QUEEN has arrived with the fanfare reserved for both Pop Stars and Hip Hop’s Elite, a duality that Nicki Minaj has spent her career cultivating. Nicki stoked the flames of a lyrical resurrection by dropping “Chun-Li” and “Barbie Tingz” prior to the album’s release, leading to further speculation that QUEEN will mark Nicki’s to the days of “Monster”, in which she slayed both Jay-Z and Kanye on Yeezy’s own magnum opus.
Was this new album to be the second coming of the now mythical “Mixtape Nicki”?
Nicki’s Duality: Queen of Rap, or Pop Icon?
Nicki Minaj’s pop side has been criticised, mainly by those deep in the hip-hop community who saw the potential for Nicki to be the first female rapper to enter the true “Top 5” conversation. Her arrival in 2010 came laced with technical and lyrical ability. She followed up her giant-slaying “Monster” verse with a debut album (Pink Friday) that features a venom-spitting Eminem on the second track – and she matches Em bar-for-bar. Yet the album also has indulgent pop moments in “Your Love” and “Right Through Me”, and these forays can sink the credibility of a record (think Jay-Z on In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 or Drake’s dismissal by some from the “top 5” conversation because of his singing).
In her defense, Nicki has always maintained that pop is a passion of hers – that her singing isn’t cynical or tailored towards sales and commercial success, but because she enjoys it.
By the numbers, QUEEN is the most rap-heavy of any of Nicki Minaj’s four albums, continuing the trend of Nicki displaying her “passion” for pop less and less as her career has developed.
This analysis counts the words in every Nicki Minaj album album and single, and attributes each to either rap or pop (singing). They are also categorised by hooks, verses, and intros/outros. The “pop %” and “rap %” are the percentage of words in a particular album or song dedicated to each discipline.
QUEEN is the Most Rap-Heavy Album of Nicki Minaj’s Career
If rap is what the people want, rap is what the people have finally received from Nicki on QUEEN. Just over a quarter of the album is devoted to singing, by far her lowest pop percentage of any album.
Nicki Minaj’s debut album Pink Friday and sophomore effort Roman Reloaded feature similar pop percentages in vastly different ways. Nicki’s method on Pink Friday involves blending rap verses with pop hooks, notably on tracks “Moment 4 Life”, “Right Thru Me” and “Blazin”. There is just one track 100% devoted to pop, “Save Me”, and 2 tracks with no pop whatsoever, “Roman’s Revenge” and “Did It On ‘Em”, both songs that feature Nicki spitting heavy bars reminiscent of her mixtape run.
Roman Reloaded is one of the most unique albums in hip-hop history. The first 7 songs are 99% rap. The next 5 are a blend: 56% pop, 44% rap. Then there is a run of 6 songs without a single rap bar, before “Stupid Hoe” ends the album with 100% rap.
Drake floated a similar idea on 2018 album Scorpion, where the first half is devoted to rap and the second to singing, while Outkast also played with the idea on 2004 double record Speakerboxx/The Love Below, the first disc being Big Boi rapping, the second Andre 3000 mixing the two disciplines.
Nicki draws a distinct sonic line between the two genres, offering the opportunity for listeners to engage with her as a fully-fledged pop star. For whatever reason, thus far it has been the last time Nicki has fully committed to the pop genre. On 2014 album The Pinkprint, she dramatically increases her rapping, and the two biggest singles, “Only” and “Anaconda” are entirely rap. She retreats to the formula of debut Pink Friday, a blend of rap and pop, with “Grand Piano” the only track to feature no rap.
The Numbers Behind Nicki Minaj’s QUEEN
This is, by a large margin, Nicki’s least poppy, most rap-focused studio album. She prepared fans for a rap onslaught by dropping “Barbie Tingz” prior, featuring 100% rap. She also dropped “Bed” with Ariana Grande (72% rap), and “Chun-Li” (77% rap). “Bed” is still pop-focused thanks to Ariana, and it performed the worst of the three singles, limping to 43 on the Hot 100 and thus far uncertified (“Barbie Tingz” hit 25 and is Gold, “Chun-Li” hit 10 and is Platinum).
Three Tracks on QUEEN feature 100% singing, the most since 2012’s Roman Reloaded
“Run & Hide” is an R&B-style ballad that finds Nicki revealing a vulnerability that’s been missing in her verses since last studio album The Pinkprint in 2014. The second verse is tinted with confidence, though nothing in the song can match the outright assertion reserved for her rap verses.
“2 Lit 2 Late” is merely an interlude that bleeds into “Come See About Me”, which sneaks the listener under Nicki’s well-manicured public face of invincibility and outright dismissal (see “Barbie Dreams” for examples of typical rap Nicki).
The most interesting use of singing on the record is “Coco Chanel”, featuring Foxy Brown. Nicki sings the hook and raps two (hard) verses, whilst Foxy spits a venomous 18 bars.
Foxy Brown is a veteran female rapper from the halcyon days of the late 90s, with 2 platinum albums in her discography. Her last record was released in 2001, and since, she has largely retreated from public view, spending some time behind bars and being accused of stealing a weave. Couple these trials with Nicki’s words on 2012 bonus track “Press Conference”:
“So these other bitches that only did rap and now they’re washed, and they’re living in, you know, low income housing, is that winning?”
Now the singing on “Coco Chanel” becomes incredibly important. Nicki is obsessed with mainstream success (see video below), and clearly views rappers who have lost relevance as not successful. Judging from her comments on “Press Conference”, she believes her pop side sets her apart from the very group of rappers that Foxy Brown came up with: Lil’ Kim, Eve, Da Brat. Singing, on a track with Foxy, on an album that is rap-heavy, could be telling of Nicki’s mindstate.
Nicki’s obsession with longevity through mainstream success leads us to another record-breaking female rapper: Cardi B, the Queen of 2017.
Cardi B’s Challenge for “Queen of Rap”
Cardi B has ascended to the pinnacle of hip-hop in the past 12 months, out-charting every single other rapper on the Hot 100 in the second half of 2017, becoming the first female rapper with two Hot 100 number ones, having the most simultaneous songs in the Hot 100 for a woman, and releasing a debut album that went platinum the day it dropped. Cardi’s 2017 took the incredible numbers posted by Australian female rapper Iggy Azalea in 2014 to a whole ‘nother level. Naturally, there will be rumours of tension between a rising female rapper of this caliber, and one who used the very first song on her debut album to say “I’m the best bitch doing it”.
For all the press devoted to this “beef”, there are very few concrete examples of it. There is the “Motorsport” disagreement, in which Nicki felt slighted by an interview Cardi gave after the track was released claiming Nicki changed her verse after Cardi had laid hers. This was resolved by both parties, who both agreed there was no beef and it was a misunderstanding. Their beef seems to be concocted by journalists seeking to capitalise on the success of Cardi, and it does nothing to further the genre – in fact, it helps perpetuate the damaging stereotype that only one female rapper can be on top at once.
Cardi’s influence in modern rap is now undeniable, and it’s unlikely to be a coincidence that Nicki’s QUEEN was pushed back as far as possible from Invasion of Privacy. Nor is it surprising that Nicki’s album comes laden with rap bars, since Cardi has largely eschewed the “rap/pop” mix that made Nicki famous.
Cardi barely spends any time singing on Invasion of Privacy, heading straight the bars and not relenting for all 13 tracks and 5,678 words. A little over a month after the album dropped, Nicki pushed her QUEEN album back from June to August, citing, among other reasons, “perfectionism”. She then delivered her most rap-heavy studio album of all time.
The QUEENs of Hip Hop
If it was Cardi B who sent Nicki back to the writer’s pad, hip-hop fans have another reason to give her thanks. Nicki’s intent on keeping a foot firmly in the pop genre has had mixed results, and it’s hard to deny there is little more Nicki can do to excite her fans than spit. QUEEN has an abundance of bars, and third track “Barbie Dreams” is a prime example of a lyrical goliath finally getting back in the ring. She easily out-raps a tired and confused Eminem on “Majesty”, and “Coco Chanel” with Foxy Brown is one of the hardest tracks of the year.
Nicki hasn’t been able to maintain the lyrical “Monster” she rode in on. But despite that, QUEEN is a firm acknowledgement of the importance and purity of female rap. Whether it came about organically or via Cardi B is inconsequential.