*** (out of four)
No, Nicki Minaj still hasn’t made an album that consistently brandishes her best asset. (Not that one, dude.)
I’m fine with that.
Of course, it would be great if Minaj uncorked the jaw-dropping skills flashed in guest spots on Kanye West’s “Monster” for an entire record. In its most exhilarating moments, her flow sounds like a rap roller coaster with a mad scientist running the controls.
Still, “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded” lands closer to the center of the target than its predecessor, “Pink Friday.” As if wanting to make sure people don’t accuse her of skewing too closely toward radio-friendly R&B like the boring “Pink Friday” single “Right Thru Me,” “Roman Reloaded” opens with a six-track stream of crazy.
Minaj’s vocal dexterity skips over beats both banging (“Roman Holiday”) and squeaking (“HOV Lane,” which resembles Childish Gambino’s “Bonfire” while she raps about tipping “big-booty strippers”). Yet the album should almost be divided into suites, since the next few tracks signify a downshift into dry R&B flavors (“Champion” with Nas, Drake and Young Jeezy, “Right By My Side” with Chris Brown) and sexual boasting (“Sex in the Lounge”) that already sounds crass and derivative before Lil Wayne guests.
The disc’s back half mostly turns into a Britney album, albeit one featuring a few killer verses (like the centerpiece of the otherwise childish “Whip It”) and subject matter more explicit but no more complex. A man-eater with an occasional streak of vulnerability, Minaj doesn’t have much to say (even on “Marilyn Monroe,” another person experienced with a variety of contrasting personalities and intense public opinion), but awesomely irresistible cuts like “Starships,” “Pound the Alarm” and “Va Va Voom” represent pure dance floor domination, regardless of who’s on the mic.
The rapper’s absurd performance of “Roman Holiday” at the Grammys showed that she shouldn’t try to be a dramatic sibling to Lady Gaga. Minaj’s voice and vocal gymnastics achieve more than outrageous costumes, theatrical storylines and high-priced cameos ever will. Hope that one day she owns an entire album; now, just enjoy how she owns the party.