Those who have followed Nicki Minaj's often-thrilling ascent to hip-hop superstardom have been hoping for another straight-up rap album for years. After annihilating virtually all takers on mixtapes and guest verses starting in 2007, the 32-year-old began gunning for the pop charts, pouring forth two albums, "Pink Friday" (2010) and "Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded" (2012). Both often paired her charismatic wit and style with of-the-moment dance floor bangers and big-umbrella commercial sounds, along with a teasing dose of hard-edged hip-hop.
She's earned those hits, to the chagrin of some of her most devoted defenders — those who understand that when Minaj flips that switch and devotes herself to the art of the well-crafted hip-hop verse, uninterrupted electricity flows through her.
When she's on, her phrasing, her myriad personas, her playfully percussive vocal flow and the overall presentation combine to create as striking a presence as anyone who's ever rhymed along to beats. "The Pinkprint," released Monday, won't fully placate the hard-core rap heads, but it's got the bangs and the thrills many of us have hoped for, even if it's a slow build kind of power and slacks at times.
Minaj teased this new work with a promise that it would be hip-hop-centered, which had many of us slobbering and wondering about the possibilities — the could-be producers and collaborators, the themes, the approach. Would it be a concept album? A feast of tag-team verses? A confirmation that the "Pink Friday" pop stuff was a purse-fattening investment on future rap-feminist flawlessness?
Life, however, had other ideas, to the benefit of "The Pinkprint." Rather than fully keep her promise, the artist on "The Pinkprint" focuses on behind-the-curtain heartbreak ballads before moving into that unfiltered swagger. Enduring the end of a long-term love affair in her personal life, Minaj channels her emotions into as many slow-rolling explorations of love and regret as boasts about prowess, bank balance and flow.
She does so with help from prominent collaborators including label mates Drake and Lil Wayne, Meek Mill, Beyoncé, Ariana Grande and Chris Brown. Prominent producers such as Mike Will Made It, Dr. Luke, Hit-Boy and Alex Da Kid prove their status. The record's most striking and innovative track, "Four Door Aventador," glistens through the work of rising British beat-maker Parker Ighile.
Throughout "The Pinkprint," Minaj sounds equal parts wounded (opening "All Things Go," the slow-rolling rap track "The Crying Game") and relieved over the end of a once-overpowering affair. "If it was a record, it would have been classic," she raps on "I Lied," of the love and its unraveling. Elsewhere, she's a creative and sexual powerhouse. "Trini Dem Girls," a strange blend of reggaeton and hip-hop, is immediately memorable and featuring a breakout hook from a virtual unknown singer with the moniker Lunchmoney Lewis.
Minaj's wobbling hit "Anaconda" harnesses Sir Mix-a-Lot's ode to the butt, "Baby Got Back," for an update from Minaj's perspective. As she verbally runs through a pair of male conquests, a "boy toy named Troy used to live in Detroit" and "this dude named Michael used to ride motorcycles," she celebrates her booty bounty.
On her duet with pop star Grande, "Get on Your Knees," Minaj is a hardened lover uninterested in emotion, a relationship or anything other than pure submission. On the album's high point, "Feeling Myself," Minaj and Beyoncé collaborate on a self-love anthem that overflows with sexual, feminist and lyrical power.
"The Pinkprint" lags near the end, even if for resolution's sake these songs need to be there. The midtempo pop-rap track "Bed of Lies" features the increasingly overplayed queen of the hook, Skylar Grey, and a silly cliche as the focus; it's a sonic speed bump that diminishes otherwise hot Minaj rhymes. The final song on the album (excluding the six bonus tracks on the deluxe version), "Grand Piano," is also the most bland. A weepy piano ballad, it strives to be the epic bookend but instead sounds like a subpar Celine Dion recording.
Those deluxe-version extras are tough to ignore, especially the set-closing "Truffle Butter" (featuring Drake & Lil Wayne), a beat-heavy house track that lives, like much of "The Pinkprint," in the thin green line separating art and entertainment.
If the late-add dance track confuses things, it's hard to fault Minaj. Throughout "The Pinkprint," she's intent on channeling her talent to explore and document her many moods. The combination is often, if not always, intoxicating.
(Young Money/Cash Money/Republic)
Three stars (out of four)