With her new album, Pinkprint, out Monday, Nicki Minaj dropped the highly anticipated video for her song "Only," featuring Lil Wayne, Drake, and Chris Brown late last week. "Only" is the third single from the album.
The video takes place in an underground lair where Minaj reigns queen. Dressed like a dominatrix, she wields a whip and rules over the featured artists. The clear implication is that she beat up these men during some BDSM that presumably happened right before the video begins.
Naturally, this has sparked some measure of controversy. Allow us to explain.
Wasn't there already some controversy about this song?
Yes! In November, Minaj released the lyrics video for "Only," which depicted an authoritarian animated regime of which Minaj served as head. Like the music video, the lyrics video placed her in a position of badass power. Unlike the music video, it was culturally insensitive.
Lyric videos are a fairly new thing in music. Now that a good portion of the American population consumes music online, it's to the studios' benefit to make it so an artist's audience can hear that music without having to pay for it.
One way to do this is by creating a lyrics video — a pseudo-music-video that displays the lyrics from the song. Lyrics videos are cheaper and easier to make than music videos, so they give the studio time to win over the audience, while giving fans the music for free (on YouTube) and making money for the artist (with ads).
This is the lyrics video for "Only":
Because the imagery in the video looks strikingly similar to the red armbands and military regalia worn by Nazi soldiers in Hitler's Germany, many people reacted negatively to this video.
"Nicki Minaj's new video disturbingly evokes Third Reich propaganda and constitutes a new low for pop culture's exploitation of Nazi symbolism," the Anti-Defamation League's director Abraham Foxman said in a statement released on November 10.
She later apologized for the video and its impact:
I didn't come up w/the concept, but I'm very sorry & take full responsibility if it has offended anyone. I'd never condone Nazism in my art.— NICKI MINAJ (@NICKIMINAJ) November 11, 2014
That said, controversy often drives intrigue. The lyrics video for "Only" has more than 21 million views.
So is the new video controversial?
Of course it is. The video seems to take place in some kind of underground torture chamber, which makes for horrible timing. Last week, the Senate Committee released a report on the use of torture in the CIA, which is — unfortunately — far, far, far more gruesome than this video.
Also, Chris Brown's inclusion is a terrible idea.
Every shot of Brown in this video makes him look evil and menacing. He has contacts in to make his eyes look gold and reptilian, and his grill flashes beneath a menacing smile. But really, he looks terrifying because his personal history so easily suggests as much.
In 2009, Chris Brown and Rihanna were in a relationship. They were out for a drive one day in February when Rihanna found a three-page text message from a woman Brown used to sleep with on his phone.
Here's what the police report said. Note that Rihanna's legal first name is Robyn.
"A verbal argument ensued and Brown pulled the vehicle over on an unknown street, reached over Robyn F. with his right hand, opened the car door and attempted to force her out. Brown was unable to force Robyn F. out of the vehicle because she was wearing a seat belt. When he could not force her to exit, he took his right hand and shoved her head against he passenger window of the vehicle, causing an approximate one-inch raised circular contusion.
Robyn F. turned to face Brown and he punched her in the left eye with his right hand. He then drove away in the vehicle and continued to punch her in the face with his right hand while steering the vehicle with his left hand. The assault caused Robyn F.'s mouth to fill with blood and blood to splatter all over her clothing and the interior of the vehicle.
"Brown looked at Robyn F. and stated, ‘I'm going to beat the sh- out of you when we get home! You wait and see!'"
The altercation escalated. Pictures of Rihanna with a bruised and swollen face surfaced quickly. Brown later said that he was seeking help, but the long and short of it is that Brown's enrollment in a therapy group was the only real attempt to atone for his behavior he's managed. The incident will always hang over people's perceptions of him.
Brown was later charged with felony assault and sentenced to a five-year probation and a restraining order. It all amounted to a slap on the hand. That's why it is such a strange and scary choice to portray him as a terrifying figure in this music video.
Why are there so many featured artists here?
In "Only," Minaj only (ha!) sings the first verse. The chorus is sung by Brown, and the second and third verses are sung by Lil Wayne and Drake, respectively. This is surprisingly common in rap music. As more and more artists try to make their music known to the general public, rap music, in particular, is seeing more and more featured artists on albums in order to provide diversity in terms of melody and musical approaches. That diversity helps songs on their way up the top 40 charts.
For instance, take Iggy Azalea's "Fancy," one of the biggest songs of the year and the first rap song to spend so much time in the Billboard no. 1 slot. "Fancy" may have Azalea's name at the top, but the most famous parts of the song (the chorus and the bridge) are sung by featured artist Charli XCX.
As a low-level artist, having multiple artists on a record is a bad move, because you have to split up any profits into smaller and smaller pieces. But for artists with huge fanbases, working together can make a rap song more popular, potentially propelling it into the top 10.
Pinkprint is a prime example of the featured artist trend. In addition to "Only," the album includes songs featuring Skylar Grey, Ariana Grande, and Beyoncé.
What's up with all the relationship references in the song?
"I never fucked Wayne / I never fucked Drake / On my life, man / Fuck's sake," Nicki raps at the beginning of "Only." This rhyme is an attempt to clear up rumors that have circulated that she is involved with Drake or Lil Wayne. Wayne backs her up in his verse saying "I never fucked Nick / And that's fucked up / If I did fuck / She'd be fucked up."
By addressing the issue head-on, though, Minaj gets to have it both ways: she claims not to be having sex with either of them while maintaining the public interest in that rumor. Part of Minaj's persona is that she puts out so much "information" in the form of rumors and public appearances that she has managed to keep her actual personal life fairly private. This album is in keeping with that. Pinkprint is one of the most personal albums she has released, and even it only deals with the rumors swirling around Minaj's sex life.
One of the unaddressed rumors in the song, though, is the Drake-versus-Brown feud. Drake, who dated Rihanna for a while, and Brown have a tumultuous, fairly violent history. In June 2012, the two brawled at the same nightclub in New York, ostensibly after Drake taunted Brown about his relationship with Rihanna.
Maybe brawl is an understatement. Here's a photo from after the fight:
Is Drake in love with Nicki?
Well, his lyrics in the song are certainly meant for the audience to believe he is in love with Minaj:
"I never fucked Nicki cause she got a man/
But when that's over then I'm first in line/
And the other day in her Maybach/
I thought god damn, this is the perfect time"
But all of this plays into an ongoing narrative in which Drake plays an eager-to-please puppy who is desperate for love but can't get it. Take his appearance in Minaj's "Anaconda," which is probably Pinkprint's best single so far:
Ultimately, Drake's relationship with Nicki is portrayed the way much of Drake's career has been portrayed. He's a sweet guy who can't get the girl, despite the fact that he continually puts out some of the best rhymes in the business.
Is "Only" the best song off of Pinkprint?
No. There are several much catchier songs, as well as tracks that have better rhymes and are more musically complex than "Only." What's great about Pinkprint as an album, though, is easily seen in the way "Only" is mixed. Minaj isn't afraid to address her personal life in this song, and that's a huge shift for an artist who wears pink wigs and uses a fake name. Minaj's work has been technically superior but superficial thus far. Pinkprint takes a huge step forward.
Like "Only," Pinkprint is also an album full of featured artists. On half of the songs, Minaj sings with another artist, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The outright swagger that dominated her past albums is paired with beautiful melodies by pop artists like Skylar Grey and Beyoncé, and that contrast allows Minaj's tight rhymes to really stand out. This pairing allows Pinkprint to be Minaj's most emotional album, even in its weak spots.
Pinkprint feels like a transitional album. It's not quite hip-hop, not quite full pop, and not quite full Nicki Minaj. That said, Minaj's technical prowess shines through. She is, hands down, one of the best rappers in the game — someone who can keep lyrics coming at an astonishing pace while never sacrificing your ability to perfectly understand every word.
Pinkprint might not be Minaj's most iconic work so far, but it's an obvious stepping stone. The best songs, such as "All Things Go " and "Get on Your Knees," are powerful, terrific anthems that cement Minaj's place in the public consciousness. This album might be a transitional one, but it feels like Minaj is transitioning to something amazing.