More than any other genre, hip-hop loves a sequel. Jay-Z. Eminem, Future, Kid Cudi, Lil’ Wayne, Rick Ross, Method Man: all have felt impelled to release a branded follow-up to their best-loved work, usually years after the event. Their proliferation isn’t quite enough to dispel a slight sense of shoring up declining inspiration by revisiting past glories – it’s unlikely Nas would have felt the need to revisit his landmark 1994 debut Illmatic with 2001’s Stillmatic had his previous album I Am … not been so poorly received – but that isn’t really the case with Pink Friday 2, an album Nicki Minaj has been trailing since 2019.
Whatever you make of Minaj’s recent releases, her career is hardly in the doldrums. It might take a concerted effort to get through her Ice Spice collaboration, Barbie World, without feeling the will to live ebbing from you – time has done little to make its chief sample source, Aqua’s Europop hit Barbie Girl, any less annoying – but you can’t argue with the figures. Streamed 371m times on Spotify alone, a hit everywhere from Honduras to Hungary: it was her 23rd US Top 10 single, more than any other female rapper. This is not a woman in need of a commercial boost, something she’s quick to underline: “I tell ’em I’m moving units, my videos gonna view it,” she snaps on FTCU. “Spotify ain’t gonna lie, they’re really streaming my music.”
And yet, perhaps the existence of Barbie World tells you something about Minaj’s desire to label her fifth album as a sequel to her debut. Pink Friday had moments where it leaned heavily towards mainstream pop, driven by will.i.am-sourced samples of the Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star and the sound of Minaj singing rather than rapping, but it also had a ferocious brace of opening tracks – I’m the Best, Roman’s Revenge and Did It on ’Em – that underlined Minaj’s pure hip-hop heart, her position as an exceptionally gifted and cheeringly unpredictable MC.
But it was the pop tracks that defined Minaj’s commercial career and have continued to do so: Starships, Anaconda, Bang Bang, Bed, Barbie World, Super Freaky Girl. The latter appears on Pink Friday 2, alongside a couple of other pop cuts – Everybody, which interpolates Junior Senior’s old dance hit Move Your Feet is both a potential hit and annoying enough to make Barbie World sound understated – but they feel like outliers on an album less reliant on immediately recognisable hooks than moody atmospherics, creative production and Minaj’s considerable skills on the microphone.
As on the original Pink Friday, its initial section is given over to a string of fierce, dark hip-hop tracks – Beep Beep sounds like a trap track recorded in a dungeon; the production on Fallin 4 U is fantastic, disrupting the rhythm with disorientating swells of smeared vocal samples and synths – all of them free from guest artists, giving Minaj more space to flex her lyrical muscles. When the guests arrive, they’re of a blue-chip standard – Needle pairs Drake and Sza, the latter appearing via voicemail; J Cole contributes a smooth verse to Let Me Calm Down, the sound of which is far more creative and spacey than your standard hip-hop ballad – and, moreover, never really snatch the spotlight from the star attraction: on the fantastic Nicki Hendrix, Future’s Auto-Tuned vocal essentially blends into the heady, teeming mass of electronics in the background.
Pink Friday 2 keeps Minaj’s plethora of crazed alter egos more or less in check – this is, after all, an album that signifies its maturity on its opening track, Are You Gone Already, which seems to come from the same emotional place as her swiftly rescinded 2019 announcement of her retirement to concentrate on the business of being a wife and mother. Over a sample from Billie Eilish’s When the Party’s Over, she agonises about time spent away from the three-year-old she refers to as Papa Bear, beset by the thought of middle age – Pink Friday 2 is released on her 41st birthday – and her father’s death in a hit-and-run accident two years ago. The topic of motherhood comes up again on Blessings, which pitches an appearance by gospel vocalist Tasha Cobbs Leonard against a beat that’s weirdly ominous, undercutting the track’s sentimentality.
But more mature and given to sentiment or not, you’re never far away from a furious dismissal of Minaj’s rivals, a witty highlighting of her abilities (“I can channel Big Poppa and push out Papa Bear”) or indeed a glowing endorsement of her own vagina. She admits to self-doubt on the closer Just the Memories – its chorus loosely based on Bunny Brown’s reggae cover of Johnny Bristol’s Memories Don’t Leave Like People Do, its first verse sounding suspiciously like a description of a panic attack, but swiftly turns imperious again, reeling off her achievements, swaggering about her abilities. It may be as imperfect as Pink Friday was, but Pink Friday 2 offers more than enough supporting evidence to make the latter claims sound like anything but hollow boasts.