Nicki Minaj has come a long way since her last headlining tour. In the three years since her debut outing, which mostly brought her to theaters, the rapper has further cemented herself as the reigning queen of hip-hop.
She’s scored numerous high-profile endorsement deals, had a stint on “American Idol,” tackled film and won the Internet with collaborations with Beyonce. An image of her derriere even spawned its own meme.
On Friday, that superstardom made its way to Staples Center, where her Pinkprint arena tour made a stop. The show, part of her first arena headlining show, was also one of the major bookings of the 2015 BET Experience, which is taking over L.A. Live this weekend.
After being introduced as the "greatest female rapper of all time" by a DJ who tried his hardest to keep the crowd hyped as stagehands worked through technical difficulties (the massive video wall seemed to have a glitch) that pushed her start time back by nearly 40 minutes, Minaj finally arrived to the stage.
Although capable of moving between myriad personas and sonic backdrops (hard-core rap, pop fluff, sticky dance floor bangers, R&B balladry) on record and in her provocative videos, that command has always been difficult for the rapper to harness onstage.
And Friday was clear proof of that challenge.
While her last album, "The Pinkprint," is the closest she's come to capturing her variety of skills and moods on record, Minaj's showing on Friday felt like the rapper had hit cruise control.
Standing atop a platform running the length of the stage, Minaj emerged in a dramatic, hooded black coat as the first bars of "All Things Go," one of the many slow-burning introspective ballads featured in the album.
That opening salvo of ballads – each showing the often-animated rapper revealing her personal wounds – while intimate, isn’t how you’d expect a performer as fiery as Minaj to launch right out the gate.
And in true Minaj fashion, she didn’t allow that opinion of her to settle.
Quickly ditching the introspection – and the clothes – she then arrived in a tight black jumpsuit with nude accents that highlighted her curves to run through “Feeling Myself,” “Only” and her bouncy summer jam “Truffle Butter” as if nothing had happened.
However, something clearly happened before Minaj took the stage on Friday.
By the time she wound down the first quarter of her 18-song set, there seemed to be an entire lack of interest from Minaj altogether.
“Usually after this song I go down in an elevator, but BET couldn't afford [it],” Minaj quipped after performing "Moment 4 Life," and her irritation was palpable whether you sat in the front row or in nosebleed seats.
When Minaj got lost in venomous records like “Did It On Em,” “Beez in the Trap” or her remix to Beyonce’s “Flawless,” she was on.
Yet the show felt like a dry run. There was a startling lack of cohesion or inspiration. The costumes felt pulled for a dress rehearsal. Technical glitches aside, the set appeared unfinished.
Whether Minaj allowed the technical difficulties to get the best of her, or if something else was at play, it was difficult to watch a performer who has worked so hard to live up to her status as the leading queen in a male-driven genre fail to impress on an arena level.
And the audience absolutely felt the distance. Halfway through her set, scores of fans began filing out – either to check out Miguel’s late-night show next door or because it was late. To be frank, as the night went on, watching Minaj felt as laborious as it must have been for her to move through the motions.
The saddest sight was watching a teenage fan glued to his phone, texting or tweeting, as the fully animated version of Minaj that served as his phone case was pointed toward the real thing. Maybe the flamboyant persona etched on the case, and obviously embedded deep within Minaj, hit the snooze button for the night.
Minaj’s unsatisfying showing was an anomaly of the opening days of the BET Experience.
On Thursday night, comedian and actor Kevin Hart proved why he’s one of comedy’s biggest stars with a showing at Staples that was worthy of a rock star.
Hart thrilled a completely sold-out crowd with a spectacle unlike anything seen in stand-up (a strict no cellphone policy enforced by a beefed-up security presence kept the audience even more engaged).
Following Hart, Doug E. Fresh and Bell Biv Devoe turned Club Nokia into an old-school party that came ready to dance early into Friday morning.
Before Minaj took the stage Friday night, her supporting bill offered strong showings.
Tinashe opened the night with a short set. One of the more promising talents to arrive in R&B in the last few years, she warmed up the crowd with a sultry set that pulled from her magnificent debut, “Aquarius,” and the bedroom mixtapes that transformed her into an enigmatic genre outlier.
Rae Sremmurd offered a bouncy set of their carefree rap before later coming out with Minaj for their hit "Throw Sum Mo" before diving into their breakout smash, "No Flex Zone."
Ne-Yo, a special addition just for the night (Tinashe and Rae Sremmurd will continue to open for Minaj), reminded why he’s one of R&B’s great talents. In recent years he’s mined four-on-the-floor rhythms – to varied results – but his BET set was a crowd pleaser.
Heavy on the hooks that’s made him an expert songwriter and sleek showmanship, Ne-Yo breezed through the catchiest entries of his back catalog. He also brought out Jeezy as a surprise guest for "Money Can't Buy" and "Leave You Alone," much to the crowd’s delight.
Friday night concluded with Miguel over at Club Nokia. But if you splurged for both Minaj and the avant-soul of the crooner, luck wasn’t on your side.
By the time attendees shuffled out of Staples Center and made it over to Club Nokia, the singer was saying his final goodbyes.
Earlier in the evening a colleague told me to ditch Minaj early since “Miguel is where it's at.” I should have listened.
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