Nicki Minaj: Pink Friday


RIYL: Rihanna, Missy Elliott, Lil’ Kim

Kick off your first album with a track titled “I’m the Best,” and you’re making a hell of an announcement — either you’re more gifted than your peers, or you’ve just got the biggest balls. With Pink Friday, Nicki Minaj displays a bit of both: though it’s admittedly an uneven affair, this album contains some of the best hip-hop/R&B you’re likely to hear in 2010, and while it doesn’t play to Minaj’s otherworldly rapping talent as often as many fans would no doubt prefer, it still makes for an intoxicating, eclectic debut.

minaj

Of course, unlike most new artists, Minaj has the advantage of being a known quantity before her album even reaches shelves; she’s been all over the charts as a guest artist for months, popping up on songs by Lil Wayne, Trey Songz, M.I.A., Drake, Usher, and others – including Kanye West, whose “Monster” features an incendiary Minaj verse that outclasses everyone else on the song, including Jay-Z and Rick Ross. Nothing on Pink Friday comes close to “Monster” – not even “Roman’s Revenge,” her profane, rapid-fire showdown with Eminem – but that isn’t really the point. Minaj has a lot of weapons in her arsenal, and this album is meant to display them all, while aiming directly at Top 40 radio.

What’s somewhat surprising, given her aggressive/aggressively weird image, is just how savvy Minaj’s pop instincts are – and how successfully Pink Friday makes room for them while incorporating plenty of singularly Nicki moments. This is an album that makes heavy use of Buggles and Annie Lennox samples, and features will.i.am, Rihanna, and Natasha Bedingfield cameos – but it takes the fetid roar of “Roman’s Revenge” and “Did It On ‘Em” to tell the whole story, and she brings both halves together in the stunning “Right Thru Me,” which takes breathless verses about reckless love and leads them into a chorus that brilliantly, nakedly asks: “You see right through me / How do you do that shit?”

That kind of duality is hard to distill in a pop song, and with Pink Friday, Nicki Minaj doesn’t always succeed. But her punches connect more often than they miss – and if that’s mostly because she never stops throwing them, well, that only makes it that much harder to stop listening. Her peers had better lock in those guest spots now – a few more albums like this one, and the words “feat. Nicki Minaj” will be a lot more expensive than they are now. (Universal/Cash Money 2010)

Nicki Minaj MySpace page

  

Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy


RIYL: Jay-Z, Kid Cudi, Lupe Fiasco

In these days of PR flacks and image groomers, the era of the divisive, unpredictable pop star is almost a distant memory – now that we’re living in a world of infinite niche audiences, conventional wisdom says the only safe bet is to try and be all things to all people. But then there’s Kanye West, a guy whose propensity for water cooler-worthy gaffes seems to grow along with his sales; one of the few true stars left in the music industry, he’s also one of the least “managed” celebrities around, and while his actions have a tendency to alienate and offend, there’s something undeniably refreshing about a guy who blurts out whatever’s on his mind.

As an artist, West has always been just as messy – and just as captivating. It’s a shame that some people will never listen to his albums simply because of the things he’s said and done outside the recording studio, but part of his music’s appeal is how unfiltered it feels – the dude just can’t shut his mouth. In fact, for most of his fifth studio outing, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he sounds so blanketed in creative impulses that he can barely breathe – this is a record that careens from one emotional extreme to the next with dazzling urgency, so stuffed with ideas that it takes an army of guest stars and a series of wildly inflated running times to get them all out. On paper, it’s an ungodly, unwieldy mess, and further proof that West desperately needs an editor.

But through the speakers – where it counts – Fantasy lives up to each of the words in its title in equal measure: it’s a startlingly rich artistic outburst from a guy who’s made a career out of exceeding expectations, no matter how high they get. An about-face from 2008’s cold, insular 808s & Heartbreak, it signals a return to the anthemic, eclectic form he displayed on 2007’s Graduation, but it isn’t a retreat; rather, it’s a deepening and an extension of West’s playfully broad aesthetic. An album that incorporates a King Crimson sample, Bon Iver cameos, and a Chris Rock skit before closing with a dose of Gil Scott-Heron shouldn’t work; a song featuring Rihanna on the hook, Elton John playing piano, and Fergie rapping should collapse under the weight of its own ridiculous ambition. Fantasy contains all these things and many more, and defies the laws of pop physics as it goes – it’s the kind of record that keeps the ideas coming so quickly you don’t even notice the songs routinely stretch out past the five-minute mark. (In fact, four songs clock in over six minutes, with “Runaway” leading them all at 9:08.)

If there’s any real negative to draw from Fantasy, it’s the overriding sense that West is frantically pouring out ideas as quickly as they come; he’s too captivated by his muse to slow down – or to consider the consequences of failure. He won’t be able to maintain this pace forever, and when he finally does take a breath, it might be hard to resist the urge to think before he speaks. That’s just nervous nitpicking, though – and there’s no reason to waste your time with it when one of the best albums of the year is waiting to swagger its way into your brain. God only knows how West will top this one; here’s hoping it isn’t long before we get to hear him try. (Roc-a-Fella 2010)

Kanye West MySpace page

  

N.A.S.A.: The Big Bang


RIYL: Gorillaz, Afrika Bambaataa, The Neptunes

N.A.S.A.’s 2009 debut, The Spirit of Apollo, was one of the freshest, most creative hip-hop records to come out in years, a high-proof blend of booty-shaking beats (courtesy of partners DJ Zegon and Sam Spiegel), dizzying rhymes (from an astounding list of guest MCs that included Kanye West, Chuck D, Chali 2na, Gift of Gab, and Del tha Funkee Homosapien), and sharp pop hooks (with help from guests like David Byrne, Tom Waits, Lykke Li, Karen O, Santigold, M.I.A., and George Clinton). Those are some stuffed parentheses, but they only touch the surface of what Apollo has to offer; in the post-mashup era, it illuminates the fertile possibilities of cross-pollination and a healthy disregard for genre boundaries.

It’s therefore unsurprising – though still disappointing – that N.A.S.A.’s follow-up represents such a substantial comedown. The Big Bang is a remix project, and as such, it presented all kinds of strong possibilities; after all, we’re talking about a subgenre whose best-selling titles include Bobby Brown’s Dance!…Ya Know It! and Paula Abdul’s Shut Up and Dance, so the bar is set pretty low. Unfortunately, although The Big Bang is every bit as danceable as anyone could hope, it’s crippled by a narrow focus: Rather than remixing all (or even most) of Apollo, Bang‘s 17 tracks include four versions of “Gifted” and three of “Whachadoin?” – and it completely skips some of Apollo‘s strongest songs, like the David Byrne/Chali 2na/Gift of Gab collision “The People Tree.”

Still, it’s worth noting that all the songs being remixed here are solid; if you’re going to chew up most of an album with different versions of the same stuff, it’s definitely better to start with strong raw material. And of the two new tracks, the Maximum Hedrum/Barbie Hatch collaboration “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” with its breathy vocals and Tom Tom Club synths, is nearly worth the price of admission by itself. During the lead-up to The Big Bang‘s release, Squeak E. Clean has been in Ethiopia, recording traditional music for the next N.A.S.A. project, which suggests that even if this curious piece of between-album project represents a creative lull, they haven’t run out of barriers to ignore. (Spectrophonic Sound 2010)

N.A.S.A. MySpace page

  

Fuse presents Kanye West: Live from the Chicago Theatre

His blimp-sized ego gets at least as much attention as his music, but underneath all his huffing and puffing, Kanye West ain’t such a bad guy; matter of fact, he’s used some of that superstar cash (and cachet) to spearhead the unsurprisingly named Kanye West Foundation, which works to help reduce the dropout rate. (And if that isn’t enough to raise your opinion of the guy, how about knowing that the West Foundation’s mission was undertaken to help fulfill a dream of the star’s dearly departed mom? Yeah, we thought so.)

To help support the foundation — and entertain your ass in the bargain — Kanye hosted the second annual “Stay in School” benefit concert at the Chicago Theatre a few weeks ago, and the event has been turned into an hourlong special by the Fuse Network that will be airing tomorrow night (that’s August 25) at 8 PM EST/7 CST. Want more details? Here you go:

The show marked the first major event for the Kanye West Foundation since the 2007 passing of its founder Dr. Donda West, and is the first concert Kanye has performed in the city of Chicago in over a year. The Kanye West Foundation (KWF) was established to help combat the severe dropout problem plaguing America’s communities. Approximately 3,000 students from the Chicago area who demonstrated marked academic improvements attended a special pre-show sound check before the evening concert where Kanye performed and talked about the importance of education.

Check your local listings to find Fuse on your TV dial!

  

The Fray covers Kanye, hits a home run

The Fray

The other day I heard the Fray’s cover of Kanye West’s “Heartless” on the radio. It’s amazing. Not only is there a completely different rock element to the song, but Issac’s voice is brilliant. With the new, piano-driven arrangement, there’s much more depth, especially when listening to the lyrics.

The track was originally recorded as par of The Fray Live, which is available on iTunes, and was released to radio April 21. While the Fray may have committed a cardinal sin and covered a song that’s currently on the charts, they’ve managed to do so magnificently. There’s not another band I can think of who could have attempted the switch without faltering. It just goes to show that the Fray aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Make sure to check out the new single on iTunes, or you can listen to the song for free on YouTube.

  

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