On “Chun-Li,” the lead single off of Nicki Minaj’s latest project, Queen, the rapper brags, “They need rappers like me,” which begs the question: Who is they?
The album is nearly unlistenable. In the four years since her last studio record, the masterful The Pinkprint, Minaj has maintained her relevancy through a series of high-profile features. In low doses, Minaj is peerless in her ability to breathe life into a track with her high-energy charisma. But Minaj is much too flat to carry Queen.
At every step, the singer-rapper defies conventional wisdom in order to make Queen a uniquely terrible listen. Her flows and rhyme schemes are the same as they were eight years ago, only staler. The beats, though rather generic, aren’t awful. But their bareness reveals Minaj’s weakness as a rapper — she’s mind-numbingly corny. What’s worse, she triples down on her corniest lines, beating them to death and back with precious little self-awareness.
Consider, for example, the joke of Minaj being the “billy goat.” The joke dates back at least to her 2016 collaboration with Calvin Harris, “Skrt on Me,” on which she rapped, “Now they calling me Billy, I’m the goat.” At the time, it was mildly funny, but its tongue-in-cheek nature was the joke’s salvation. On Queen, Minaj repeats some variation of the phrase on two consecutive songs. The first appearance could be played off as a callback, but by the second, a listener will be tempted to turn off the album. That’s unequivocally the right move.
Seriously, Queen is such a letdown. Bad choices plague every corner, undermining even the highlights. For example, “Come See About Me,” a pop ballad from the album’s second half, showcases Minaj’s best qualities as a crossover artist. It’s an unapologetically sappy love song — one of Minaj’s staples. The song would make for a fantastic ending, but it’s followed by four to seven more tracks, depending on the album version. This confounding move chips away at a listener’s goodwill and patience, making the album feel somehow even longer than it is.
Another highlight, “Majesty,” is torpedoed by an unintelligible outro with seemingly no purpose other than to ruin the song. Labrinth, who recently glowed up thanks to a collaborative effort with Sia and Diplo, nails the Beatles-inspired hook, and Minaj ferociously attacks the aggressive if slightly dated techno beat. Even Eminem’s obligatory verse is halfway bearable with its self-satisfied punchlines, despite an extended bit about throat inflammation. But Minaj’s off-tune pseudo-experimental outro is out of place, ending a sweet song on a sour note.
Even “Barbie Dreams,” the clear standout track where Minaj turns her peers into punchlines, is afflicted. Minaj shines in her element on the track’s first act, tossing off irreverent disses at exes and ex-collaborators. But she insists on tacking on a beat-switch. The jokes on the song’s superfluous second half are markedly weaker. So why include them?
Notably missing from the “Barbie Dreams” roll call is Minaj’s ex of 12 years, Safaree. Shortly after Queen was released, Safaree accused Minaj of physical abuse. He alleged that Minaj cut him to the point that he “almost died.” The accusation followed a lawsuit that Safaree filed in 2016 charging emotional and physical abuse, though the rapper later dropped the suit. Minaj has denied the accusations.
All in all, Queen is a markedly subpar project from an artist struggling to meaningfully evolve her sound. None would contest that Nicki was the queen of hip-hop for the better part of a decade. Her old songs, such as “Starships” and “Pills N Potions,” are triumphs of artistry and testaments to the ability of humanity. Nothing comparable appears on Queen. It’s an album so bad it will leave listeners wondering, “For real though — why is it so bad?”