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Forget Pop vs. Mixtape: Nicki Minaj recalibrates on The Pinkprint

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The rapper's third studio album may not be a classic, but it's a frequently fascinating self-portrait of an ever-evolving musical force

Of all the sounds ever to appear on a Nicki Minaj track, perhaps the most idiosyncratic and endearing is one she's adopted recently: that loopy purr. It pops up multiple times throughout her new record The Pinkprint — sometimes paired with a gasping, slightly unhinged cackle — seemingly for no reason, like a punctuation mark in an obscure foreign language. At varying points it sounds like an audible eye roll, or a kiss-off to peanut gallery criticism in its many frivolous forms — or perhaps it's simply an offhand page break signaling a song's transition into its next phase.

There could be a much simpler explanation, though: the sound likely has its roots in professional vocal training. Singing warm-ups sound ridiculous by nature, and the siren tongue-trill Minaj tosses off mid-song on tracks like "Feeling Myself" or "Anaconda" is no exception; in a practice setting, that descending head-voice glissando is extended into an extremely obnoxious siren-like noise, accompanied by a tongue or lip trill that serves to loosen one's face and mouth muscles while also stretching one's vocal cords. It also happens to feel pretty awesome. Considering her arts high school background, it isn't too farfetched to assume Minaj's sound is not a coincidence.

And yes, I'm going to suggest that this is a metaphor: much of The Pinkprint, like Nicki's mini-trills, feels like a diligent personal exercise — its subject matter and overall effect are transitional, not definitive (as she's claimed herself in pre-release interviews). Compared with the highly stylized performances of her first and second records, her third feels downright athletic, like a stretching routine. While it may not be quite iconic, it's still an effective reminder of just how invaluable Minaj is, not just as a rapper and artist but also as an unapologetic, brilliantly nuanced public figure.

The Pinkprint is at times an agonizingly candid record

Apart from the requisite overselling proclamations, the way Nicki has described The Pinkprint in the press — as "a dope balance of vulnerability and strength, of inspiration, and of not being politically correct" — is remarkably accurate. It falls almost exactly at the halfway point between "Pop Nicki" and "Mixtape Nicki," the nicknames used to describe an invisible turning point at which the rapper began employing pop melodies on kid-friendly (in radio edit form, at least) tracks like "Starships." Of course, the she never actually stopped rapping as aggressively as her male peers, and "Pop Nicki" and "Mixtape Nicki" don't actually exist; they're just tags that allow critics and fans to categorize Minaj within the musical firmament, and they are promptly grated into dust and shaken up on The Pinkprint, her least confrontational, most human record.

More than any of her previous work, these songs explore the deeper recesses of Minaj's own psyche, lacing her signature braggadocio and powerhouse defiance with uncertain regret, paranoia, and straight-up despair (On "Buy a Heart," "It's a heart for sale, who's buying?" and on "Grand Piano," "Am I just a fool? / Blind and stupid for loving you / Am I just a silly girl?"). This honesty isn't exactly surprising; she's certainly one of the most self-aware, straight-talking musicians currently working, proving time and time again that misrepresentations of her character, gender, and talents will not be tolerated.

But for the first time, on this record she suspends her hyper-performative image — that candy-coated, ludicrously successful modus operandi that has produced everything from Barbie costumes to an unstable, British male alter ego (while simultaneously garnering bitterly sexist criticism from the über-masculine hip-hop world) — in favor of a project built almost entirely with her own ends in mind. The result is a record that is personal in every sense of the word: self-indulgent, soul-searching, sybaritic — an ode to herself, Nicki the Person, instead of an easily summed-up caricature.

It takes a long time to become bulletproof in the celebrity world, where "authenticity" is just as much a performance as a cotton-candy-colored wig

The Pinkprint is almost 100% a no-flex zone in which little time is wasted trying to convince an audience of her supremacy ("Why the fuck I gotta say it? You n***as don't know it yet?" she raps on "Want Some More") and anthems like the Beyoncé-featuring "Feeling Myself" and Ariana Grande-assisted "Get on Your Knees" land with hell-yeah blunt force. The record's scandalous lead single, a giddy track on which she audibly cracks herself up — is also among its most self-assured, equally laden with Mix-a-lot samples as with emoji-worthy boning euphemisms. But this is no Beyoncé; the record's edges are jagged, risky, and sometimes contradictory (see: "Only"). Still, the transparent humanity and effort apparent even on duds like "Four Door Aventador" are what make Minaj exceptional: the unstoppable, sometimes raw diligence of an imperfect, oft-nitpicked yet undeniably extraordinary talent. The album is a self-medicating inner monologue, performed in full view of a capricious public, and as paradoxical and complex as befits the best, busiest, and most successful female rapper alive.

"I'm at the level in my career and in my life now where I can do whatever the hell I want to," Minaj told Complex earlier this fall. It's a little absurd to think that that level didn't arrive years ago — upon the release of Kanye West's Minaj-ethered "Monster," for example. But it takes far longer than one might think to make one's public persona bulletproof — not just in hip-hop or even mainstream pop but also in the wider world of fame, where "authenticity" is just as much a performance as a cotton-candy-colored wig. The Pinkprint is at times an agonizingly candid record in which its author dominates while also faltering and doubting herself, exploits others and allows herself to be exploited, simultaneously rejects and embraces sentimentality, both owns and relinquishes her own sexual agency, and seems to have ordered her tracklist by lottery — without the context of the critical and commercial slam-dunks before it, it might have fallen flat.

But in turn, without The Pinkprint — that siren-like, nonchalant, throat-clearing purr — her next act might not be as well-conditioned for classic territory. Ironically, the dominant voice on The Pinkprint is a more convincing and necessary voice in Nicki's head than anything the schizophrenic Roman could ever say. But you know what they say about art: it's a lie that makes us see the truth, eventually.