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Nicki Minaj: too much syrup, not enough spit

Singer Nicki Minaj performs before the NBA All-Star basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012, in Orlando, Fla.

Chris O'Meara/Chris O'Meara / AP

Nicki Minaj is free to turn pop artist if she chooses. To be fair, she makes for a delightfully weird one.

When the Trinidad-born, Queens-bred rapper gets on the mic, she spits in such a bewildering array of accents – faux cockney, Caribbean, streetwise American – it's impossible to tell which is the real one. The most brazenly absurd MC since Busta Rhymes, she's earned her plaudits for her skills as much as for her style. On Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, she holds her own against such masters of the form as Cam'ron, with the thundering track I am your Leader, as well as with Lil Wayne on Sex in the Lounge (where Bobby V artlessly trumpets the submissive gender stereotypes that Minaj defies by her very existence).

Sucks to be hip-hop, then, because based on much of Reloaded, Minaj's second studio album, the strongest female MC since Missy Elliott (no diss intended – she's better than dozens of male MCs as well) is only marginally interested in rap music.

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You get far less attention at fashion shows and on the top 40 as a rapper than you do as a diva, and lines like "Raggedy Ann could never be a Barbie" prove that nobody puts Nicki in a corner. Hence Reloaded's glut of plasticine dance-pop such as Starships, where Minaj sounds like a guest on her own album, taking a back seat to the synthesizer licks that sound like hairspray cans exploding.

There's nothing wrong with pop, of course, but Minaj is no singer. The melodies of syrupy ballads such as Young Forever sound so Auto-Tuned they might as well be performed by the animatronic Disneyland robots Minaj somewhat resembles. It's easy to conceive that her producers are hoarding their best beats for better vocalists.

Worse is the disappointment of a performer blowing open the doors that seem to close automatically behind every stellar female MC who comes along and seizes the spotlight as a rapper, only to retreat into singing (sadly, a much more acceptable role for women in music). The intensely strange Gun Shot finds her trading patois with dancehall superstar Beenie Man over a syrupy groove that defies the rude bwoy lyrics, but it's obvious what the roles they're being slotted into are: boy = rapper, girl = singer.

There's a downside for the Minaj marketing machine, too. Minaj is perfectly welcome to pursue whatever she likes on a musical level, but that doesn't mean she's good at both roles. It might be a wise marketing move to pad out the rough rap joints with dance-pop tunes that are more in vogue than rap is right now. In the long term, it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to buy an all-singing Nicki Minaj album when they have Beyoncé, Rihanna and the like to choose from. To paraphrase Lauryn Hill, someone who, in her prime, managed to occupy both the rapper and singer roles without one ever really eclipsing the other: Why be a hard rock if you really are a gem?

Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded

  • Nicki Minaj
  • Universal Republic/Young Money/Cash Money



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  • Scrappy Happiness
  • Joel Plaskett Emergency
  • Maple
  • Two and a half stars

"Time flies," Joel Plaskett observes, "and then just stands still." Recorded in a gimmicky regimen – one song per week, for 10 weeks – the song maker's seventh solo disc addresses nostalgia and the magic of making music, and the intersections of those two things. On an inconsistent but worthwhile project, the Nova Scotian rocks convincingly (Lightning Bolt, Somewhere Else) and rhymes cheaply (million with Neil Young). He's singing, in his clean tenor, about passion – having it, losing it and craving it. Life's best moments are delivered in flashes of lightning, I think Plaskett means, and we live for scraps of happiness, prolonging or holding them as best we can. Rock on, then, it goes without saying. Brad Wheeler


  • New Wild Everywhere
  • Great Lake Swimmers
  • Nettwerk
  • Three and a half stars

Another wonderful record from the soft-voiced Tony Dekker and his Great Lake Swimmers, an outfit that now includes the sweet secret weapon of Canadian roots music, the harmonist and violinist Miranda Mulholland. Folksy sounds are serene, waltzes are quieting, and the words and images are chosen carefully. These are gentle transmissions from the eyes of life storms, to paraphrase Dekker, a songwriter who eases in and out of blue colours sublimely. But as this Toronto-based band develops, I'm drawn to the moments when its engine is revved. In that area, Easy Come Easy Go is fiddled Fleetwood Mac and the title track is feel-good light rock – an uplifting number about a "new wild feeling dancing in the air." It's as outreaching as we've heard yet from GLS, and an indication that the sky is still Dekker's limit. B.W.


  • Folila
  • Amadou & Mariam
  • Nonesuch
  • Four stars

Even though Folila finds Amadou & Mariam, the self-proclaimed "Blind Couple from Mali," working with the likes of Santigold, rapper Theophilus London, and Tunde and Kyp from TV on the Radio, the duo's sound is by no means diluted; if anything, you'd think it was the rockers who were crossing over. Anchored by stompingly insistent, blissfully polyrhythmic grooves, the duo's songs allow room for anything from the keening guitars of Dougou Badia to the disco-smooth harmony vocals on Metemya. But the heart of the music remains in Bamako, ensuring that Amadou & Mariam's sound remains as personal as it is inimitable. J.D. Considine


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  • All Our Reasons
  • Billy Hart, Ethan Iverson, Mark Turner, Ben Street
  • ECM
  • Three and a half stars

Jazz drumming is traditionally seen as being all about rhythm, but it can also be strikingly melodic. As his work with Herbie Hancock or McCoy Tyner attests, Billy Hart knows how to drive a band, but this low-key session is less focused on propulsion than interplay, letting Hart show his tuneful side. Between the gamelan-like opening to Song for Balkis and his near-conversational brushwork behind Mark Turner's athletic tenor on Ohnedaruth, Hart's playing verges on the hummable. Add in the rollicking Duchess, a post-bop workout marked by Ethan Iverson's Monk-ish piano, or the wry, playful Imke's March, and you've reasons aplenty to check out Hart and company. J.D.C.

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