Posts Tagged ‘Monster’

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Nicki Minaj – Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded (album review.)

April 6, 2012

It’s time to accept that the Nicki Minaj that we heard on her mixtape (and best album to date) Beam Me Up Scotty is gone. The Nicki Minaj that we heard stealing the show on Kanye West’s “Monster” is a distant memory. Now, the Nicki Minaj who pleasantly surprised us with her bubblegum rap confection “Super Bass” is asserting herself throughout Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded. Nicki Minaj may not have concretely realised her Roman Zolanski alter-ego (who shows up at the start of the album, but his fangs have been sanded down after his explosive showing on “Roman’s Revenge”), but throughout her career we have seen her evolve and shift through persona after persona. The hard female rapper we heard on Playtime Is Over gave way to the exciting cyberspace femme fatale with the ridiculous flow and heart of gold on Beam Me Up Scotty, who tarted herself up with colourful outfits, wigs and softened edges for Pink Friday. Although her rap credentials have become less indisputable, mainstream success has opened Minaj to a new audience: pop. Teenagers, little girls dancing and rapping along to her songs on youtube, people across the world now want to hear what Nicki Minaj has to say. Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded finds Minaj trying to please everyone whom she has courted throughout her career. Does she succeed?

Well, the album is certainly diverse and there is something for everybody. After the insane and yet exciting “Roman Holiday”, the album is stacked with urban tracks designed to prove that Nicki is still in touch with her musical roots. “Come On A Cone” is a fascinating listen, and the genuinely unexpected “dick in your face” interlude about two thirds of the way through the song is a refreshing thrill – but Minaj can no longer get through an entire rap song without resorting to her trademark ridiculous vocal tics. This is a gimmick that initially served to set Minaj apart from other female rappers, but now it sounds like a party piece that is trotted out to fulfil the listener’s expectations. The song succeeds, but it could have been more. The tracks which follow are chock full of features, which is nothing unusual for a rap album, but here they serve to mute Nicki’s own impact on the material. “Beez In The Trap” is catchy but incredibly basic while “HOV Lane” is single-entendre bragging that may pay tribute to Jay-Z and to Minaj’s potential to be a supernova rather than just a star, but compared to the more insightful work Minaj has done on the past (for example on Beam Me Up Scotty‘s “Can Anybody Hear Me” or Pink Friday‘s “Moment 4 Life”) it rings a little hollow. “Stupid Hoe” is an ill-advised tirade against Lil’ Kim that is so ridiculously silly that the bite in Minaj’s lyrics is muzzled by the repetitive hook and uninteresting beat. The buzz single for this project, “Roman In Moscow”, was so much more than all of the rap tracks that actually made it onto the album because the production was exciting and the flow and rhymes were unbridled and interesting. It showed that the ‘old Nicki’ is still alive, but there is no longer a place for her among any of Minaj’s current, more successful incarnations, which is a shame. As oddly structured and jarring as they may be, “Roman Holiday”, “Come On A Cone” and “Roman Reloaded” are the most successful songs in the first half of the album because although they are not amazing, they grab the listener’s ear and don’t let go.

After some tepid R&B slow jams which are so rote that they barely deserve mentioning, let alone a place on this album (“Right Thru Me” and “Your Love” from Pink Friday were miles better than these), we get to ‘pop Nicki’. This abrupt about-face in the album really should have been split into two discs on the physical version, but it’s not the disaster that other reviews have reported. “Starships” is at once derivative of LMFAO’s and Rihanna’s latest smashes, and yet also entirely the mutant spawn of “Super Bass” (without which ‘pop Nicki’ would never have come to triumph over ‘old Nicki’ or ‘Roman Zolanski’ or ‘Harajuku Barbie’ etc.), but my god is it fun. This song absolutely deserved to be a single and to be successful – I feel conflicted because Nicki Minaj shouldn’t have had to so deliberately manufacture such a hit, but its hit status is undeniable. “Pound The Alarm” goes one better and is an absolute gem that Britney Spears probably wishes she had recorded. “Whip It”, “Automatic” and “Beautiful Sinner” repeat this formula ad infinitum (or ad the next 15 minutes), and although the songs are great fun, they expose Minaj’s crossover aims as so calculated that a little bit of this fun is taken out of them.

The album winds down with some mid-tempo, more thoughtful songs such as “Marilyn Monroe” and “Young Forever”. Strong hooks and mainstream production make these songs perfectly enjoyable, and although the lyrics show more insight from Minaj than the preceding half hour or so, they’re still calculated. “Fire Burns” and “Gun Shot” close the album (before the jarring “Stupid Hoe”) and they are the most genuine tracks of the second half. “Fire Burns” is this album’s “Save Me” (one of the highlights from Pink Friday), and the regret and sadness in Minaj’s delivery rings true. “Gun Shot” features Beenie Man and brings a little Caribbean flavour that Minaj hasn’t explored since Pink Friday‘s bonus tracks, or Beam Me Up Scotty‘s “Keys Under Palm Trees” or title track (her shout-out to Trinidad at the beginning of “Beautiful Sinner” certainly doesn’t count). While so many of the second half’s tracks are deliberately and irresistibly exhilarating to a head-spinning extent, “Gun Shot” is a less manufactured but, if anything, more uplifting ray of sunshine.

Do I like this album? Absolutely. Do I feel that it squanders Minaj’s potential? Yes, and no. This has been a hard review to write, because there’s so much here to deal with. The mainstream-aimed songs are good, but many of them are so deliberately manufactured to be hits that the genuine feeling is often ironed out. The rap songs are acceptable to good (barring the mediocre slow-jam section in the middle), but the featured artists rarely measure up to Minaj’s own potential, while simultaneously limiting her own space to shine. The weird songs are absolutely interesting, but Minaj doesn’t need to rely on inconsistent alter-egos and silly voices to be compelling. Beam Me Up Scotty proved this, and I find it sad that Minaj isn’t encouraged to exhibit her rap skills and singing in a more genuine way. “Roman In Moscow” and “Fire Burns” are remnants of the Minaj we have previously experienced. And while I genuinely am happy for the existence of songs like “Starships” and “Pound The Alarm”, their aggressively insane exuberance is something that Minaj may risk exhausting herself trying to outdo on Pink Friday: Roman’s Resurrection (or whatever comes next).

I believe that Minaj genuinely enjoys catering to a range of audiences, but as Beam Me Up Scotty and even Pink Friday demonstrated amply, she can do this in a more integrated and less scattershot way. Everyone was wowed by Minaj’s feature on “Monster”, but there’s nothing approaching that venom or spark here; her album-closing declaration that “I am the female Weezy” is reductive. Minaj is not a female Lil Wayne, female Jay-Z, new Lil’ Kim or resurrected Lauryn Hill. Nor is she Roman Zolanski, a cockney grandmother, a Harajuku Barbie or anything else – she is more than the ‘mere’ summation of these characters or costumes. She’s a savvy businesswoman and a genuine talent who is producing good music but coming dangerously close to losing the edge that set her apart so definitively in the first place. I fear that the more mainstream success that Minaj garners (and it will likely be deserved), the less heartfelt and genuine her music will become. There’s a difference between creating art that is deliberate in its purpose and achieves its goals, and art that is so focus-group tested and aiming to please that the quality is filtered down to a semblance of what it originally could have been. And while we can respect and admire an artist’s potential, we can’t praise them for what they have the talent to create if they don’t actually create it, or realise their potential consistently. And so Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded is a blast to listen to, but it also warns that unless Minaj takes stock and finds away to hone all of her personalities, she may ultimately spread herself too thinly and become nothing to anyone, rather than something to everyone.

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Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch The Throne (real-time track by track review).

August 13, 2011

Jay-Z and Kanye West’s collaborative album, Watch The Throne, was always going to be a self-important, grandiose affair. To this end, the magnificent artwork (creatively directed by Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci) exudes opulence, with the cover appearing to be engraved gold, while inside Kanye and Jay’s faces are morphed into tigers’ jaws. So the artwork is striking, fashionable, and strong. What of the music?

Of course, this isn’t the first time that Jay-Z and Kanye West have collaborated. From the former’s celebrated album The Blueprint, to West’s recent “Monster” single, the two have been a frequent pairing. One question is whether Watch The Throne, which is a near-perfect melding of the two rappers’ most recent albums, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (West’s magnum opus to date) and The Blueprint 3, would exist without West’s latest solo album. It certainly wouldn’t sound the same, built on a similar set of soulful samples (courtesy of Otis Redding, Nina Simone and Curtis Mayfield, among others), classic Wu-Tang-esque production (partly courtesy of the RZA) and an incorporation of unusual effects (“Lift Off” has a countdown to a rocket launch and deliberately stutters Beyoncé’s hook at the end) and modern styles for dizzying effect (“Who Gon Stop Me” thrillingly and unpredictably descends into dubstep). Unfortunately, Fantasy means that Watch The Throne sounds less innovative than its predecessor, but judged on its own merits, it is nevertheless a strong entry in both rappers’ catalogues.

Another question might be which rapper comes out on top. Although at times they sound less in sync than others, this isn’t really the issue; it’s not about one guy against the other, but what they can accomplish as a team with their two considerable powers put together.The album is bombastic, swollen with the promise that hip-hop’s magnates have to live up to. Here is a track-by-track review.

No Church In The Wild

A sinister bassline accompanied by Frank Ocean’s singing opens Watch The Throne. “What’s a god to a non-believer who don’t believe in anything?” Mysterious and cryptic, the song is nevertheless thrilling. Autotuned vocals hark back to West’s 808s & Heartbreak. Both rappers seem to be authoritative and yet feel outcast by religion… are they trying to be socially conscious? “Love is cursed by monogamy – something that the pastor don’t preach / something that a teacher can’t teach / when we die, the money we can’t keep / but we probably spend it all coz the pain ain’t cheap” (West). Are these men, who are fabulously wealthy and not particularly modest about it, trying to be human? If so, it’s a commendable move.

One thing that is confusing – several songs have little instrumental interludes at the end – what purpose do these serve? These do seem unnecessary and swiftly become irritating…

Lift Off

Pianos and strings make this song sound big and propulsive. Beyoncé sings the hook impeccably. “I’m supercharged / We’re about to take this whole thing to Mars” – they’re aware how big stars (!) they are, and also aware that this album is an Event that should be launched. Just the way that the album was launched in a planetarium… The rocket launch countdown could perhaps be a subtle link to “Countdown” on Beyoncé’s 4?

Niggas In Paris

Another sinister-sounding song that has echoes of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells”. “What’s 50 grand to a motherfucker like me, can you please remind me?” Jay-Z is rich. Again, by demonstrating how big stars they are and how much they reign over the game, they are proving how much of an Event this album is. Jay and Kanye go back and forth on this track, which shows however that this album is far from a phoned-in effort. Jay-Z is rich, and Kanye has had sex with many girls. Thematically, this doesn’t break any ground for rap!

Otis

The Otis Redding sample brings soul, and harkens back to West and Jay-Z’s work on The Blueprint (as well as most of West’s early output which mixed hip hop and soul samples to thrilling results). Kanye: “Last week they didn’t see me cause I pulled up in my other Benz” (sounds like “underpants” !!).  West coins the phrase “luxury rap” – looking at the album cover as well as the duo’s individual reputations, is this the genre description they would ascribe themselves? Is it because of wealth, or rhyme quality (or both)?

Gotta Have It

The moaning at the beginning sounds like a black spiritual. There are elements here that also draw upon Nas’ Untitled, with that albums specific evocation and reference to black culture’s past of slavery. “LOLOLOLOL White America, assassinate my character” – Kanye sounds like he is challenging or second guessing people. Is this in reference to the infamous Bush / Katrina incident? Or when Kanye West humiliated Taylor Swift at the VMAs? “Oh shit, it’s just blacks on blacks on blacks” – West again… realising that discrimination and misunderstanding comes from his own race as well as others? Who is to blame?

New Day

It’s quite audacious to autotune your Nina Simone sample, especially when it’s her most famous song “Feeling Good”. Kanye West and Jay-Z are trying to push music forward, and symbolise that after the follies of youth, the two men have reached a stage where they enjoy being mature and responsible – “It’s a new day, and I’m feeling good”. Here, they talk about how they would raise their children and the mistakes that they themselves made in their youth, which humanises them and exposes some truth underneath their bravado. “I just want him to be someone people like / I don’t want him to be hated all the time, judged / Don’t be like your daddy” (West) / “Sorry junior, I already ruined ya / Coz you ain’t even alive, paparazzi pursuin’ ya / Sins of the father already made your life ten times harder” (Jay) – “Teach you good values so you cherish it… My dad left me I promise never to repeat it” (Jay). A touching song that is a lyrical highlight.

That’s My Bitch

Both rappers praise their women. Beyoncé gets a shout-out or two. West name-drops Basquiat. “Why all the icons all white?” (Jay, who then name-drops Naomi, Halle Berry, Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek)

Welcome To The Jungle

This song picks up on the pictures of Jay and Kanye’s faces merged with tigers. The songs works off a “the world is a jungle / life is hard” metaphor. Jay – “My tears is tatted / my rag in my pocket / I’m just looking for love / I know somebody got it” – he inhabits the character of a gangster who can’t express emotion in public because that’s not how the stereotype works. It’s not generally something that’s permitted – but West and Jay have got to a point where they are comfortable eschewing stereotypes and exposing a little more of who they genuinely are.

Who Gon Stop Me

This sounds grimy, dirty and modern all at once, and is one of the standouts on the album. West and Jay stand, confident in their unstoppability, “Heard Yeezy was racist / well I guess it’s so on basis…. I only like green faces” (Kanye) – “This is something like the holocaust / millions of our people lost” (Kanye) / “Black on black” (Jay) – urging people to “beat the odds” and achieve their dreams and be unstoppable. A thrilling entry. Jay-Z references how far he has come from being a drug-dealer in his youth.

Murder To Excellence

A song of two halves, “Murder” and “Excellence”.

“Murder” – Chants jostle with clashing drums and a tuneful bass guitar, while Kanye and Jay-Z rap socially / racially conscious lyrics. “41 souls murdered in 50 hours” (Kanye) Again, they fixate on the crimes that black people commit against themselves. “314 soldiers died in Iraq… 509 died in Chicago” (Kanye) – some interesting reality.

“Excellence” – an immediate transition to a different sample and ominous piano vaguely reminiscent of an Eminem production, except less thunderous. From talking about murder on the streets, to the injustices the rappers have seen on their path to excellence: “Domino, domino / only spot a few blacks the higher I go” (Jay). “In the past, if you picture events like a black tie / What’s the last thing you expect to see? Black guys” (Kanye) – an axe to grind!

Made In America

A sweet song, where Frank Ocean eulogises the rappers’ parents, along with Biblical figures and leaders of the black / civil rights movement in the US. Kanye tells an abridged version of his meeting with fellow producer No I.D., and how he was able to use his new-found wealth to treat his late mother well. Jay-Z does an appreciated bit of storytelling, pretending to be boiling water in the same kitchen where his grandmother cooked banana pudding, when really he’s cooking up something quite different. “The streets raised me, pardon my bad manners” (Jay). This song feels like we are reaching the home stretch of the album (which is true), and gives us something positive, as well as lets us in on the sense of accomplishment that the rappers feel not only to have survived the streets and their upbringings, but also to have ascended to such heights of fame. They are aware and appreciative of how comfortable their lives are.

Why I Love You

Dirty guitars and beats slam in and interrupt the peaceful reverence of the previous track for this album closer (on the standard edition). The rhyme speed has picked up, and Jay pledges his loyalty to those nearest and dearest to him. Mr. Hudson, singing the hook, for once does not irritate! Now that is progress. Kanye and Jay-Z thank one another for the positive effects they’ve had on each other’s careers – which is why this (rather than the previous track, which would have been sonically more appropriate) is the album closer. Unless you have the deluxe…

Illest Motherfucker Alive

Climactic piano, synths and operatic choruses back Kanye and Jay’s various boasts. This sounds too big for its lyrics (“what the ending of Scarface should feel like”, apparently), and perhaps explains why it was relegated to just the deluxe.

H.A.M

The first single finally shows up towards the end of the deluxe album. Next to the album’s tracks, this sounds somewhat flimsy production-wise (until its apocalyptic bridge, at least). A re-evaluation of the album’s aims by Kanye and Jay-Z probably relegated this to the end of the deluxe.

Primetime

This song is perfectly adequate. I’m tired. This album is long!

The Joy

Samples Curtis Mayfield’s “The Makings of You”, giving a warmth to the deluxe album’s end that feels like proper closure after the epicness of the whole thing. It was bloated, bombastic and at times could have been trimmed somewhat, but it was very engaging! Once again, Kanye and Jay-Z expose their tenderness and talking about their families, and how this is just as important as the wealth and beauties they’ve promoted elsewhere on the record. A laid-back treat for those who get the deluxe.

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why young money has won me over.

January 17, 2011

OK, so as I am unwell and off work, I might as well try and do something productive. I haven’t done a music review on this blog for ages – and while this isn’t a traditional album review, I thought that I would write a music-related article.

I was reading on Toya’s World Drake’s recent comments on how Aaliyah inspired him as a singer to make his songs relatable across genders and across situations. This connects to one of the best songs on his album, “Unforgettable”, which samples her. Unfairly, I ignored Drake for an unfeasibly long time, and it was only hearing his songs covered by Teairra Marí on her Point Of No Return mixtape that made me decide to give him a chance. I am so glad that I did – rather than just another overhyped rapper who featured on every R&B and Hip Hop single of the moment over the last year and a half, his album betrayed a talent for rhyming and exposing vulnerability and honesty over beats that combined some of the raw soundscapes from Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak with horn-led Swizz Beatz productions. I was thoroughly impressed by Drake’s honesty about fame, and his lyrics which alternated between self-hype and self-deprecation. While Kanye West’s stellar new album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy equally shows him exposing the insecurities behind his ego on songs such as “Runaway” and “Blame Game”, the difference is that Drake has been upfront about his insecurities from the get-go. This is something I feel is admirable for a male artist in any genre – traditionally, female artists are emotional and find strength in their vulnerability, while male artists are sex-hungry, predatory and invulnerable to emotion just as they portray themselves as being invulnerable to everything, bullets included (a quick flip through rap history should indicate that this is certainly not the case – 50 Cent aside). So Drake utterly won my respect for being frank and honest, while also creating a really good album that still had some swagger songs, but was not afraid to step away from that and both rhyme and sing with equal sincerity.

Nicki Minaj’s mixtape Beam Me Up Scotty was utterly thrilling, but again betrayed something more than your average hyper-sexual female rapper. Her idiosyncratic delivery, and her willingness to be vulnerable and honest about her music industry difficulties (on “Can Anybody Hear Me” she proclaimed “Def Jam said I’m no Lauryn Hill / Can’t rap and sing on the same CD / the public won’t get it, they got ADD”). By extension, we can understand that Minaj has a clear vision of who she wants to be as an artist, but is being somewhat held back from that and steered in a slightly different direction.  It’s no accident that “Save Me” is one of the best songs on Pink Friday, and it is the only song which Minaj sings from start to finish. Image-wise, Nicki Minaj is clearly hailing after Lil’ Kim, and to a lesser extent Lisa Left-Eye Lopes. Pink Friday at first was a disappointment to me because it was much more pop than I was expecting, and there weren’t many of her hard, crazy verses that characterise her best features, such as on Kanye West’s “Monster”. Nevertheless, the album has impressed me because it does mix in various sounds, various characters, and is not overtly sexed nor trying too hard to be one of the guys, or prove its gangster credentials – these are elements that have characterised a lot of female rap and it is brave of Minaj to forsake all of these and try to be herself, even if she is not allowed to be so fully. So again, although Nicki Minaj is hardly original and I have a suspicion that her true artistry will be revealed in years to come, her output and dedication to her craft is still promising and beyond what is expected of most new acts.

I wonder if, when putting together his Young Money troupe, Lil Wayne was aware of just how talented his acts are. I am tempted to say yes, as madness and artistic talent can often go hand in hand. Young Money’s album itself comprised catchy, if disposable, chart fodder which nevertheless promoted a collective ethos above highlighting individual talents. This is all well and good, but apart from Wayne, Minaj and Drake, how many of the others can you name? Sure, Shanell is memorable for being the other female in the group, and has contributed solidly to Nicki Minaj’s songs “Handstand” and “Cupid’s Got A Gun”, exhibiting a controlled and evocative vocal on the latter. She also wears that interesting jewellery across her face.  Tyga stands out by dint of his recent collaborations with Chris Brown on “Deuces” and other songs. But neither of these artists (nor any of the rest) have yet been allowed to stand on their own two feet. I mean, between Wayne’s own mixtapes and those of Drake and Minaj, along with their official studio albums, singles, collaborations and features, they already saturate the media. It is likely that if all were given the same treatment simultaneously, the public would scream for respite.  But I wonder, since Young Money clearly comprises talented members who, importantly, have their own vision and are not afraid to express it, just how many more talented members we haven’t yet been exposed to. This intrigues me and suggests that the collective is filled with promise.