Nicki Minaj Harmony Holiday

The rapper’s latest album, Pink Friday 2, demonstrates the
jagged wound of moving on.

Pink Friday 2, by Nicki Minaj,
Young Money Entertainment and Republic Records

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Pink Friday 2 is blue. The album opens with an ethereal melancholic ballad sampling the moodiest Billie Eilish, “When The Party’s Over,” backdrop for Nicki Minaj’s candid grieving for the loss of her father to a hit-and-run in 2021, three days before he would have come to meet his infant grandson. Robert Maraj was a part-time gospel singer who had recovered from drug addiction and maintained sobriety for decades. Their relationship was difficult, and one of Minaj’s charms as an artist is that she found ways to re-parent herself and resurrect from a difficult upbringing in her own image, lyrically jarring, harrowing, and unfuckwithable—on her own terms. The trauma that demanded that maneuvering from real-life circumstance to the shroud of myth fuels the alter egos that animate her music—distortions of disproportionate plastic dolls, articulate robots, demons with god complexes trapped in the sunken place and glad about it. But on “Are You Gone Already” the mask recedes, and is replaced with a gauzy mourner’s veil that turns the gaze autodidactically on the disarmed self, tender and merciful. All of the residual dread, after an addict’s recovery, finds its rightful home in tragedy. The strange karma of recovery in bloodlines is this will toward other modes of sabotage that it often opens onto like muscle memory for the heart, the looming sense that the other ball will drop someday, that catastrophe is miraculously suspended in time like a paused sad movie while the momentum of the tragic plot carries these souls toward its realization. If calamity comes, it feels inevitable, as if it was always there—fame and doom are similar this way.

Or maybe they are the same, parallel tones in the universe, binary stars that need one another to shine, opposites of the same energy. Glory craves trouble, transcendence tests itself against chance evils, the disenchanted gods answer from their raven’s nest in the song’s borrowed chorus, I’ll only hurt you if you let me. Is the party over? Is the sequel all recap and unraveling? Minaj also addresses her son on this first song, who she calls Papa Bear, he giggles and squeals his approval, his first tentative hello, and everyone’s fate is conflated as the hook expands to gospel chorus, before it defuses to make way for the trivial rivalries that preoccupy the rest of the album like decoys. An elegy for the father becomes an elegy for the career as it was, and a rebirth that proves something is missing. The will to be outrageous that marks the original Pink Friday, and Minaj’s style across all four of her previous studio albums, seems mechanized and doubled over in ennui, or so relaxed it feels formulaic. The will to flaunt or conjure outrage is also diminished. It’s clear she’d rather be brooding and exploring new themes like motherhood, death, interiority, love, sacrifice, accusations of misogynoir, character assassination, marriage, outgrowing the persona so well you become indebted to its ghost, haunted by clones of your past. On an Instagram Live with singers Monica and Keyshia Cole the week of this album’s release, Minaj pretends they are all clones, and appears at home in this horrific myth, like she wants to be released and outsourced to a machine replica, or would rather try that than be expected to give the people the perfect ratio of pop and rap, femininity and aggression, that has been her brand up until this point.

Songs like “FTCU” (Fuck The Club Up) and “RNB” (Real Nigga Bitch), though anthemic and even enthralling, especially the latter with its feature from Lil Wayne, don’t cohere in the context of an album that begins on the mourner’s bench. We go from depth to desolation with no bridge. It feels like overcompensating or speaking over the self, almost hostile to the desire for introspection, in denial of the need for it. We end up with a more diminutive Minaj. Instead of the rapper who takes up space from every angle and perspective, defiant of gender roles and genre, we get a woman yearning to exceed the familiar, who needs the validation that comes from what she knows, having lost both loved ones and some fans to tragedy and controversy. There’s a sense throughout of grasping for former glories while trying to come off as nonchalant and self-assured. We get a jagged unhealed wound of an album praying at the altar of itself for new inspiration, discovering it, and becoming terrified of what the new muse is, because it invalidates the old ego, turns it obsolete. There comes a time for every rapper when she has to snitch on herself, cry in her sleep, wake up from the nightmare of bravado trying to find god. There’s no privacy in that seeking, however, and Minaj has grown weary of the scrutiny; her clapbacks are obligatory, but she really doesn’t care what we think of her in relation to Cardi or tabloids or TikTok Live outtakes. The spectacle she has to make of herself to sustain a rap career as the first woman to sign to Wayne’s Young Money and a woman enclosed by men who claim to respect her as long as she can play the convoluted diva role effectively. Her maturation is a liability, and so she makes a pseudo-pop album echoing her debut that feels like the other half of a parenthesis, like turning in a final assignment before she enters an open field on the other side of that half smile.

Onika Maraj, Nicki’s birth name, seems to seek its place again, to need to be uttered aloud, by the late father and the self, Papa Bear, and her most loyal listeners. The stage name feels like a mirage she cannot quite access throughout this album, not without worn-out tropes that don’t interest her anymore and de-radicalized clones of past ideals. But then there are moments of rapture. “Bahm Bahm” revels in old-school wholehearted self-aggrandizement that feels sincere: they say my price ridiculous / I don’t like them bitches. “Nicki Hendrix,” the song featuring Future that arrives two-thirds of the way through the album, reclaims vulnerability, a call-and-response with the opening track, a balm of reminiscence and subtle vengeance. It’s clear that what Minaj is examining is not as upbeat and manic as it once was, and the songs that honor a new, more measured temperament feel honest, take the most obvious risks, and also alienate the audience looking for their NPC. It’s Minaj’s turn to play with her back to the stage, to sing private lullabies to her son that happen to land on albums, and to enter her next desired sound. It won’t be vocal fry–laden singing or overwrought reiteration of raps she’s already written about being the best, or whimsical dance tracks designed to be sampled for TikTok that blurt out their crescendos like bad-faith open secrets. By the final track, “Just the Memories,” she is back in that sense, not facing us but facing the mirror, teasing suicide ideation or ego suicide, casting self-doubt as the armor it is in a world saturated with fake, clout-based confidence. She merges with the dead, returns to the elegiac, says goodbye to herself, bows, buckles, aches for comfort aloud, licks her wounds, and surrenders to them, as if being possessed by melancholy allows her access to parts of herself she’d lost in the shine of the crown. We know Nicki Minaj is a great rapper, who has sacrificed her reputation to a craft and industry that demands villains, and enacted the role of a villain on a hero’s journey. Now that she hopes to be seen as a whole person, past the twin disguises of fame and notoriety, past shamelessness and repentance, her life in pink is over. This is her dreaded goodbye to all that.

Harmony Holiday is the author of several collections of poetry and numerous essays on music and culture. Her collection Maafa came out in April, 2022.

The rapper’s latest album, Pink Friday 2, demonstrates the jagged wound of moving on.
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