Responding to criticisms of her sophomore album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, Nicki Minaj trumpeted The Pinkprint as a return to her genre roots, to knotty, technically accomplished hip-hop with a pronounced air of eccentricity. Instead, her third effort represents something entirely different, a nakedly introspective work that reduces her formerly freewheeling aesthetic to its bare components, scrapping the multiple-personality play-acting, the cartoon wackiness, and a good amount of the frenetically intense wordplay for direct, unembellished intimacy. The results land somewhere between the inspired but uneven wildness of her debut and the lightweight mainstream bid of its follow-up, with an album that mimics the rhythms of neither, exploring new ground with admirable, if sometimes misguided, aplomb.
Reviewing the Wu-Tang Clan’s recent A Better Tomorrow, I pined for a world in which the group’s collective membership could put aside petty conflicts and tough-guy façades to delve into the emotional toll of life in the industry. The Pinkprint does exactly that, managing to maintain a consistent level of bluster while presenting an unvarnished running view of Minaj’s regrets and fears. Strident self-love is seamlessly shuffled in with talk about her family’s changed perception of her post-celebrity, with the impression that both modes can be realistically contained within the same complicated person. Yet despite her skill at reconciling theatrical pomposity with delicate introspection, and her dual facility with acting as ostentatious guest MC to her own tremulous R&B soul-barer, Minaj doesn’t have the same capacity for smoothly uniting the confessional and the bombastic as label-mate Drake. This means that, while songs like opener “All Things Go” maintain an even balance between pathos and edge, achieving an icy sort of mournful beauty in the process, other attempts at pensive balladry (the scintillating “I Lied” and “Grand Piano”) have their pretty surfaces smudged by a countervailing sense of bathetic repetitiveness.
Still, The Pinkprint’s quieter moments are buoyed by the flipside to the rapper’s forays into emotional exploration, loud displays of brassy sexuality which communicate her coarse, clear-cut power. In these moments, Minaj flips the usual dynamics of hip-hop objectification, talking up her own assets while turning men into subservient worshippers. This occurs most directly on the Ariana Grande-backed “On Your Knees,” which focuses most of its attention on a man submissively delivering oral sex, and immediately segues into “Feeling Myself,” which builds on Beyoncé’s recent forays into risqué envelope-pushing by shaping an entire song about masturbation. The latter track is risible at times, with its “wax on, wax off” references and goofy sampling, but also refreshingly focused on self-stimulation as a means of female empowerment rather than a male-gaze fantasy, reflecting a general view of sexuality that manages to be both impressively progressive and never entirely serious. That ridiculousness reaches its peak on the hit “Anaconda,” and while there’s some residual static from all the hopping between heartfelt ballads and silly bangers, everything hangs loosely together, as a warts-and-all document of the rapper’s current preoccupations and the level of influence which allows her to release an album focused exclusively on them.
It’s also a reminder that even when Minaj is presenting a straightforward self-portrait, there’s always going to be some level of fracturing inherent to her personality, a natural consequence of her desire to mix confessional nakedness with booming bravado. The truthful thrust of The Pinkprint is actually somewhat similar to what Minaj was doing on Pink Friday, though on that album it was filtered through a hall-of-mirrors approach which proscribed contrasting emotions to a variety of different characters. Here it’s all presented as disparate parts of one united Nicki, a woman whose capacity for deep feeling doesn’t undermine her overall sense of self, as a dominant figure whose power isn’t defined by aspirations toward tough-guy masculinity. This is a big step forward for the genre, and makes one wish that Minaj’s content could be as good as her form, that more attention was paid to crafting complex rhymes and less on floating through halfway conceived tracks in a sing-song burble. Yet even if she hasn’t fully nailed the balance between her different modes, at least Minaj is doing something challenging, offering a third different approach on her third album, cementing herself as an artist who manages to be consistently engaging in spite of the varying quality of her material.