Concert review: Nicki Minaj at Chicago Theatre

EntertainmentMusicNicki MinajPoetryKanye WestArts and CultureMarilyn Monroe

First, shouts out to 2 Chainz's street team, who seemed to really embrace their roles as the first point of contact for Monday's Nicki Minaj show at the Chicago Theatre. Outfitted with giant posters advertising 2 Chainz's upcoming album (“Out 8.14.12”) and at least one life-size cutout of the Atlanta rapper, they posed for fan pictures with said cutout and chatted up a few nervous parents who had dropped off groups of high schoolers. They watched over the amazing (and relatively gender neutral) parade of brightly colored wigs and leopard-print clothing that filed in to the theater. They explained to a couple of eager but misguided fans in long dresses and heels that their signs referred to the album release date, not an upcoming show date, and that, if the fans wanted to see 2 Chainz, they should hurry inside because he was performing at that exact moment. The fans ran for the doors screaming and yelling out the rapper's signature “2 Chaaaainz” adlib.

So, inside: In front of a diverse crowd that appeared to range in age from about six to 60, that rapper, a career MC who has recently emerged as Nicki Minaj's heir to the ubiquitous guest rap feature, was busy performing a string of mixtape songs and hits from his old group, Playaz Circle, that the audience had no reason to know as well as they did. There was a DJ, wearing neither headphones nor sunglasses correctly, and a couple of hypemen, and that was it. 2 Chainz shouted out the “two cutest girls in the whole crowd” in the front row, who looked to be about eight years old, and then launched into his single “No Lie,” which ended with an extended a cappella repetition of a phrase that most parents would probably not want a man in his thirties yelling in front of their eight-year-old daughters. In front of me, a guy in his twenties who knew all the words was calmly losing his mind. 2 Chainz is a very good rapper.

As far as the headliner: Nicki Minaj's career, it probably doesn't need to be said, is full of contradictions. She is indisputably one of the best rappers working right now (if not ever), with a history of outshining aggressive, street-minded rappers on their mixtapes and singles while balancing out the genre's typical hypermasculinity with her own Barbie imagery. She also is one of the country's biggest female pop stars, attracting a fan base that probably skews younger and more tutu-clad than any other rapper's (hence some of the seemingly misplaced 2 Chainz audience). Her latest album, “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded,” acknowledges this split fairly explicitly, dividing itself into two separate halves that call to mind The Diplomats and Katy Perry.

Her show followed a similar format, opening with a string of rap songs that included a castle-themed performance of “Roman's Revenge,” a 2 Chainz cameo for “Beez in the Trap” and a fan-assisted rendition of “Stupid Hoe” before a costume change and shift to poppier material. The first of two middle segments featured club hits like “Starships” and “Pound the Alarm,” while the second (and weakest of the four) was driven by the ballads “Fire Burns” and “Save Me” performed in a Marilyn Monroe wig. Sadly, the thematically appropriate “Roman Reloaded” highlight “Marilyn Monroe” was pawned off on a DJ interlude while Minaj changed into her final costume. That one, a nod to classic hip-hop style complete with heavy gold chains, accompanied a blistering closing section of mixtape tracks and notable feature verses on songs like Drake's “Make Me Proud” and Trey Songz's “Bottoms Up.”

The juxtaposition was instructive to fans of both genres, as well as to anyone still harboring the idea that pop and hip-hop should, for some reason, be kept separate. It was thrilling to see a rap show with such high production values; tightly choreographed backup dancers offered an energy that the more common choice of letting assorted hangers-on wander around stage doesn't. And the conventions of a carefully stage-managed pop show benefited from the off-the-cuff swagger of a performer who was willing to improvise a little: Minaj stopped the track on the house-inspired “Whip It” to more clearly enunciate the dense rap lyrics that she noticed were tripping up the audience and, to great success, playfully engaged the audience in the show's final segment.

She explained her decision to do mixtape tracks as a result of feedback on Twitter, and she chastised the decidedly non-West Indian audience (as determined by round of applause polling of the white fans, black fans, and West Indian fans) for not recognizing her Sean Kingston collaboration, “Letting Go (Dutty Love)” (“Aw come on guys, that's my favorite song”). Best of all, she brought some of her most passionate audience members up onstage to play hypepeople for the Young Money hit “Bedrock” (poor Gudda Gudda, it should be noted, not only failed to get a shout out in the listing of Young Money affiliates but also suffered the indignity of having his seminal “grocery bag” verse pawned off on a group of stunned teenagers).

This looseness with boundaries – between audience and performer, pop and hip-hop – gave the show a big tent approach that worked fantastically. Categorizations blurred, and there was a faint whiff of transgression among audience members who might have felt at times out of their element, whether they were the passionate 2 Chainz fans sneakily singing along to “Starships” or the pop fans who let out an audible gasp during a pointed expletive in “Fire Burns.” I watched a dad and three pre-adolescent girls get kicked out of their adopted seats, a teenage boy in a Radiohead shirt get reprimanded for creeping into the aisle to film a song and a fan get tackled for trying to rush the stage during, appropriately, “Pound the Alarm.”

It was a night to embrace contradictions, be a “freaky boy,” and try something new – ideally a new color of wig. When Nicki modified her line from Kanye West's “Monster” to reflect her change of circumstances – “100 K for a verse, two albums out” – and then launched into the confetti cannon-backed closer “Super Bass,” the juxtaposition, as it had all night, made perfect sense.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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