Nicki Minaj’s ‘The Pinkprint’ Is Her Very Own ‘808s & Heartbreak’

The final song on the deluxe — but not the deluxe iTunes or Target — version of The Pinkprint, Nicki Minaj’s third album, tells you everything you need to know about the Queens-bred rapper’s mental state at this point in time. Onika steps up to the plate and swings like she has nothing to prove but everything on the line: “You bitches can’t get my spot ’til I’m raising some children.” “Not that I don’t have good vision, but I don’t see competition/ They want me to come and help them, but I am not a magician.” “Don’t make me expose you, bitch, I’m busy.” With a title like “Win Again,” it would be easy to mistake this for your standard Nicki brag track, not unlike “I Am Your Leader” or “Grindin.” But by the end of the song, she’s out for blood with far less of it running through her flow. “I won,” Minaj coos in her most defeated-by-love pop-singer voice, “Kill-kill everything in my way.” Her brain is well trained, but her heart sounds tired. Yours would be too after writing an album like The Pinkprint.

Pop Nicki vs. Rap Nicki is not point of The Pinkprint. In the context of the “classic rap album” conversation, this is neither her Illmatic nor her Tha Carter IV. Rather, The Pinkprint is her 808s & Heartbreak. Minaj made a Drake album with better jokes and more reasons to be sad. But like her new boo Bey on her self-titled 2013 LP, Nicki remembers to feel herself. She saves herself from herself, in a way not uncommon in hip-hop: braggadocio. Still, sometimes it sounds like Nicki’s trying to convince herself that she changed the game — past tense — instead of dreaming of it as an underdog with Wayne in her corner. High self-imposed standards and a big breakup can rattle someone so much that they stop seeing reality — just ask Kanye.

And so, Nicki’s mood on The Pinkprint oscillates between high and low. She lets loose like she’s got something to forget: teaching Ariana Grande about cunning linguists (“Get On Your Knees”), gleefully riding the rails of syncopation in a $400,000 Lambo (“Four Door Aventador”), and quoting Forbes articles about her own mogul status (“Want Some More”). But when she’s questioning her romantic choices, she goes hard on the suffering via lyrics about prescription drugs (“Pills N Potions”), a Jessie Ware hook over melancholic guitars (“The Crying Game”), and accusations that everything her ex-man has in life leads back to her (“Bed of Lies”). It’s easily the most haunt-you-at-night diss to pay a former lover, the kind of emotional warfare that makes “creep” sound like a compliment in comparison. Is this how Nicki Minaj — the world’s most private pop star — does love?

Then again, Nicki’s love sounds like a fantasy on the Jeremih collab “Favorite,” where everything’s perfectly balanced. The kind of simmering, pseudo-futuristic R&B for which Jeremih is known meets the kind of off-kilter pop production that would be at home on a Jessie Ware album. Minaj’s ride-or-die status is tempered by creative tough love and bicoastal sexcapades. What could be more luxurious?

To appreciate The Pinkprint, we don’t need to know what did or didn’t happen with Safaree “SB” Samuels, her rumored longtime (now ex-) boyfriend and collaborator, or anyone else. The way Nicki writes about being in love, falling out of it, and trying to move forward is specific and vulnerable enough that it has to from the heart. It makes sense when you consider how Nicki phones it in the big, fake stuff. Think about it: “Super Bass,” “Starships,” “Check It Out,” “Pound the Alarm,” rainbow wigs, neon string bikinis, bug-eyed alter-egos. Unless you consider repurposing Sir Mix-a-Lot as an in-joke anthem for baes with back part of this tradition, The Pinkprint is delightfully devoid of songs gunning for Hot 100 sports competitions. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t see some tracks — like “Trini Dem Girls,” a song Rihanna should be kicking herself for not releasing — becoming hits anyway.

It’s easy, even natural, to take songs from some of the world’s most famous women and use them as evidence of how these women act in their personal lives. “What kind of man is lucky enough, and secure enough in their masculinity, to date Nicki Minaj?” “How’d she even meet Troy from Detroit?” The Pinkprint works as a document to be studied if your priority is dissecting a celebrity’s life, but never do the songs devolve into the cheap TMI of Taylor Swift’s worst breakup hits.

The worst things you can say about The Pinkprint are that it hasn’t spawned a great single and that, at times, it bites the production of its inspirations. With its washed-up, washed-out electro-R&B production, “Buy a Heart” sounds like it’s trying to be Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreaks circa ’08, instead of updating that aesthetic. “I Lied” is how you rip off Drake’s spacious sound in an unoriginal way, while house-tinged bonus track “Truffle Butter” makes Drake’s game seem a whole lot fresher than 9 AM McDonald’s. It’s certainly a stronger collaboration between Weezy and his two most successful protégés than their trolling “Only.”

Scattered weak points aside, The Pinkprint is — without a doubt — Nicki Minaj’s strongest release to date. Minaj has been boasting as much in the delay-filled lead-up to the album, but with all she’s been through recently, here’s hoping she actually believes it too.