Nicki Minaj’s Middle-Age Reset

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Written By Pinang Driod

When the hip-hop legend André 3000 confused the world by releasing an album of experimental flute music earlier this year, he offered a simple explanation for why he’s stopped rapping: “I’m 48 years old,” he told GQ. He gave examples of personal concerns that he found lyrically unusable: “I got to go get a colonoscopy’ … ‘My eyesight is going bad.’ You can find cool ways to say it, but … ”

André was describing a challenge facing many artists in the year of hip-hop’s 50th birthday. The genre began as an outlet for young people on the margins—as Ye once rapped, “We wasn’t supposed to make it past 25”—but now its defining figures have reached middle age. Theoretically, rap can tell any sort of story. But artists of a certain age appear unsure about the value of channeling their experiences into verses. One of the year’s most acclaimed hip-hop releases, Maps, by the producer Kenny Segal and the rapper billy woods, is a meta-memoir about midlife burnout. The typically provocative Danny Brown recently put out a defeated-sounding album, Quaranta, whose opening chorus asks, “You 40, still doing this shit?”

Nicki Minaj, 41, is the latest rapper to release a midlife manifesto that’s heavy with ambivalence. When she rose to prominence about a decade and a half ago, she was the consummate young gun, stomping all over her elders on their own tracks. Her power lay in her skillful theatricality, which allowed her to dart among accents and cadences while maintaining wit and vigor. Her killer-Barbie persona, girlish and monstrous, did seem like it would eventually lose its novelty. But the possibilities for her future were endless. Minaj was clearly a talent who could rap about anything and make it interesting—even, perhaps, her eye-exam results.

Today, her influence is everywhere—both in the proliferation of successful female emcees and in the rise of character-actors-slash-rappers such as Lil Nas X (a longtime Minaj stan). Minaj herself has remained a steady, or really a static, presence as the hip-hop landscape has shifted in her image. Over four studio albums and a slew of singles and guest verses, she has offered varieties of the same recipes that she first shocked the world with. Her hits have been funny yet interchangeable and stuck on a small set of lyrical topics. Most of her verses assert her as the queen of rap, often by sniping at hip-hop’s promising young women.

Her new album, Pink Friday 2—her fifth, and her first in five years—has been marketed as a reset. The name calls back to her debut, which had a mood of possibility and optimism that she has said she wants to reconnect with. She also wants to get personal: “When I look back at a lot of my music, I’m like, Oh, my God, where was the me in it?” she told Vogue. In 2019, she married a childhood sweetheart (who’s continually in headlines related to his 1995 conviction for attempted rape), and in 2020, she gave birth to a son. Motherhood, she told Vogue, was epiphanic: “You know that feeling when you unlock one of the secrets of life?”

The tone of Pink Friday 2 is different than the ones she has prized before—now she’s capital-S serious. The album’s opening track, “Are You Gone Already,” lifts the hymnlike vocals of a Billie Eilish ballad as a backdrop for Minaj reflecting on her father’s 2021 death from a hit-and-run car accident. The single “Last Time I Saw You” is a similarly ghostly synth-pop track expressing remorse over a lost love. Other songs on the 22-track album tackle motherhood and marriage with dramatic strings and stern bass lines.

These tracks, however, are missing something: vivid rapping. She spends many of them delivering mind-numbingly vague lyrics in a lullaby tone: “Recently became a mama and it thrills me,” she sings on “Blessings,” a line that almost feels like a punch line given how un-thrilling it is. When she does rap concretely about serious subjects, the wordplay just isn’t very inspired; “My heart sayin’ I love him while I’m screamin’ that I hate him,” generic though it seems, is probably Minaj’s best line on “Let Me Calm Down,” a duet with J. Cole about fighting with one’s spouse. The album closer, “Just the Memories,” opens with an intriguing scene—Minaj feeling low on the way to a show and debating calling it off—before she flashes back to scenes of earlier triumphs. The listener is left curious for more detail about her present tenses.

The problem here is not the subject matter, but Minaj’s approach to it. She applies much more precision, humor, and effort to the album’s glut of familiar fare: porny boasts or Downfall-style rants against perceived enemies in the rap world. (A great moment: Her angry delivery of “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe!” on “Super Freaky Girl.”)  To be sure, for all their ferocity, these songs show almost no growth or innovation, which makes her a bit hypocritical: Again and again she accuses other women of ripping her off—“Tryna build another Barbie doll, screw’s loose”—even while Minaj herself recycles old flows and uses the least original samples imaginable (from classics such as Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”).

Clearly, picking fights inspires Minaj more than digging into new emotional terrain or observing her day-to-day life. And she certainly doesn’t owe the public any intimacy. But what if she used her skills of character creation and writerly imagination to broach the tricky subjects she seems to want to address? What if she showed her audience what “thrills” her these days beyond her old pleasures, disses and designer clothes? Do mature and personal also have to mean solemn or boring? The unmet potential of Pink Friday 2 is so great that it’s almost, in a weird way, exciting, indicating all of the directions Minaj could still push in the years to come. After all, for her and for hip-hop, middle age is still pretty new.

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