.” Though she doesn’t always play to her strengths when she’s determined to go the pop route, it’s the balance and push-and-pull of her output that is most compelling. Mixtape Nicki can’t really exist without Pop Nicki, and vice versa.
It turns out, though, that the divide we should have been paying attention to all along is not between rap and pop but the poles between her public and private selves. Despite her omnipresence, The Pinkprint makes it apparent how little we actually know about Nicki Minaj. It’s an approach to fame that suggests she might have taken cues from her now-BFF Beyoncé, a testament to the media training of the Young Money camp, and a reflection of the strong black woman trope that she often plays in public.
Political scientist and journalist Melissa Harris-Perry explains the strong black woman character as such: “The strong black woman is kind of a resistant strategy. Her role as a myth is an internal community-created concept of who black women are, and it’s meant to push back against historical negative images like the Jezebel, the Mammy, the Sapphire. In that sense, she is positive because she is self-naming, she is self-created. She is sui generis.” She is Nicki.
On much of The Pinkprint, Nicki takes the cracks that appeared in her generally plastic veneer after the rumor mill began churning and busts them wide open, getting personal in new ways. The Pinkprint is full of once-private revelations that betray the extent to which she’s been hurting: hella pill-popping, suicidal thoughts, her own abusiveness, guilt about the way her fame has impacted her relationships. As much as parts of the album are an exercise in performing strength, being vulnerable is the strongest move Nicki Minaj could have made.