How will the story of American rap music - an art form that allows miscellaneous itty-bits of sound-junk, P-Funk, braggadocio and street mantra to converge into a miraculous whole - be told? In wide, sweeping gestures? Or in disparate, glinting fragments?
It's a question that Nicki Minaj has forced us to chew on for 10 years running. The sheer amount of magnetism, hauteur, mischief and yearning she can squeeze out of a single rhyme has made her one of the most astonishing rappers to ever do it to it. But if you're looking for a coherent album that does justice to her multitudinous wild-styles, you'll have to keep waiting.
Her latest whiff, "Queen," is all over the road - and where the road leads, who even knows? Sure, Minaj still knows how to talk filthy in an array of beautiful voices, but here, she only ever sounds half-alert, making her nastiest boudoir brags feel reflexive and rote. On top of that, these new songs are way too long, and there are far too many of them. Lots of rough, too few diamonds.
Still, Minaj's brilliance has always shone from moment to radioactive moment. Surely, there must be some micro-glimmers to be heard in her latest macro-failure, yeah? Well, it's always a thrill when Minaj goes sprinting off in a double-time cadence, as she does during the bawdy coda of "Barbie Dreams." And I'll probably never get tired of her ability to hyper-enunciate isolated words, making them sound more detailed and delectable - like when she pronounces those silent Ls in "guillotine" during "Coco Chanel," a snarling duet with her forerunner, the great Foxy Brown. And that's about it.
If you've followed Minaj since she first materialized by Lil Wayne's side more than a decade ago, it's easy to get the sense that she lost her way in popland by trying to impress the universe in its entirety - diluting her vision in order to secure radio airplay (Minaj has enjoyed tons of it) or to land starry television gigs (she judged a season of "American Idol" in 2013). But now it's hard to imagine even the lowest-hanging fruit on "Queen" - "Ganja Burns," "Majesty," "Come See About Me" - flourishing on today's radio waves. Her sense of melody feels stale and flavorless, as if her backing tracks were freeze-dried when the Black Eyed Peas still ruled the world.
That means "Queen" only feels connected to the current rap zeitgeist in the saddest way - as another portrait of a visionary rapper in decline. In June, Kanye West completed his transformation from provocateur to troll, while Drake continued making music as if executing a brand strategy.
And while it's hard to imagine how those two might reverse course, it'll always be fun to daydream about the moment that Minaj comes bouncing back. A great Nicki Minaj comeback album would be the first great Nicki Minaj album, period.