It's one of the trickiest moves in music and even if it's done right it only goes in one direction. With her just-released second album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, Nicki Minaj has served notice that she aims to be that rarest of MCs: one that can appeal to the pop crowd and hard-core hip-hop heads at the same time.
It's virtually impossible (so far) to start out pop and then work up enough cred to get over with rap fans. But like Missy Elliott, Nelly, Eminem and Diddy before her, Minaj is hoping that she can stay relevant to the heads who fell in love with her three years ago on a series of buzzy mixtapes and still become the next Katy Perry.
"She can rap, flat out, she has proven it with some of best rappers in game and she will never lose that ability and because of that she will always remain a favorite in hip-hop," said XXL magazine executive editor Jayson Rodriguez. "It's the pop crowd that can be fickle ... She has the personality, the skill, the songs and charisma to inhabit that pop sphere. As long as she has skill level, there's no reason she can't top both charts."
Thanks to a string of knock-out features on hits by everyone from label boss Lil Wayne to DJ Khaled, Kanye West and Ludacris, Minaj, 29, has plenty of rap bona fides. But she's also reached for the pop brass ring by performing at the Super Bowl with Madonna, the Grammys and on "American Idol," indulging in the kind of outrageous fashion sense that makes headlines and earns cover stories from the mainstream press. She also launched the new album with a single in "Starships" that's like tooth-rotting candy to pop radio, and a far cry from the gritty mixtape songs that launched her career back in the day.
That might explain why Roman is almost pointedly split in two, with the first half presenting her rap side courtesy of a string of no-nonsense rhymes produced by the likes of Hitboy and Blackout, with features by Cam'ron, Weezy, Rick Ross and, on the hard-hitting potential break-out rap single "Beez in the Trap" , 2 Chainz. Those songs are followed by a string of tunes on the second half produced by Lady Gaga collaborator RedOne, pop trackmaster Dr. Luke and J.R. Rotem.
"I honestly think that she saw the blueprint Kanye West made with his last album [My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy], and the way music is going where an artist can have a record playing on four different platforms [at satellite radio] and she personified it and maximized it," said Reggie Hawkins, program director for Sirius/XM's Hip Hop Nation. "She [isn't a rapper that] does pop records that suck. She does great pop records and songs like 'Pound the Alarm' are going to be played in clubs from here to Brazil. I think she's taken it to the next level."
Minaj recently told theLos Angeles Times that she took the disappointment of her rap fans hard when they complained about lightweight tunes like "Your Love" and "Moment 4 Life" from her best-selling debut, Pink Friday.
"I felt a lot of pressure to be inspirational and responsible [on that album]," Minaj said. "I like all kinds of music; when I was working at Red Lobster the soundtrack of my life there was Avril Lavigne. Hip-hop fans are my core, and I can never not be hip-hop. But why not showcase all sides of who you are?" Which is why, she said, she wanted Reloaded to indulge all of her many personalities, from the frantic verses of "Roman Holiday" to the mixtape-like "Stupid Hoe" and the Eminem feature "Roman's Revenge."
The way Hawkins reads it, Nicki doesn't seem to really care if hip-hop gives her the cold shoulder. "She's seen the light internationally and seen that there's a bigger world than just Queens, New York, or Bankhead, Atlanta," he said. "She's grown and when I sat down with her [I got the sense] that she doesn't care. She's going to Will Smith the game ... her next step is movies. It's not about hip-hop critics who want to box her in as a hip-hop artist. It's about her core fans, her Twitter followers and social media people, her Barbz. If they give her backlash it's a problem."
And when Nicki appeared on Sirius radio's "Sway in the Morning" on Shade 45 this week, she reacted to that potential backlash by explaining that she has to keep evolving. "You just gotta realize that I'm never gonna be one-dimensional," she said. "Even my core fans I think, at times, thought I was one-dimensional when I was doing mixtapes. However, even on the mixtapes, I was singing and I did a song called 'Can Anybody Hear Me' on one of my mixtapes where I was singing and talking about being a female rapper and trying to get signed."
Rodriguez said he totally understands Nicki's desire to grow artistically and predicted that the grumbling from the rap community would settle down eventually once she puts out some hot remixes.
"The thing with a half-and-half record is that you'll have detractors because it's never fully one thing or the other," he said, pointing to label mate Drake as someone who has managed to keep both sides of his audience happy with a more cohesive pair of albums that smoothly mix his pop and rap leanings. "As opposed to Missy or Diddy, who started out glossy and very pop hued ... Nicki came from the DVD/mixtape scene. Her base is hip-hop, which launched her to reach those pop heights and now they're looking at it like, 'wham, bam, thank you ma'm.'"
Regardless of the grumbling, she's on track to show them all when Roman likely debuts at #1 on the Billboard charts next week.
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To celebrate the release of Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, we will be examining the "Evolution of Nicki Minaj" throughout the week. Check MTV News every day to see how the Southside Jamaica, Queens, Barbie went from a promising mixtape standout to rap's reigning queen.