Thursday, April 5, 2012
Ranking the Guest Verses on Nicki Minaj's Roman Reloaded
By Zach Dionne
I can’t imagine ever choosing to listen to "Roman Holiday” again. The fact that it kicks off Nicki Minaj’s alarmingly off-kilter sophomore album is a terrible omen. Much in the way Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter IV became nearly immediately uninteresting, save for a minuscule selection of gems and a few shimmering cameos (Rick Ross, Drake, Nas, Andre 3000, Andre 3000), Roman Reloaded is an album that demands you hunt for things to enjoy. With a little song-skipping magic, track three reveals itself to be an early gateway to a mild validation of the record: Actual, exciting, interesting — or at least fun — rapping, via generous guest verses. (And then track seven, “Champion,” is a hip-hop goldmine.)
Perhaps hyperaware they’re being featured on an album by a rapstress best known for transcendental guest turns on everyone else’s stuff, several of hip-hop’s leading gentlemen (yes, all males — Azealia Banks isn’t getting her invitation just yet) bring their A-game, or at least their B+. These feature verses — barring the phoned-in nonsense Lil Wayne has brazenly stuck to the last seven-plus months — lend the failed hip-hop event album some street legs to stretch a moment before they wither and crumble while "Starships" and "Pound the Alarm" get played forever and ever in all the clubs and airport bookstores and Walmarts and 99 cent stores and little sisters’ bedrooms in between Katy Perry anthems and hit singles by American Idol rejects.
In this desperate-for-something-to-chew-on-for-more-than-two-listens bid, here’s a ranking of the guest verses on Roman Reloaded. Disinvited to the relevancy party are non-rapped cameos; apologies, Beenie Man (although those birdcalls are truly something, and without a doubt the best since that part in that very long Wyclef Jean song) and Bobby V. and Chris Brown. (Leaving out Brown does feel great every time, though.) If the positive takeaway from Roman Reloaded has to be “Nicki Minaj is a good friend chooser,” here’s how to approach that.
Slickest pronunciation of "Jeremy" ever, in the first known Jeremy Lin rap-verse name drop? Sorest throat of all time? “Coconut flowing”? YES, YES, YES. Every syllable here feels artisanally stitched into the fabric of the beat, penetrating spaces none of the other performers had any clue existed. Jeezy sounds like he was born inside this track and just wakes up and raps in it all day and goes to sleep and then raps there in his sleep, too.
The Ross flow that leads this track’s dual cameo finale is tough to follow, but Cam’ron swoops in sounding like the coolest motherfucker available. He goes double-time for a second, does some awesome he-said/she-said and ties it up with mentions of Nana and Santa both.
Drake is finally so huge he doesn’t make wishes when he blows out his birthday candles. And now you know. He goes nonstop from start to finish, one of the most confident sets of bars on the album. Drizzy has publicly and officially returned the favor for Nicki’s close-to-great verse on Take Care’s “Make Me Proud.”
Ross is jogging and woofing at the exact deliberate pace he always jogs and woofs, but something about that video game boss music (the Boss, spitting on boss music) causes Ross to sound like he’s jumped onto a rhythm-treadmill whirring at twice his typical rate. It makes for an interesting interaction with the beat. Throw in a WWE reference (“Monday night with the Raw, I’m Vince McMahon with the beat / Power slamming them hammers / I get you handle for free”) and some trademark barks (wuhs?) and this is popcorn, but amusing popcorn.
He slides into the beat well (but, after Jeezy ...) and tells a solid, abbreviated life story with only one wonky pairing of mid-couplet lines (“this rated PJ / ’cause that’s where a n***a from”), but for some reason (too many great verses preceding?) it doesn’t stick as well as one would expect from newly rejuvenated 2012 Nas.
After doing decent work on the remix of Nicki’s “Roman’s Revenge” (replacing Eminem in the redux) as one of his first post-jail appearances back in early 2011, the blasť Carter IV Wayne shows up for his Cash Money signee’s second release. It’s a disjointed cavalcade of embarrassments too silly and juvenile to reproduce here or anywhere. Wayne sounding like he’s having some fun doesn’t atone for the total lack of anything lyrically redeeming. At least Nicki, who’s shabbily dubbed herself “the female Weezy,” gets to be the track’s superior spitter.
In the midst of those irritating soap-bubbles-popping-in-a-spaceship-hallway sounds, it’s acceptable to look to 2 Chainz for some deliverance here, or for a distraction, at least. Instead, his tiresome recitations (“if I weren’t rappin’ I’d be trappin’ / if I wasn’t trapping I’d be pimpin’ / if I weren’t pimpin’ I’d be getting it / PERIOD”) and a cringe-worthy Talladega Nights reference fall flat. Nicki slips in some stern rapping in the fourth quarter, so at least there’s that.
In a space of less than 13 minutes, Lil Wayne begins two guest verses with two cunnilingus intros no one wants to hear. With this one, sleepy Weezy sexflow is back, if that was a thing you’d found yourself missing. It’s so lethargic, so uncreative, the 42-second duration feels like it contains 12 words and a third of a punchline.
But again, cool friends, Nicki. Enjoy your sky-touching and starshipping.
Zach Dionne has written for GQ, New York Magazine's Vulture, The Awl, Billboard, and PopEater. He is completing a novel. Reach him at email@example.com.