Nicki Minaj was there too — with two-tone hair and spiky dress — though only as a presenter. “Don’t we all wish we could have green hair and make it look good, like Nicki?” asked Rihanna, who won the award Nicki Minaj was presenting and later slapped her derrière as the two walked off stage. Somewhere off camera, Kesha was probably scribbling down a shopping list: Manic Panic, gluteal implants.
At this time last year Nicki Minaj had established herself as the most important new female voice in hip-hop since Missy Elliott and was on her way to becoming one of the most ubiquitous artists in pop, thanks to a series of scene-stealing collaborations, high on character, technique and energy. For more than a year now, she has been a rejoinder to an endless stream of lovermen, narcissists, tough guys and lyrical monsters, besting them all, from Trey Songz toKanye West.
So it’s odd that upon the release of her proper debut album, “Pink Friday” (Young Money/Cash Money/Universal), she has been bested in some ways by Kesha, who at this time last year was just beginning to figure out how to rap. Kesha released “Cannibal” (Kemosabe/RCA) this week, an EP that continues her move away from pop singer headlong into the sort of bubblegum-snapping slick talk that she has all but cornered the market on. Compared to her debut, “Animal,” which was released in January, “Cannibal” is riskier, narrower and more successful.
Nicki Minaj, on the other hand, has attempted to expand her palette — emotional and lyrical — on “Pink Friday,” with sometimes numbing results. She has spent so much time and effort dismantling traditional female rap archetypes — the vixen, the tough broad — that it’s disheartening to hear her crawl into another box — of self-help-minded introspect — in the interest of maturity. Gone is much of the attitude and exuberance of her guest appearances, replaced with what can only be described as a sense of purpose, something she has never before been burdened by.
And as is clear from this album, maturity is overrated. The first two singles — both huge radio hits, it should be said — have been shocking in the only way still possible with Nicki Minaj: their straightforwardness. “Your Love” and “Right Thru Me” are love songs through and through, and make for some of her least imaginative music. (“Massive Attack,” which was released before them, was a fiasco of overambition and didn’t even make the album.) After a year of unrelenting inventiveness, these are cold songs that deny Nicki Minaj the full range of her skill.
More frustrating are the emotionally fraught numbers here, which are plenty: “Pink Friday” has more in common with a Mary J. Blige album than any hip-hop record. The mode is most convincing on the truly sad “Dear Old Nicki” and the album opener, “I’m the Best,” on which she says, “I’m fighting for the girls that never thought they could win.” But too often — “Fly,” “Save Me,” “Here I Am” — she turns maudlin, as if in search of anOprah couch. Worse, these songs don’t take advantage of her natural gifts as a vocalist: there’s no element of surprise, no unusual vocal tics, no sense of theater, only melodrama.
“Roman’s Revenge” is her most Nicki Minaj-like vocal performance on the album, and it features the rapper with whom she has the most in common: not her mentor Lil Wayne or her labelmate Drake, but another category-killing character-actor outsider, Eminem. Here, she’s invigorated, using space and structure in her trademark way, dropping words in between pregnant pauses:
I hear the mumbling
I hear the cackling
I got ’em scared
You at a stand
These are the expectation-bending rhymes that have made Nicki Minaj the most dangerous rapper to share a song with, and here, even Eminem sounds hungry, wanting to keep up. But that attitude is too scarce on this album, as if now, no longer having to make an impression loudly, she’s unsure of what to say, and how to say it.
Still, even at her dullest, Nicki Minaj is more technically gifted, more thoughtful and more radical than Kesha, which makes it somewhat maddening that, with “Cannibal,” Kesha threatens to become the most influential female rapper of the day, or at least the most popular.
Pretending Kesha isn’t a rapper is no longer feasible. She’s primarily singing on only two songs here, “The Harold Song” and “C U Next Tuesday.” In the past she was accused of appropriating the style of the white-girl hipster-rap curio Uffie, but here, on songs like “Carnival” and “Crazy Beautiful Life,” she might be channeling Kid Sister, or more to the point, they’re both channeling L’Trimm, all sneering saucy talk.
Nevertheless, Kesha’s album has the sound of an artist loosening up to fully inhabit a new creative space, while Nicki Minaj’s reflects the pressure — self-imposed or otherwise — associated with the weight of expectation and moral authority. And while Nicki Minaj frets, Kesha feels more unbound then ever, free to do stupid things, smartly.
“Cannibal” is in every way a slicker and prettier album than her debut “Animal.” She sounds confident in her lyrics, which remain mired in filthy-night-out-soundtrack mode. “I don’t want to go places where all my ladies can’t get in/Just grab a bottle, some boys, and let’s take it back to my basement,” she raps on “Sleazy.”
That song is produced in part by Bangladesh, the Atlanta hip-hop producer, and it’s gargantuan, with reverb-thick marching drums, the type of song any number of more talented rappers would want to have their way with. By contrast, the beat he contributed to “Pink Friday,” for “Did It On’em,” is needling and synthy, more pop-oriented. And Nicki Minaj uses it for some of her familiar gender-twisting. “All these bitches is my sons,” she raps. “And I’ma go and get some bibs for ’em/A couple formulas, little pretty lids on ’em.” Playful and provocative, it’s one of the album’s best insults. Kesha has lower aims, and even less idea of how to achieve them. You hear it on “Grow a Pear,” on which Kesha proclaims, “I just can’t date a dude with a vag.” For her, gender roles are fixed. Her transgressions aren’t subversive, just familiar frat humor coming from a woman’s mouth.
Nicki Minaj’s and Kesha’s audiences couldn’t be more different. Same goes for their styles. That there’s overlap between the two turns out to be the biggest surprise. There’s one outright Kesha-like song on Nicki Minaj’s album: “Check It Out,” produced by will.i.am, on which her vocals are run through a tinny Auto-Tune-like effect. “Competition/Why, yes/I would love some,” she says. Of course she has none in hip-hop — maybe she should be looking elsewhere anyhow.