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QUEEN TINGS

Nicki Minaj is already an icon, a titan and a musical trailblazer, which is a remarkable accomplishment that deserves massive respect, because she happens to be navigating one of the most inherently misogynistic professional arenas of all time, rap music. But despite her macho surroundings, Minaj has consistently and forcefully embodied a tone of female empowerment in her work, accelerating its influence in her blistering bars every single time she torches down an adversary with skill, precision and a healthy dose of clowning.

Queen is only her fourth studio release since her debut in 2010. "People talking to me like I put out 10 albums, but I only put out three albums,” she recently pointed out to Zane Lowe on Beats 1. Nonetheless, this superstar’s reach has been remarkably prolific during that time span. She performed on a Super Bowl Halftime Show with Madonna and M.I.A., made Time’s Most Influential People list, delivered what is now known as one of the most legendary guest verses ever (“Monster” on Kanye’s MBDTF) and recently became the only female listed on Complex’s “Best Rapper Alive, Every Year Since 1979” list, cementing her status among the hip-hop elites like Biggie, Tupac, Snoop, Eminem and Jay Z.

Yet with Queen, Minaj still faced a legitimate momentum battle, and sensing that, had pushed back the record multiple times. “Everybody’s pushing me to do something, but I know it’s not ready,” she explained in the same Beats 1 interview. “I’m so picky and I’m such a perfectionist with my work. I always have been like that; I’ve been like that even with my mixtapes, so it’s not anything new. And the challenge is saying, ‘I’m gonna hold off until I feel it’s the quality that my fans deserve,’ rather than saying, ‘I’m just gonna shove it out there; I’m gonna rush it out there so that people can get off my case.’ I can’t—I couldn’t do that.”

But the landscape has dramatically changed in the last three years; the ground has shifted. Two singles released in April, “Chun Li” and “Barbie Tings,” failed to garner any measurable streaming success, the new barometer of popularity that wasn’t even a factor when Minaj first made her debut. Two months later, another single, “Bed” featuring Ariana Grande, flatlined as well. And it certainly didn’t help the comeback narrative that newcomer Cardi B—also from New York, also outspoken, outlandishly styled and very socially engaged with her fans just like Minaj—was having a record-breaking run as a new artist. She became the first female rapper since Lauryn Hill to have a #1 solo hit, and was the first woman to have multiple songs charting in the Top 10 simultaneously for weeks at a time—achievements that were a direct function of this new dynamic of streaming.

Let’s not get into the trite, tiresome and totally overplayed claim that two talented, dominant female MCs can’t coexist. Bullshit. The battle to be “best” is fundamental to the genre itself, because rapping is rooted in writing such wordplay and tethered to having skills to deliver it with fire. And then there’s the general braggadocious nature about being #1 on the charts—there’s no such thing as a modest rapper. But if there’s 100 men who can compete without a problem, let’s lose the drama until there’s 100 women competing. Anything less is divide-and-conquer, and you can STFU.

Perhaps Nicki’s most glaring missed opportunity was not completely seizing on this moment in time with her album, and joining the chorus with her weaponry of intelligent, fearsome flows in a way only she can serve up.

That said, what’s awkward about this album’s title is that, while it’s surely meant to project a certain stature, Nicki is demonstrating a fundamental disconnect with the times. First of all, music in particular is more democratic than it has ever been, thanks to the internet and streaming. If you are indeed the Queen, that’s gonna show up in the data, sweetie. Second, in most contexts, one is anointed as Queen by her subjects. Only dictators declare themselves emperors. And third, there is a burgeoning wave of genuine camaraderie among women and particularly WOC in the wake of #MeToo and the hateful policies of Donald Trump—a unified tide that is expected to crest during the November midterms.

Perhaps Nicki’s most glaring missed opportunity was not completely seizing on this moment in time with her album, and joining the chorus with her weaponry of intelligent, fearsome flows in a way only she can serve up—as a voice who has already been doing the work of female empowerment for years.

Minaj is 35 years old, and it would have been more than appropriate to take this turn lyrically now. She claimed to have studied all three past albums to evaluate them in the context of creating this work, but the act of looking back seems to have backfired thematically. She simply hasn’t moved forward. She could’ve shown a new maturity by directing her ire and pen toward the inequalities her audience is facing in the real world right now. Queen stays in more overplayed zones of topics like money, drugs, clothes, possessions, haters and copycats. That’s not leading, it’s reacting. And old hat, even if she’s doing it skillfully.

The album does have its highlights, of course. Tracks like the explosive “Barbie Dreams,” a song so masterful in its humorous takedowns it changed the whole conversation in a snap, and serves as an example of what she’s capable of lyrically by elevating a classic and a previous remake. “Majesty” featuring Eminem and U.K.’s Labrinth is a banger, along with “LLC,” “Ganja Burns,” “Chun Swae,” and the blistering “Coco Chanel” with Foxy Brown. She demonstrates real vulnerability in “Thought I Knew You,” her collab with The Weeknd, and we’re blissfully reminded of her beautiful singing voice on “Come See About Me.”

No doubt Nicki is a certified alpha who can—and consistently has—held her own among all her male (and female) contemporaries in the game. She deserves a position of respect for that, along with the added impressive distinction that there is no ghost writing here. But what if Minaj had chosen to address about the world as it really is, rather than from the removed, disconnected vantage point from the bowels of a G6? That could have been a truly regal album.

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