As a regular teenage boy in love with pop music I had heard Nicki Minaj. I probably couldn’t write her name without misspelling it but I knew every lyric of “Super Bass”, “Starships”, “Va Va Voom” and “Pound The Alarm”. These were the four songs that were played on pop radio here in Spain, and I remember my 14-year old self listening to “Starships” and saying “I wish the song ended before the electronic part” — because I loved her verse so much and I couldn’t understand why all my friends liked that EDM beat-drop that I hated. Anyway, a couple of years later I started listening to Kanye (and hip-hop in general) and I came across with her verse on “Monster” off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Obviously, I was stoked — that delivery, that craziness of alter egos trading lines back and forth, that raw emotion — I hadn’t heard anything like this before and I loved it. This is how I started listening to her music — I put Pink Friday and Roman Reloaded: The Re-Up on my iPod for almost a year, and then she released The Pinkprint, her most-personal and mature project yet.
This November is the 5th anniversary of Pink Friday, the beginning of everything. Sure, Nicki had been rapping before that but this album consolidated her career as much as her verse on Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy put her on the spotlight.
That’s the introduction of what I’m trying to do here, heavily inspired by Casey Johnston’s A Decade Of Ye. I’ve chosen 5 songs off Pink Friday, 6 songs off Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded and Roman Reloaded The Re-Up (3 from each), and 5 again off The Pinkprint. At each round I’ll compare two songs, pick a winner at the end of each round and kick out the other track. I’ve tried to represent all of her music styles with that 16-song list, and that’s why I’ve probably missed your favorite — that’s fine, music is subjective and that’s just an experiment I did to proof myself there’s always more to learn about her and her music. I’d love to read your thoughts on the comments (keep in mind English is not my native language at all, and writing about music, in English, is much more complicated than I originally thought).
“I’m The Best” vs. “Up In Flames”
Although “Up In Flames” is one of her more underrated songs — it features powerful production by Boi-1da and The Maven Boys, and fire wordplay throughout the whole song. “I’m The Best” is even better though. I fell in love with this song since I heard it: it’s catchy but at the same time meaningful. “Up In Flames” wins on the lyrical front, but “I’m The Best” is better overall. It doesn’t even make sense that a song this good is the first thing you hear on a debut album.
Winner: “I’m The Best”
“Moment 4 Life” vs. “Anaconda”
On one side we have Drake-featured “Moment 4 Life”, a pop rap tune with a very catchy hook and great but short verse with a noteworthy rhyme scheme. On the other side there’s “Anaconda”, Nicki’s biggest hit off The Pinkprint, with two decent verses about past relationships and an empowering message behind it — not just by flipping the meaning of the sample. “Anaconda” is a perfectly fine song: verses are fine, the hook is fine, even the obnoxious bridge is fine, but lacks what makes “Moment 4 Life” so enjoyable — and that’s definitely not Drake.
Winner: “Moment 4 Life”
“Freedom” vs. “All Things Go”
On “All Things Go” Nicki goes deeper than she ever did (“Champion”, “I’m The Best”) — she addresses her abortion and how being a celebrity affected her relationship with her family in a quiet and reflexive tone, setting it for the album that comes after that first song. “Freedom” is a poppier and more direct song, where she addresses her rise to fame, her haters and her competition. “Freedom” is a motivational song from beginning to end: she sings over and over “Would you give your all for you?”. She would, she is. “Freedom” is Nicki’s talent condensed in almost five minutes.
“Super Bass” vs. “Starships”
It seemed pretty obvious to pair these two songs together. “Super Bass” didn’t even intend to be a hit song, it was a bonus track on her debut album, and I still don’t know why. The two verses are memorable as hell, and the chorus feels charismatic and sweet at the same time. It’s the perfect pop rap tune, with a killer and catchy hook and some tight verses. Unlike “Super Bass”, “Starships” was created to be a hit, or at least it was one of the songs that were made to be played on the radio. It didn’t feature production from hit-maker Max Martin like “Masquerade” or “Va Va Voom” but let’s be honest, who needs that when you have two concise and fun verses, and more importantly, the catchiest melody and hook she’s ever had on a song? “Starships” feels like a record that could be released today and it would still sound fresh and exciting as the first day. It’s a tough one, but I’ll choose “Super Bass” maybe because I never liked “Starships”’ EDM part.
Winner: “Super Bass”
“Roman’s Revenge” vs. “Roman Holiday”
Roman Zolanski is one of Nicki’s most famous characters, so it made sense to put these two songs together. “Roman’s Revenge” doesn’t sound like anything she had done before and has done after — the booming base gives the song a dark tone almost none other track of Pink Friday has. Lyric-wise, she’s paying homage to Busta Rhymes while Eminem (quite an unexpected collaboration) raps as his hugely alter-ego Slim Shady character homaging more like Redman. They show great chemistry together and, although Nicki slows down her flow and delivery to match better with Em’s style, their collab comes out interesting throughout its four verses and multiple hooks. On the other side “Roman Holiday”, pure craziness. She starts the song as Martha, Roman’s mother, almost following the storyline of “Roman’s Revenge”. With the curse of the song her flow and delivery become more out of control, forcing us as listeners to pay more attention to her as the exorcism of Roman goes on, like we saw with her Grammy performance on 2012. I find ironic that Nicki started Roman Reloaded, a record which its second half is pop and R&B tracks one after the other, with one of her edgier and riskier singles — not only ironic but honorable.
Winner: “Roman’s Revenge”
“The Boys” vs. “Feeling Myself”
If I had to defend one of her albums it’d be The Re-Up. Often overlooked because it’s a reissue, The Re-Up is in essence a phenomenal 8-song EP where she shows her rapping and singing skills at their best. “The Boys” is one of the better tracks off it — mixes a boom bap hard beat with a catchy hook delivered by R&B singer Cassie on top of some sweet guitar melodies, almost without no transition between them (a thing that could be read as a reference to the genre roles we’re used to see in most of hip hop songs where the female signs the hook and “the boys” show off by rapping). It’s similar than Ciara-featured “I’m Legit”, but with a insane rhyme scheme that clearly emphasizes her masculine rhymes (when a “rhyme matches only one syllable, usually at the end of respective lines”, according to Wikipedia). Another R&B singer — if I may introduce her with just that line — collaborated with Nicki on Pinkprint’s “Feeling Myself”, the continuation of their “Flawless (Remix)”. On a minimalistic Hit-Boy beat, Nicki and Beyoncé rap (yes, they both rap) bars on top of bars. Don’t get it twisted: this isn’t a “pop song about masturbation” like some media outlet said, this is braggadocious rap at its best, presenting a portrait of modern femininity that touches topics such as sexuality, success, power or self-steem. Their chemistry is out of this world, they flow into each other with almost no help apart from a couple of production tricks here and there. It is lyrically impressive (“Bitches ain’t got punchlines or flow / I have both and an empire also” raps again Nicki in case you didn’t catch it on “Up In Flames”, because referencing only “Come On A Cone” with its title wasn’t enough, right, Nicki?), technically too (“Just on this song alone, bitch is on her fourth flow”, although you can count at least five or six flow changes throughout), and musically the production is clean, memorable and ***flawless.
Winner: “Feeling Myself”
“Did It On’Em” vs. “Roman Reloaded”
“Did It On’Em” is Nicki’s ultimate banger. Its repetitive structure and the Blangadesh-produced beat makes it catchy and memorable on the hook while on the verses she introduces most of her usual tropes like penis/microphone as a metaphor for masculinity/power on the hip-hop culture, her sons, or self-confidence. As she said on the “Pink Friday Diaries”: “[Did It On’Em] is a ball of cocky arrogant diva bitchy insanity! Sometimes [you] just wanna “[shit] [on them]”. This arrogance comes only when [you] mix the cute ghetto girl with the queen of England.” “Roman Reloaded” bangs as hard as its competitor, but lyrically is a whole another level. She sticks to the gun/bang concept for the whole song in every single aspect: instrumental, delivery, content and even rhyme structure. Oh, and Lil Wayne’s feature is not bad, which is always appreciated (ask “Only”, where her label-mates fail miserably after her double-and-triple-punchline-driven electrifying verse).
Winner: “Roman Reloaded”
“The Crying Game” vs. “Win Again”
A tired, heart-broken, and sometimes aggressive (without even cursing) Nicki Minaj shows up on “The Crying Game”, one of the realest tracks from The Pinkprint, where Jessie Ware collaborates singing an emotive chorus, while Nicki dissects vividly her current emotional state. The Nicki from “Win Again”, another Pinkprint cut, has matriarchy written all over her face, addressing critics 24/7. In those two 16-bar verses full of enjambment, she makes clear she’s one of the best NYC rappers from the last decade — she’s, in fact, Queen’s Queen. If I had to choose only one I’d stick with “The Crying Game”, although “Win Again” would be a fair choice too.
Winner: “The Crying Game”
“I’m The Best” vs. “Moment 4 Life”
As much as I like “Moment 4 Life”, “I’m The Best” is a more interesting song musically and lyrically — but I’ll get into that in the next round.
Winner: “I’m The Best”
“Freedom” vs. “Super Bass”
A similar thing happens with these two songs. “Super Bass” is a concise, well-crafted, fun pop rap song, while “Freedom” manages to capture Nicki’s entire essence (both thematically and lyrically), and that should be enough for “Freedom” to win here.
“Roman’s Revenge” vs. “Feeling Myself”
Almost every day I pray for another collab between Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé. Last time we saw these two together was at Tidal’s big event, where they performed together for the first time the song “Feeling Myself”, a better tune than the already excellent “Flawless Remix”. I want more and more from them — we already knew they could be a great duo but we didn’t know they could be that good together. Despite all this, “Feeling Myself” is not my favorite collab from her like I explained in the previous round. Sorry, Bey.
Winner: “Roman’s Revenge”
“Roman Reloaded” vs. “The Crying Game”
“Roman Reloaded” amazes me each time I listen to it, is one of my favorite tracks of Roman Reloaded together with “Roman Holiday” and some of the songs from the pop/R&B part of the record. However, “The Crying Game” features an emotional Nicki that we haven’t seen so often in such detail and depth.
Winner: “The Crying Game”
“I’m The Best” vs. “Freedom”
There isn’t much left to say about “I’m The Best” or “Freedom”, so I’ll try to explain why I listen to these two songs so often. The main reason I love both is because sometimes I feel down, like anybody else does… like even Nicki Freakin’ Minaj does. When this happens I always come back to these two songs. Talking about his latest commercial project Yeezus in which there’s a song titled “I Am a God”, Kanye West once said that his music was “the codes of self-esteem […], the codes of who you are. If you’re a Kanye West fan, you’re not a fan of me, you’re a fan of yourself. You will believe in yourself. I’m just the espresso. I’m just the shot in the morning to get you going, to make you believe you can overcome the situation that you’re dealing with all the time.” This is “I’m The Best” and “Freedom” for me. It’s almost impossible to choose one of the two, and I’ll probably regret this decision next month, but I think “Freedom” is even more powerful that “I’m The Best”, its downtempo dreamy flavor catches me every time, I feel I could be listening to it nonstop.
“Roman’s Revenge” vs. “The Crying Game”
I wish I could bring to the final round a Pinkprint song — I think it’s her best work yet, and songs like “The Crying Game” (or “I Lied”, “Win Again”, “Shanghai”) prove it. I can still play that record and discover details and references I didn’t catch on previous listens. What lacks “The Crying Game” is what makes “Roman’s Revenge” so entertaining — because that’s why I love it, this isn’t a deep song, it’s a brutal Lil’Kim diss with a golden collaboration. “Roman’s Revenge” evolves as the song progresses, the verses get shorter but more aggressive, and the true personalities of their characters come to light, while “The Crying Game” has more depth and context but it’s less exciting as a song, if that makes any sense.
Winner: “Roman’s Revenge”
I think everyone should watch two particular videos before talking about Nicki Minaj. The first one is her “pickle juice” video, the second is the recording of “Roman’s Revenge”. Both are from MTV’s documentary My Time Now, recorded before the release of Pink Friday.
Nicki Bosses Up | MTV
Nicki vents about the negative reaction she gets whenever she puts her foot down.
Nicki Explains, Writes And Spits 'Roman's Revenge' | MTV
Roman Zolanski will have his blistering revenge. But who is he, and where did he come from?
If I had to put “Roman’s Revenge” in one word it’d be “energy”. Starting with that Busta reference in the hook, Nicki and Eminem build up the tension until Roman’s mother makes an appearance at the end of the song with that British accent she also did on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s opening track. The beat feels dark and threatening, with electronic effects all over it like many other tracks of the same album. Technically and lyrically Nicki proves she can go toe-to-toe with legends like Eminem (or even surpass them like she did with Kanye on Pink Friday’s “Blazin” with a greater verse than the famous one she did on Kanye’s “Monster”). Her verse on “Roman’s Revenge” may not be her best one, but the delivery, the energy, is almost unrepeatable, like the whole collab.
“Freedom” is more focused. After the opening track, the amazing “Up In Flames” we’ve already talked about, there was no need to do another opening track — because “Freedom” does sound, a lot, like an opening track. But there it is. “Freedom” is self-aware, conscious about her past (“But before I continue let me thank my crew”), her present (“Oh shit, my commercial’s on / Did I really body bitches with commercial songs?”), and her future (she raps “Did I really prophesy every thing I do?” after spitting “My career’s been the pinkprint / When I retire, tell ’em think pink / Pink Friday is the imprint / And these bitches basic, instinct”. Two years later, in “All Things Go”, she said “Gee we did it, let’s leave this imprint / Just finished writing, this is The Pinkprint”).
Which should win? “Freedom”. That’s the best Nicki, the artist that has won all by herself, that doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody, that knows herself and believes in that. The final line “Would you give your all for you” isn’t just a motivation sentence you’d post on Facebook when you are proud of something, it’s an honest and truthful question she’s asking herself. Judging by what she’s accomplished until now I think it’s just fair to say she would.