The conundrum of Nicki Minaj – not Icki Garbaj, pithy Internet detractors – is a curious one indeed. At this point, she’s as inescapable a presence on the pop landscape as any of her peers, so much so that it’s hard to believe that Kanye’s apocalyptic posse cut “Monster” – wherein she contributed an energetic, schizophrenic, scene-stealing verse – was less than two years ago. In the interim, Nicki has hit big-time as both a solo artist and an in-demand guest, and with each release, she becomes harder and harder to peg.

Because, see, Nicki has all the ingredients of a vital artist; in theory, she’s poised to hit as a thrilling amalgam of Busta Rhymes and Lady Gaga, tongue-twisting gonzo rhymes locking horns with flamboyantly psychosexual dance-pop. But debut full-length Pink Friday played Nicki’s cards a little too close to the vest, saturated as it was with inoffensive but unexciting slow jams, but something resembling pop brilliance reared its head intermittently; Nicki and Eminem try to out-psychotic one another in the Busta-cribbing “Roman’s Revenge”, and singles “Your Love” and “Super Bass” exhibited how Nicki at her best has a stellar knack for hip-pop hybrids, her idiosyncratic flow riding smoothly into sugar-rush choruses.

It’s a weird line to try to straddle for any artist, especially one who longs for both pop stardom and rap legitimacy. With her sophomore record, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, Nicki tries valiantly to satisfy both camps, but dilutes both aesthetics. It’s pretty intriguing, conceptually – the record’s tracklist abruptly morphs from wacky hip-hop to floor-filling dance-pop smack dab in the middle – but Nicki hasn’t done herself any favors by isolating both sides of her bifurcated muse instead of uniting the two.

Of course, it doesn’t help that Nicki spends an awful lot of time in the skin of her increasingly-tiresome alter ego, Roman Zolanski (no relation to Roman Polanski, as she helpfully points out on “Stupid Hoe”); this yawning gimmick already yielded one of the most universally-panned Grammy performances of all time a couple of months ago, and while leadoff track “Roman Holiday” is slightly more palatable without pretentious Exorcist homages and krumping nuns, it’s still a grating display of everything detractors hate about Nicki Minaj. It’s ambitious, for sure, but the central melody is teeth-grittingly awful, and the awkward shoehorning in of “O Come All Ye Faithful” is more pandering and controversy-by-numbers than anything. Nicki’s unhinged delivery can be an asset – see the aforementioned “Monster”, or even the verse she gave Trey Songz to add a much-needed dose of weirdness to the otherwise-blah “Bottoms Up” – but she’s clearly trying too hard to seem off-the-wall here, adopting weird affectations and accents just for the hell of it.

And, perhaps most egregiously, the rap half of Nicki’s album seems hell-bent on being a Lil’ Wayne record. This is problematic: Nicki’s good looks and way with a likable chorus (at her peak, at least) have the potential to set her apart from her Young Money compatriots, but aligning herself with the collective’s figurehead makes it seem like a dilution of her strengths is a foregone conclusion. Literally every track on Roman Reloaded‘s first half could have been a Weezy instrumental; mildly interesting minimalism just waiting for an artistically-bankrupt “rapper” to trample all over it. (And, true to form, Lil’ Wayne stops by to do just that on both the title track and “Sex in the Lounge” – yes, Weezy, Nicki’s stage surname sounds just like “menage a trois”, but that doesn’t make the reference any cleverer.) Pink Friday‘s best tracks were spring-loaded with warm, burbling synths and brushed with pretty canned strings, so why are we all of a sudden revisiting Tha Carter IV, a record that nobody wants to revisit?

And, in theory, Nicki could salvage these recordings, but she too often resorts to Weezy nonsequiturs and Drake hashtags. Couple this with her alter ego’s obsession with genitalia – regarding Nicki/Roman’s dick, she reminds repeatedly that she’ll put it in your face in the unfortunately-titled “Come on a Cone”, and invites you to suck it if you don’t acknowledge her sovereignty on “I Am Your Leader” – and Reloaded‘s rappier half is a singularly irritating experience. It’s frustrating both on its own merits, and in contrast to Nicki’s best work in this area.

Honestly, Roman Reloaded works best when Nicki plays it safe. The RedOne-curated back half of the record is, essentially, dance-pop by numbers – it sounds like a rave thrown by Rihanna, latter-day Britney Spears, and Rihanna – but Nicki’s got a few fun melodies in her back pocket, and her fairly-generic singing voice at least seems to be getting a bit stronger. There’s not a note of originality in the whole enterprise, mind you, but that’s not the point; single “Starships”, for example, nicks the opening licks of Pink’s “Raise Your Glass” before swiping liberally from “Super Bass” and “Party Rock Anthem”, but it’s a perfectly charming dancefloor number. Which is generally the aesthetic; it’s exceptionally competent party music, each chemically-engineered to fill floors and gyrate hips, but never particularly distinguished from any of Nicki’s peers. “Pound the Alarm” sounds like “We Found Love” as reinterpreted by Taio Cruz, and “Automatic” sounds like “Pound the Alarm” as reinterpreted by Rihanna, bringing Nicki’s Xerox game full-circle in less than three tracks. By the time Beenie Man pops by to shout over “Gun Shot”, the second half of Roman Reloaded has breezed by; time flies when you’re having fun, I suppose, and the fog-and-lasers dance party that Nicki hosts on what I’m gonna refer to as Roman Reloaded‘s second side is a visceral blast.

Still, nothing – save maaaaaaybe “Starships” – on Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded really illustrates Nicki doing what she does best. An album of sugary hip-pop hybrids from Nicki has the potential to be a pop classic; by slicing her vision in two and presenting, essentially, two disparate platters to appease two different fanbases, Nicki’s alienated those of us who prefer her squarely in the middle. However, since she appears to be more comfortable rocking the party than inhabiting her psychotic-by-numbers alter ego, let’s all collectively cross our fingers and pray for Pink Friday 3: Roman Dies.

Grade: C

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