Critic’s Notebook: Nicki Minaj’s ‘Queen’ Is a Joyless Mess
Aside from a few solid tracks, Minaj’s new album is sloppy and humorless — the work of someone trying to maintain her brand rather than exploring her talent.
Nicki Minaj changed the release date of her new album, Queen, four times. It was originally slated to bow on June 15, then got bumped to Aug. 10, then again to Aug. 17. And now it finally, actually came out on Aug. 10 after all, following a botched live stream announcement and Minaj getting a journalist fired for expressing very mild criticism of her work.
This disastrous summer for Minaj raises the question: Would a real queen have such thin skin or would she have bigger fish to fry, like making a good album?
This sort of chaos is almost always a sign of something rotten. Everything in Minaj’s empire seems to be unstable as she struggles with how to remain as relevant as the hype she’s created around herself. Queen runs 19 tracks (including two interludes, which are actually better than most of the full tracks), yet it could easily be seven songs. Even whittling it down to the strongest singles would result in a sort of more concise but still turgid whole, as most of the guest spots fall flat, too.
While it may seem like major artists like Minaj having the flexibility to make albums as long or short as they want is good for the art, it’s usually not. In an era where we know artists are inflating the number of songs on an album to juke the streaming stats, these bloated records are a true drag. Queen is another slog in a pretty underwhelming year for big tentpole albums.
The album starts with a clunk. “Ganja Burns” seems like an arbitrary choice to kick things off, but then again, most of the sequencing seems arbitrary here, as if changes were being made up until the last minute and with little actual regard for flow. “Ganja Burns” and “Majesty" (feat. Eminem and Labrinth) are both filler which could have easily hit the cutting room floor. In “Majesty,” Labrinth does a poor Andre 3000 impression while Eminem’s lyrics, production and general inclusion feel completely misplaced.
It’s troubling to see Minaj collaborate with Eminem, especially as she appears to be struggling through the second act of her career, much like Marshall Mathers did. Mathers’ CV is riddled with gross behavior, of course, and this comes on the heels of Minaj releasing the single “FEFE” with noted sex offender Tekashi 6ix9ine in late July, leading some to question her feminist credentials.
Minaj’s collaborations on this record as a whole feel unnecessary, almost across the board. “Chun Swae" (feat. Swae Lee) plays like an unintentional parody of a Rae Sremmurd track. “Bed" (ft. Ariana Grande) is serviceable enough, but it’s essentially a reheat of a DJ Mustard track from three years ago. “Though I Knew You” finds The Weeknd and Minaj struggling to find some sort of chemistry or energy. And Lil Wayne adds nothing to “Rich Sex,” another track that could easily be trimmed. Even the Future collaboration “Sir” feels like a paint-by-numbers Future song, which was clearly kept on the album for synergy purposes because the two are going on tour together this fall.
“Coco Chanel" (feat. Foxy Brown) is one of the few bright spots and easily the most energetic track of the lot. Minaj has garnered many comparisons throughout her career, but perhaps none more consistent than Lil Kim, who has been embroiled in a beef with Minaj for the last decade. Minaj likes to insist that she draws much more influence from Foxy Brown than Lil Kim, and this track, foolishly stuffed all the way at the end of the record, is a fresh patois-riddled jam. One wonders what a whole album of collaborations between these two would sound like.
But that wasn’t the plan with this record. Instead of honing in on a specific concept or conceit or genre, Minaj is just firing buckshot on Queen, spraying indiscriminately, just hoping to hit something. Pop ballads like “Come See About Me” and generic radio-friendly tunes like “Run & Hide” feel like Minaj cosplaying someone else. “Barbie Dreams,” which knicks a B.I.G. beat, is supposed to be provocative but doesn’t deliver much in the shock and/or awe departments. (When she’s not trying to be someone else, Minaj makes three-minute bangers that have a mix of trap and bounce influences — like “Chun Li” and “Good Form” — work.)
But even more bothersome than the fact that this feels like a collection of other artists' leftovers is that Minaj just comes off as uninspired and bored. She’s still one of the most technically talented MCs working today, but her sense of humor is sorely lacking both in the writing and the delivery on Queen. The album registers less as the work of someone who has climbed to the top and is doing a victory lap and more like that of someone who has to do their chores.
It’s hard to quantify or even qualify, but this album is missing that fearless intergalactic sprite we’ve come to love from Minaj. It’s been an almost four-year stretch between this and her last album, and you can definitely feel it; she sounds unsatisfied in contrast to her foil Cardi B, who genuinely seems like she’s having a ball and reminds us of when Minaj was fresh on the scene.
Unfortunately, Minaj doesn’t really investigate any of her issues with herself or others in any meaningful way on the new album. When all is said and done, it’s just another playlist of disconnected mish-mash bangers that we’ll probably forget in two weeks — an excuse to go on tour and continue the brand. Let’s hope she gets back to being Nicki one of these days.