You have to reach as far back as Lil' Kim to find an analog to Nicki Minaj, who was hardcore rap's reigning princess long before "Pink Friday," her official debut. But Kim was too foulmouthed (for a girl, anyway) for superstardom, too uninterested in the monster hits to be found at the intersection of hip-hop and R&B
"Pink Friday" is full of songs just like that, and to anyone who heard its early, hardcore-heavy leaks, these softer, usually romantic tracks may feel like compromises, meant to reassure mainstream listeners that Minaj is a semi-proper girl with, you know, feelings, not just a piranha with a gymnastic flow.
"Friday" nibbles at the edges of what female rappers are allowed to do, even as it provides a steady helping of pop hits. On "Dear Old Nicki" (a semi-ballad, naturally), Minaj explains to her former self that such changes were necessary ("You was underground/And I was mainstream," she consoles. "I live the life now/That we would daydream"). "Your Love," which samples Annie Lennox, is a love song so shamelessly sweet it's as if replaced Minaj with Rachel McAdams, but it's a great song, and another example of Minaj trying on and ultimately discarding various personas the way Lady Gaga does platform shoes. She tries on voices, too, taking a scenic tour of Queens, London and Trinidad before settling on a Jamaican patois.
"Pink Friday" is a parade of superstar cameos. Among those with whom Minaj tussles: Eminem (on "Roman's Revenge," Slim Shady scraps with Minaj alter ego Roman Zolanski, and everyone tries much too hard), Drake and Rihanna. Only Kanye West, who on "Blazin' " manages to withstand the rapid-fire assault that is Minaj at her finest, is known to have survived.
Recommended tracks: "Right Thru Me," "Blazin'," "Your Love"