March 7, 2012

“Super Bass” versus “Starships”

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Nicki Minaj is one of those artists I can remember the first time I heard. Like many people, I discovered her through Kanye West’s epic “Monster.” Originally released as a free track through his G.O.O.D. Friday project, “Monster” was a constantly shifting and enigmatic masterpiece that pieced together distinct parts from musicians spanning the gauntlet of genres. Minaj was the standout, stealing the show from West, Jay-Z and many other rap stalwarts. The productive multiple personality disorder she displays on “Monster” remains her strength. That  helps her rise above the rest of the pack. She’s good, she’s bad, she’s mean and she’s sweet. Mostly though, she’s just kind of weird. But in a good way. Her introductory trademark in “Monster” was a feminine aggressiveness that colored and nuanced her words past a typical gangster rapper’s. Although Minaj establishes herself as a badass, she breaks character at times and acts the good girl. But she is always on the attack. Lines like “just killed another career it’s a mild day” are said with sweetness and innocence. Although “Monster” itself gained a lot of play, Minaj at this point remained a pseudo-fringe figure, riding in on a track from one of rap’s biggest stars, but too aggressive and off kilter to completely enter the mainstream herself.Close to a year later, Minaj took the next big step in her career with a smash hit that rewrote the rules for her. “Super Bass” demonstrated that she was more than just a bit player on other rappers’ tracks; she was a fully formed artist who could hold her own on the charts. By the end of the year, she was validated, with over 3,500,000 digital copies of the single sold. The Village Voice’s 2011 Pazz & Jop Poll, a conglomerate of critics’ year-end lists, placed the single at number three. Indie powerhouse Pitchfork named the song their fourth favorite of the year. And Entertainment Weekly, Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter all named “Super Bass” the number one single of 2011. Both commercially and critically, the track did very well for itself. However, the track is intrinsically flawed, straddling the middle ground between Minaj’s well-received fierce rapper persona and her wannabe pop star in the making. Unfortunately, the sugar sweet chorus of “Super Bass” subverts the rebellious introduction and buildup of the single and ultimately takes its knees out from under it. The beginning of “Super Bass” sets expectations for a single that would elevate the female voice from stereotypical virtue and can-do-no-wrongness to something more. Minaj’s voice has character and flavor, moving up and down to convey the range of meaning in her well-written phrases.Once the chorus hits though, any sort of conflict goes away. It is pure sugar, an ode to a boy and the traditional feelings associated with love. It should be ironic … but it’s not. It ruins any chance “Super Bass” had of being more than just a pop single and reduces what could and should have been a boundary-pushing track in a radio friendly shell to just another Top 40 hit. Instead of complimenting each other, Minaj’s dual assertive and syrupy voices contrast and cancel each other out.

Where “Super Bass” fails, Minaj’s newest single “Starships” succeeds. Like “Super Bass” it is catchy, trendy and radio-friendly. Unlike “Super Bass” it links Minaj’s various voices in a succinct and complimentary manner, creating a party anthem by blending a bad-girl intro, a strongly song chorus and a breakdown beat that could be in any club track. The combination shows the various sides of Minaj’s personality without one overpowering the others. It’s a perfect fusion of rapper and pop star.But even the most random parts of the single are a little insurgent; they play to Minaj’s strengths. Her voice at the opening is more exaggerated than anything seen in “Super Bass”. The subject matter is drinking and promiscuity. Before the drop, a manufactured voice tells us, “we higher than a motherfucker.” The end, an overwhelming cacophony of all the song’s elements, that engulfs the listener in a way that “Super Bass” simply didn’t have the substance to do. It is her strongest single to date and one of the overall top songs of the year so far. If this is the direction in which Minaj continues to take her work, we can expect greater things than we have seen. Her voices so far have been distinct and explicitly separate, but “Starships” is the perfect mix of all of Minaj’s best qualities. It is fun, aggressive, rebellious and just the right amount of weird.

Original Author: Peter Jacobs