Nicki Minaj Goes Way out and Wild on ‘Queen,’ an Eclectic Hip-Hop Tour de Force

There has been crazed anticipation for Nicki Minaj’s latest release, which one can only expect, regarding the artist who has scored more Billboard 100 hits than any other female in any genre. The new record, “Queen” was initially slotted for earlier in the summer and then for an August 10 release, but expected to be held back for another week, due to sample clearance issues involving Tracy Chapman. Many speculated that Minaj would debut the album on the debut of her Beats One radio show, “Queen Radio,” and although she couldn’t because “someone fucked up,” she did announce that the album would be dropping today after all. So it’s here, and fans are appropriately going berserk. Nicki Minaj is over-the-top and quirky in a way that comes across as a decidedly feminine hip-hop caricature, and her fourth record showcases her in all her trademark verve and vitality. The songs explore widely divergent styles but are spaced out among the tracklist in a way that manages to make the album still feel coherent. Overall it’s an action-packed, star-studded affair worth whatever wait it took.

The prevailing tone is immediately set with opener “Ganja Burns,” a track with mellow guitars and Afro-Caribbean percussion that create the vive of a rather loony, urban-styled, futuristic, tropical fantasy world, much like that depicted on the cover art, which features Minaj scantily clad and diamond-studded, perched on a tree branch. Caribbean influences, a natural outgrowth of Minaj’s Trinidadian roots, are peppered throughout the album, culminating in the final track, “Inspirations Outro,” in which Minaj reminds of this by naming everyone from Bob Marley to Beenie Man.

As you would expect from the title, the lyrics here are largely the stuff of female empowerment — not in an embittered SJW way, but in the brash, baller, hood-rich vein. The fist song is a litany of boasts, letting you know immediately what you’re in for. “Majesty,” a more rock-oriented number features guest singer Labyrinth singing an infectious hook, with the lyrics, “Whatever you say, Mrs. Majesty.” “Rich Sex,” ia a licentious jam with Lil Wayne and Minaj emanating pure swag, and Minaj’s portions ringing like a rebuttal to Kanye West’s “Gold digger.” “Sir” finds Minaj ending nearly every line with the word “sir,” and while Future takes up this same format when he joins her, Minaj’s utterances seem to resound with a certain playful, poised sarcasm, drawing to the attention that she is the “queen,” eclipsing any “sir.” In the next song, “Miami,” she shows no signs of abating, reminding us, “Too much money, I ain’t never need a sugar daddy.”   

For all her braggadocio, Minaj also displays considerable vulnerability on several new songs. On “Thought I Knew You,” she bemoans a failed relationship, singing, “You broke my heart.” By the end of the song, the refrain has incomprehensibly become, “I just want them dead presidents,” with the word “dead” repeated to the rhythm of Three Six Mafia’s “Chickenhead.” With no overt political overtones elsewhere, the non sequitur seems like the sound of heartbreak descended into mayhem. Adding support to this theory is the fact that the featured guest singing here is the perennially salty The Weeknd. Other songs too show emotional outbursts, for instance the downright scary ending of “Majesty,”in which Minaj sings, “Die Slow” in a voice that sounds like she’s twisting the knife with a sweet smile. She adds “Jealousy is a disease,” ironic since she seems intent on provoking as much jealousy as possible with her boasts of high living. Ultimately, Minaj seems to have had the last laugh, as demonstrated on “2 Lit 2 Late Interlude,” on which she sings, “Boy, you’re too much, too little, yeah, too late” over a beat so cartoonishly cheery that it oozes with snideness.

There are some serious rap skills on display here. Eminem drops a rapid-fire verse on “Majesty” that’s the fastest he’s sounded, possibly ever. Of course, there’s little chance he’d outshine Minaj on her own record, and she promptly takes cue on the following song. “Barbie Dreams” is an homage to B.I.G.s “Just Playing (Dreams,)” and it has an appropriately throwback feel, recalling mid ‘90s hip-hop, in which rappers were more concerned with showing off their skills as emcees. Minaj raps incessantly, seeming to never run out of fuel. At one point, she drops a string of disses, calling out her ex Meek Mill as well as 50 Cent, Drake, 6ix9ine, and numerous others. The most hilarious bit is when she takes on Young Thug, claiming she “caught him in my dressing room, stealing dresses and shit.” The track seems all in fun though, fun, considering that Biggie’s original track was merely a litany of women he wanted to sleep with, rather than a virulent diss track. Of course, some of Minaj’s jabs seem a bit harsh, such as those toward Meek and DJ Khaled. On the other hand, this is hip-hop, and that’s just the nature of their game.

“Chun Swae” finds Minaj at her most feisty, playful, sing-songy rapping chops and, at one point, a rapidfire spurt. No one has been so fast and energetic in mainstream hip-hop since Busta Rhymes in his prime. Minaj achieves much of her appeal through her little whimsical quirks, which keep her flows constantly engaging and exciting. For example there’s a brief section of “Chun-Li” in which she has a conversation with herself in two voices, and a moment in “LLC” where she randomly pronounces a single word in a British accent. The latter track is the most hard-hitting, badass, gangster track on the record, with an uncluttered, barebones beat that lets you really focus on the exceptional rapping. There are times when Minaj’s madcap antics get almost too crazy, as on the chirpy, strident, high-octane, giddy speedfest that is “Good Form.” You can’t help but occasionally wonder, “What is this woman on?!” One track, “Miami” offers a suggestion in the line, “Don’t forget the addies.”

The Foxy Brown-featuring “Coco Chanel” puts a modern spin on sounds of previous eras, before such forces as EDM evolved mainstream hip-hop songs into chorus-happy, plastic pop monstrosities. For this track, it’s just bass, drum machines, sample, and relentless rapping. Other songs on the record are more melodically driven. Ariana Grande and Swae Lee both make appearances. “Hard White” sees Minaj delving in T-Pain-type Auto-Tune territory, but with more memorable melodies than many of her contemporaries. “I Thought I Knew You” cleverly fashions a snappy hook out of “I-I-I-I” stutters. “Nip Tuck” consists almost entirely of singing, and “Come See About Me” is pure melodic pop, with scarcely any audible hip-hop influence. More significant is how well Minaj pulls such tracks off. They are worlds away from her frenzied rap flights on other tracks, yet equally flawless in their execution.

Nicki Minaj identifies her three biggest all-time influences as Lil Wayne, Foxy Brown and Jay-Z and two out of three appear on this album along with the abounding other illustrious guests. You’ve got to hand it to Nicki. Rappers are incessantly bragging about being larger than life, but Minaj is someone that actually seems so. Her flows always display that restless creativity that only artists with a special spark possess. It’s the type of quality that can always make even the most otherwise lackluster music somehow intoxicatingly fresh. “Queen” is so teeming with ideas, variety, and so many sheer syllables that it can be exhausting but that only makes it all the more enjoyable.     

Queen” is available Aug. 10 on Apple Music.