How Nicki Minaj Has Become The Coolest, Unlikeliest Pop Superstar In The Game

Hey Barbz! I’m Sam Lansky, and this is my column, “Pop Think,” devoted to exploring the best and brightest facets of the pop music universe. And at the moment, few stars are shining quite so bright as the Harajuku Barbie herself, Nicki Minaj. She’s the current queen of not just hip-hop but pop, too.

Nicki Minaj has eked out a spot at the top of the musical A-list for infusing her hip-hop swagger with a strong pop sensibility, which has led to the release of her latest album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, an unrelenting hour-plus of wild, wacky, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink über-pop, loaded with scabrous rhymes, head-spinningly infectious melodies, and some surprisingly solid (if highly Auto-Tuned) vocals. Some critics have complained that Nicki is betraying her hip-hop roots, but to me, this new album feels like the natural evolution of the kookiest, most innovative chick currently making music.

We couldn’t stop it if we wanted to: Nicki Minaj is a pop superstar now, and at the rate she’s going, it’s hard to imagine anyone who could rival her rule over the charts.

I don’t think anyone saw a song like “Starships” coming from Nicki Minaj — the Trinidadian-born, Queens-raised rapstress, who quickly gained recognition in the latter part of the last decade for her ferociously clever rhymes and multifarious personae, saw her approaching hip-hop with a new and thrilling theatricality. Her 2010 debut, Pink Friday, showcased a knack for songcraft that transcended a sick verse here or a tight couplet there. Songs like “Your Love” and “Superbass” weren’t just rap tracks with a solid hook — they were pop songs through and through that felt fresh sonically but fit in seamlessly along the many other megahits on the radio.

It was hard to know quite what to expect with her second album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, but still, I found myself surprised by the astonishing, and exhilarating, lack of cohesion with the promotional tracks that have surfaced: The hard-edged, avant-garde rap tracks like “Roman In Moscow” and “Roman Holiday” couldn’t be a further cry from the sparkly radio pop of “Starships” and “Right By My Side,” but it’s clear that Nicki is deftly playing both sides.

Read more about Nicki Minaj’s pop takeover after the jump.

If this is jarring for some listeners, I think it’s welcome. There’s an expectation with artistic evolution that it will be linear and clear-cut, when actually, the most exciting artists rarely evolve in just one direction. On her sophomore effort, Nicki has become both more mainstream and more innovative than she’s ever been before. One look at the rosters of producers who had a hand in the album shows this bifurcation well: There are grimy rap bangers from Hit-Boy, Kane Beatz and Kenoe sitting effortlessly alongside sparkly Top 40 dance-pop smashes courtesy of Dr. Luke, RedOne and Ester Dean.

Though I find myself dazzled by the lyrical sophistication and provocative bent of the lyrics on the tracks with a strong hip-hop bent, as a pop enthusiast, I’m much more inclined to actually listen to the songs at the pop end of the spectrum, and for me, there’s a lot to love on the album: The R&B midtempo ballad “Marilyn Monroe” could fit comfortably on Rihanna‘s bajillion-times-platinum-selling Good Girl Gone Bad, though it sounds decidedly “now” with slick production from J.R. Rotem. The gleaming dance-pop of “Whip It” and “Automatic” are as electrifying as anything you’d be likely to hear at the club, and “Young Forever” evokes Katy Perry‘s “Teenage Dream” in its wistful sweetness.

It would be foolish to pretend that Nicki hasn’t opened herself up to critical questioning by making an album that covers so much ground and defies genre boundaries. But where cohesion is lacking on Roman Reloaded, it also feels like a quintessentially modern album, in that it truly is all things for all people. When influences and sonic trends are this diverse, it’s unlikely that anyone with a taste for pop, dance or hip-hop could make it through all 22 tracks of the album without falling in love with something. And given that Roman Reloaded just earned Nicki her first No. 1 on the Billboard 200, it’s obvious that the listening public agrees.

Sam Lansky is a writer and editor from New York City. He goes hard for Swedish pop music, “Real Housewives” GIFs and juice. Follow him on Twitter or Tumblr.