“Act Hood, Think Globally”: Brontez Purnell Reviews Pink Friday 2

Pink Friday 2

Photo courtesy of Brontez Purnell.

For far too fucking long, female rap has felt like a suicide career choice. The general formula seems to take these young, brave, beautiful, smart and ambitious poet girls, egg them on to rap about the gnarliest shit, and, once the things they rap about start to mirror their public life, subject them to a public character annihilation. We’ve seen the comments, child. Bitches is deeply unkind. Female rappers must not only push a furious pen, but wear a coat of psychic armor thick enough to survive their own notoriety. When we consider the perilously high stakes involved, the crown is indeed a heavy, hallowed, and bloody one to wear. So, it is with great consideration that one examines the life and career of the singular Nicki Minaj, née Onika Tanya Maraj, aka Chun Li, aka Roman Zolanski.

Every superhero origin story starts with an adversary. We have all watched the video of young Onika in acting class at LaGuardia getting so into the script that she throws a phone at another young actress with such force the teacher had to intervene. But you could pinpoint there, this thing: a hunger in her. Black, working class, and immigrant-born in the USA, Minaj certainly had several cultural strikes against her but was always going to make a career out of art. When evaluating an artistic persona, it’s hard to truly separate the authentic self from the constructed one. But you could parse out that, at her core, young Onika was a trained actress who made rap her drama, and Nicki Minaj was the role of a fucking lifetime, conceived by and tailor-fitted only for her. 

On her fifth studio album, Pink Friday 2, released earlier this month, Minaj offers what feels like a totem. The last decade, both triumphant and tumultuous, culminates here in a record that skimps on rowdy club bangers but feels lyrical, autobiographical, and even—dare I use a very loaded term—experimental? If we understand Pink Friday, the first, as the sun sign, then Pink Friday 2 feels like the moon sign: where the first exhibits all the trappings of fame, ego, and energy, its sequel finds Nicki dealing with shadow work: age, wisdom, vulnerability, and even some unlearning. The record feels more like a compilation of sorts, but an important one for an artist at Nicki’s stage in the game. I liken it to André 3000 putting out a jazz flute record last month; sometimes our idols need the privilege to improvise and experiment. Pink Friday 2 feels like a personal journal and a living sketch book of sometimes fragmented but nonetheless potent sound bites. The traditional Nicki bars are there, but the framework has shifted. Maybe it’s even muted?

Before I listened, the critique I heard most about this album was that it sounded like “adult contemporary rap.” Which gagged me ‘cause damn, we’re adults now, and thank fucking god we made it. There is this cultural amnesia that happens around hip-hop—those of us who are older than Gen-Z will remember that it only became a Grammy category in our lifetimes. Nicki’s ascension to the rap pantheon, then, felt like a a coup. In her DNA was a girl with authentic rap powers who nevertheless wielded a heavy hand in the pop music landscape (remember her left-of-center EDM collab with David Guetta?).

We remember the way she was also bullied for it, but in retrospect I think it was a power move. If she didn’t put on that purple wig and sing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” the powers that be were going to siphon that money to a white girl. Ever the optimist, Nicki said, “glue my muthafuckin’ wig down, I’m making this money.” The motto? “Act hood (i.e. locally), but think globally.” The vibe sits on her usual style—Island vibes by way of New York City—but you could blast the record on the Pacific Coast Highway while staring contemplatively at the waves. It refuses a fixed locality, but I digress. 

In the making of the Minaj persona, so gleefully forged in Nicki’s post-mixtape era, was this never-before-seen intersectional blend of rap, pop, and international dance music, which is now the norm (all the Black girls are EDM’ing it these days, but that’s an essay for another time). Couple this with her Warholian work ethic; apart from her own discography, Minaj has been on 185 features, and her verses are often the only memorable thing about these songs. She’s given us a lifetime of club bangers but, in her own words, “When you already won, what the fuck is a race?”

This is what makes Pink Friday 2 a deep curiosity, maybe even historic. What we get here is the sparse and radical musings of an artist with not much to lose, one who’s finally free to explore other notes. Even at its slowest, there’s something warm and imaginative about the output. This is the record she made for herself and her fans. “Adult contemporary” is a bit of a gag, but it is grown and sophisticated. 

The album opens with “Are You Gone Already,” a highly emotional track, more or less a ballad, and an ode to two men, her deceased father and newborn son, with a heart-breaking line to boot: “You’ve already made peace with me / One day you’ll have to forgive Mommy.” It’s so close to a confessional diary entry, setting the tone for the album. As Minaj likes to say in her Instagram Lives, we gon get into some things.

“Needle,” featuring her longtime friend Drake, feels like a breezy and fun B-Side, all island vibes, like the refreshing Hookah Bar jam you hear at last call. But don’t get it twisted. One of my personal favorites on the record, “Bham Bham,” shows Nicki in full flex beast mode. “We don’t like them bitches, pussy tight and vicious, hit them likes to lick this” rolls so pretty off her tongue, in her signature cadence, it’s almost a throwback to her mixtape days. But then, shit really gets weird.

Two tracks on the album are as exhilarating as they are confounding. The club banger “Everybody” (sampled from Jr. Sr., an electroclash band I toured with back in the day) feels so out of goddamn left field it’s almost like a sucker punch for all the cool kids that were partying in 2002. It also sets the tone for “Last Time I Saw You,” a lead single that feels like an electroclash indie pop song of the 00’s era. It’s superb actually, and it’s the song that made me give this record the once-over twice.

Only time will tell what Pink Friday 2 will become. In terms of lineage, it’s a laid-back but observant offering from an artist that has been delighting us for two decades and finally got to make something her heart wanted to. There’s a kind of personal vindication to it, like a labor of love has been released. And we, the Barbs, graciously accept.