Almost 47 years ago, Susan Sontag wrote “Notes On ‘Camp’” which coined the idea of something being “so bad it’s good.” When referring to popular culture, the phrase could apply to concepts like “slasher” films and David Hasselhoff’s acting career. The work still holds resonance, even as it nears half a century in age and it’s as if Sontag charted the path to Nicki Minaj’s success and her sophomore LP, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded.
Sontag describes “Camp” as the love of the exaggerated and tends to be expressed in a hyper-stylized fashion. If you take Sontag’s definition to heart, you’ll see how she seems to be describing Nicki Minaj’s career. Just look at the Young Money femme’s propensity for clichéd religious imagery and zany red carpet ensembles—even if it means going full “Gaga” and distancing herself from the pure lyricism she displayed on “Monster.” She’s become the act and the art, which has alienated rap fans but pleased (or outraged) everyone else.
Nicki utilizes Roman Reloaded to channel this persona through music, as its first half is accentuated by screeching choruses (like on “Come On A Cone”) and butchered church hymns (like on “Roman Reloaded”). Sure, it’s polarizing stuff that’s hyperbolic and theatrical in nature, but her attempts are so head-scratchingly odd that it muddles whatever pluses her production partners such as Hit-Boy and Kenoe conjure. And when she’s not trying to burst stereo decibel levels, she flails at her rhymes—the one thing that made her successful in the first place—by lethargically bumbling lines like, “I’m chillin’ at the top I got ample time/Bite me, Apple sign,” as heard on the album’s title track.
It’s a Pope-sized blessing, then, that Nicki saves the “rap” portion of Roman Reloaded for her guest stars, garnering key appearances from Rick Ross, Cam’Ron and even a hungry Nas, who ripped through his verse “Champion.” It’s a schizophrenic first half that builds Nicki into a full-on caricature, leaving rap fans to wonder what happened to the promising, cold-blooded MC of the Gucci Mane cut, “Slumber Party.”
Yet, this is the target audience Nicki left behind after her debut, Pink Friday, became the staple soundtrack for sorority girls and soccer mom Ellen viewers. Roman Reloaded’s second half guarantees that it becomes a mainstream smash, as Nicki sees herself not only as an act but also a brand – as she openly admits with the line, “I’m a brand, bitch, I’m a brand.” There’s a plethora of radio-ready tunes, from the bubble gum cut “Right By My Side” to the club-ready “Starships,” which will inevitably be used to hock everything from Tampax tampons to Jersey Shore marathons. The last half is so artificial and ultra-contrived that it almost appears to be an ironic troll on rap fans; however, it’s doubtful that Nicki meant to imbue that much meaning into such listless songs. The fact is, about halfway through the album, she decided to dump the rap schtick and sing her way to the bank. And that’s exactly what she’ll do. Say what you want about how much you’d like to listen to it, but there’s a certain skill that comes with making these mega hits. And Nicki knocks these formulaic tracks out of the park.
Sontag also made one other distinct point: “One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naïve. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (‘camping’) is usually less satisfying.” Indeed. By focusing on both celebrity and mainstream plays, Nicki sacrifices the music itself. That might be a naïve observation, but then again, that was probably her primary objective all along—building the Nicki Minaj corporation. In doing so she didn’t create something Camp or something “so bad that it’s good.” She just created something that’s – from a rap album perspective – just bad.
Label: Young Money | Producers: T-Minus, Alex da Kid, BlackOut, Pink Friday Productions, David Guetta, Kane Beatz, Dr. Luke, RedOne, Hit-Boy, Jonathan “J. R.” Rotem Kenoe, Ryan & Smitty, Rico Beats