Nicki Minaj’s potential has been long evaluated and dissected. Since Nicki bulldozed her way into hip-hop’s popular consciousness with an exciting, spine-tingling and truly impeccable verse on “Monster,” there are many rap critics and fans who have been waiting for Nicki’s “MOTHERF-CKING MONSTA” to manifest itself in a full cohesive album worthy of that raw and unrelenting talent. None of Nicki’s three previous studio albums leading up to Queen have reached a level as iconic as that single verse. 

To say that Nicki hasn’t lived up to her potential feels wrong since she’s the best-selling female rapper of all time. It seems odd to still be debating Nicki’s capability as an MC when she’s been dominating Billboard charts and breaking countless records. But, as Vibe put it, Nicki’s credibility hinges on more than hit records.

Unfortunately for [Nicki Minaj], rap legacies aren’t solely built on numbers. They’re built on bodies of work. 

Nicki Minaj knows that this is what people say about her. Until now, I don’t think she cared that much. Until Cardi B came for her crown as rap’s reigning Queen (let’s be clear that the only Queen I acknowledge is Beyoncé), I think Nicki was OK with resting on the knowledge that she could lyrically obliterate her peers without actually doing it. I think she was OK with the lukewarm reviews but lucrative sales. This is why competition is good. 

When Cardi and Nicki released new sh-t in the same week, I wrote that the only positive thing about the frustrating way these two women are pitted against each other is that healthy competition between peers can bring out the best. Sometimes brilliance needs a boost. Nicki Minaj has released the best album of her career during the first time in her career she’s been really contested. Coincidence? 

In a perfect world, Nicki’s peers would be the men she dominates on the charts too. A better comparison to Nicki than Cardi B would be Drake, since they are at comparable points in their careers and similarly, their latest projects needed to be great. They were also both hit with rocky rollouts and unexpected beefs with MCs who were less famous but more relentless (Remy Ma and Pusha T, respectively). 

Nicki Minaj’s Queen is her best yet but it’s still not THE best. Nicki needed to be THE BEST. After the underwhelming reception of her first two singles, the album release date was pushed back twice - partly due to some clearance issues. Queen was then slated for August 17th but ended up arriving on August 10th, its second-announced drop date, so that gives you an idea of how messy it’s been. 

Then, there was that whole mess with Nicki collaborating with 6ix9ine, a rapper who is facing prison time for pleading guilty to using a child in a sexual performance. Yeah, maybe think twice when you’re dancing to “FEFE” in the club. Nicki was also embroiled in a controversy over clapping back at a writer who critiqued her work. Nicki needed a win. Nicki desperately wanted a win. 

You can hear her desperation throughout Queen and I like it. Nicki raps like she’s got something to prove on “Barbie Dreams,” the track you’ve probably heard the most about. She’s scrapping her way out of a corner by taking comfort in classic hip-hop. “Barbie Dreams” samples Biggie’s "Just Playing (Dreams),” a song in which he imagines hooking up with multiple R&B stars. Nicki flips the song on its head and namechecks a few big names like Drake, her ex Meek Mill, 50 Cent and DJ Khalid. It’s not a diss track. It’s more like Nicki channeling rappers past (including her rumoured BF Eminem) who used to playfully jab at celebs all the time. Plus, her jabs are clever and f-cking FUNNY. 

Drake worth a hundred milli, always buying me sh-t
But I don’t know if the pussy wet or if he’s crying and sh-t

I tried to f-ck 50 for a powerful hour
But all that n--a wanna do is talk Power for hours

Had to cancel DJ Khaled, boy, we ain’t speaking
Ain’t no fat n---a telling me what he ain’t eating

I love this Nicki, the one who is so intent on showing us how good she is, she doesn’t care who she pisses off in the process. She’s showing she desperately cares about her work while also doing her work the best way she can – by being herself. When Nicki falters on Queen, it’s on songs like “Bed” (featuring Ariana Grande) and “Thought I Knew You” (featuring The Weeknd). Both songs are good, soothing synth-heavy hits that will appease the casual Nicki fan and probably get some radio play but they epitomize the Nicki Minaj who has never lived up to her potential. 

Nicki Minaj is better than placid pop. She proves that on “Chun Swae (feat. Swae Lee)” and “Majesty,” my favourite track on the album. “Majesty” is so weird, erratic, confusing and amazing. It captures the feelings I first felt when I heard “Monster.” It also features one of the most ridiculous Eminem verses I’ve ever heard. I love it so much. 

Queen isn’t perfect. Nicki still throws out some disappointing lyrics including disparaging strippers (a direct shot at Cardi B) and calls out other women for being hoes. It’s hard to reconcile that Nicki fought through sexism and a myriad of bullsh-t for the space in hip-hop that has enabled Cardi B to be freely Cardi on one hand and on the other, she’s knocking her down for being authentic. 

I ain’t never played a ho position
I ain’t ever have to strip to get the pole position

Nicki has used her sexuality in her music videos (as if her right) so I don’t exactly know what point she’s trying to make here. This is just one of the reasons why Queen is not perfect. It’s uneven and WAY TOO LONG but it’s still exciting. It’s the first time I can say that Nicki Minaj put out an album worthy of her talent, even though it falls just short of reaching her full potential. 

Here's Nicki at The Late Show last night in New York.