About 30 seconds into her new song “Pills N Potions,” I realized I was no longer holding out for Nicki Minaj’s big hip-hop hit. The first single from her upcoming album, The Pink Print, is a Dr. Luke-produced ballad of whispers and coos that sneaks in a few rap verses amid the shimmering tambourines and shapely percussion and a hook that insists, “I still love.” The lyrics hint at a pastel-tinted Valley of the Dolls lifestyle — sad, highly medicated glamor maintained despite a lover’s betrayal (of sorts) and the fickleness of hangers-on. What’s most unusual is that Minaj, who is so often showily combative, seems so zen and forgiving about it all: “I still don’t wish death on ’em/ I just reflect on ’em,” she raps. It’s as soft as we’ve ever seen her, but the meditative maturity of it resonates.
I spent a long time being disappointed by Nicki Minaj, pop star. For an emcee who built her reputation on wild mixtapes and guest verses in which she bested whichever male rapper was secure enough to share a track with her, Minaj’s 2010 debut album, Pink Friday, seemed like a sellout move. Built on the success of her Annie Lennox-sampling surprise hit “Your Love,” it was more pop than hip-hop — and the pop moments were unmistakably girly. Hit single “Moment 4 Life” even imagined Minaj and Drake’s wedding, with a video that blew up that fantasy to fairy-tale proportions. It was frustrating to see a performer who’d been hyped as the next great female emcee take her place among the Gagas and Katy Perrys of the pop stratosphere — not because pop is qualitatively inferior to hip-hop, but because it had been so long since a woman rapper had broken through to the mainstream.
Three and a half years later, “Moment 4 Life” has grown on me, and the landscape for women in hip-hop looks a bit brighter: last year’s Matangi found M.I.A. back on her game; new talents such as Azealia Banks, Angel Haze, and Iggy Azalea have emerged; and an echelon down from them, there’s room for everyone from Sasha Go Hard and her all-female Chicago cohorts to Tumblr truth-teller Kitty (formerly Pryde) to Awkwafina, who won over the web with a series of hilarious music videos. If there’s still a noticeable lack of female voices on Urban-format radio, the future at least looks more promising than it did in 2010.
I’ve also come to appreciate — and in many cases love — what Nicki Minaj brings to pop music. More genuine than Gaga and quirkier than Beyoncé, with more depth than Rihanna and a sense of humor that’s wittier, more consistent, and straight-up weirder than self-identified oddball Katy Perry’s, she manages to jump from persona to persona without diluting her own personality. There’s an easy slyness about gender as performance that comes through in Minaj’s over-the-top (female and male) characters, and widely circulated quotes and videos have shown just how sophisticated she is in her understanding of that binary. As Ann Powers wrote in the LA Times, way back in 2010, this awareness makes her “an intelligent manipulator of the visual, using wild costumes to present herself in ways that challenge the conventional images of female rappers as either strict sex kittens or hardy homegirls.”
And although her output since the release of Pink Friday has been erratic, Minaj has made invaluable contributions to the pop canon. “Super Bass,” hidden on a deluxe version of that album and released as a single in the spring of 2011, isn’t just an ideal marriage of romantic hooks and relentless flow — it’s one of the all-around best pop songs of the millennium. “Starships,” the first single from Minaj’s 2012 album Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, was an overwritten, personality-free play for dance-floor dominance, but it shared space on that album with “Beez in the Trap,” a minimalist rap masterpiece with a pop art aesthetic. One of my favorite incarnations of Nicki Minaj, pop star, appears on the non-album track “Top of the World” a sparkly anthem to overcoming self-doubt that’s aimed at an audience of little girls; the fact that the song predates Pink Friday also suggests that her interest in Top 40 sounds isn’t solely a response to the pressures of the marketplace.
The Minaj we meet on “Pills N Potions” is some combination of that song’s wise advice-giver and the smitten romantic of “Moment 4 Life.” It’s a pretty ballad, and a good look for a performer who’s too unique and iconoclastic to be just a pop diva or just a rapper — one who worked so hard, for so long, to carve out that niche for herself and finally seems comfortable inhabiting it. Even its cover art, which strips off the pink wigs and cake-frosting makeup, sends the message that she doesn’t need a gimmick to sell the single. As much as I’ve come to love those gimmicks in the past few years, if this is a glimpse at the real Nick Minaj, then I can’t wait to get to know her better.