Today is Nicki Minaj’s 41st birthday, and one of many surprises on her fifth album is the arrival of Billie Eilish’s haunting voice as the first sound, on a song that sees the usually imperious Trinidadian rapper expressing vulnerability as a mother and wife. “Why would anyone want to love me?/Rich, yes, but are you happy?” Minaj sings. The Eilish song she samples is When the Party’s Over.
Is the biggest, brashest, most outrageous queen of rap in the process of abdicating? In the years since her last release in 2018, she’s married a man she’s known since high school in New York and had a son, who she says in the song is now three.
This album’s title positions it as a sequel to her 2010 debut, the triple-platinum smash that made her a superstar and put her in vast demand as a special guest delivering verses for absolutely everybody in pop. But this one, much of the time, feels mature and relaxed, containing a number of sophisticated electronic productions that are very beautiful.
However, it’s an expansion of what she can do rather than a complete about turn. While she never transitions into the many-voiced rap monster who was such a blast in her early days, anyone hoping to hear her putting her rivals in their place will find plenty of great lines. “My throne, they can't S-I-T/My crown, you can't F-I-T,” she announces over a harsh trap beat on Barbie Dangerous. Beep Beep, Big Difference and Falling 4 U all pronounce her superiority: “I'm number one, y'all go argue over top four.”
Male A-listers line up to pay homage, including Drake on the cute Afrobeats track Needle; J Cole, who offers wise marriage advice on another laid-back production, Let Me Calm Down; and Future, who does his Auto-Tuned sing-rap thing on Nicki Hendrix, a remarkable pile-on of synth sounds that feels like it’s collapsing under its own weight as it closes.
There are pop tracks, and she’s already had a US number one with Super Freaky Girl, but this handful with their obvious samples (Rick James on that crude hit single, Cyndi Lauper on Pink Friday Girls, Junior Senior on the irritating Everybody) could be cordoned off on a separate EP to leave a collection that does things that are far more interesting. She roams from menacing, minimal trap on FTCU to futuristic gospel on Blessings, and gives numerous convincing reasons why that throne is still hers.