- - Monday, April 2, 2012

Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded

Nicki Minaj

Universal Republic Records


You’ve gotta give it to Nicki Minaj. The girl knows how to market herself.

In the past three months alone, she drummed up anticipation for her second album by performing at the Grammy Awards, appearing onstage during the Super Bowl halftime show, singing her new single on “American Idol” and making two guest appearances on Madonna’s last album. Now, thanks to her omnipresence, you don’t even have to be an R&B fan to recognize Miss Minaj’s face. You only need to have the most basic familiarity with pop culture.

Here’s the problem, though. On “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded,” her music isn’t nearly as entertaining as her persona.

Miss Minaj is the kind of musician who needs to be seen as well as heard. She dresses herself in ridiculous outfits and twitches like an epileptic during her performances, which rely as much on visual spectacle as musical talent. It’s hard to capture such a supersized personality on CD, even one as manic as “Roman Reloaded.”

These songs certainly try their hardest to convey the crazy, multicolored whirlwind that is Miss Minaj, though. They bounce between vulgar hip-hop and candy-coated pop, allowing her to show off her rapid-fire rapping skills one minute and her Rihanna-like croon the next. At 69 minutes, the 19-track “Roman Reloaded” is excessive in every possible way, from the long list of guest artists - Lil Wayne, Cam’ron, Rick Ross, Nas, Drake, Bobby V, among them - to the way Miss Minaj performs each song in a variety of voices.

The “voices” run the gamut from a cockney accent, a boisterous hip-hop snarl, a divalike warble and an exaggerated, vibrato-heavy Broadway belt. Maybe this sort of schizophrenic approach suits an album that jumps between ballads, party jams and R-rated rap songs, but the whole thing feels like a little much. The listener is forced to sift through all of the voices, wondering which ones are imitations and which ones actually belong to Miss Minaj.

“Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded” connects during the emotional moments. “Right By My Side” is a surprisingly tender ballad, and “Marilyn Monroe” examines the dangerous side-effects of a life spent in the limelight. Both songs remind us that Miss Minaj can actually sing, too - and when she does, she trumps many of her Top 40 contemporaries.

Those moments are few and far between, though. “Roman Reloaded” wants to shock you, not soothe you, and its ambition winds up being its downfall.


Rascal Flatts

Big Machine Records


Rascal Flatts have billed “Changed” as their comeback album, hoping to revive the band’s multiplatinum glory days with a record that’s supposedly leaner and more mature than past releases.

Strip away all the promotional mumbo-jumbo, though, and it’s business as usual for these Ohio natives, who fill their latest record with a familiar brand of light, family-friendly country music. “Changed” is anchored by three-part harmonies and Gary LeVox’s acrobatic voice, and the songs - mostly ballads, with a few up-tempo detours tossed into the mix - are all as polished as stainless steel. No changes here.

That doesn’t mean “Changed” is highlight-free. “Banjo,” the album’s first single, finds the band working up a genuine sweat, thanks to some nimble-fingered banjo licks and a soaring melody that recalls the Allman Brothers Band’s “Midnight Rider.” “Let It Hurt” is a big, blustery ballad in the lighter-raising tradition, and “Great Big Love” gives Mr. LeVox a chance to showcase his upper range, which remains strong after a decade’s worth of heavy touring.

With an album title like “Changed,” though, you can’t help but expect something new. After nearly flatlining their career, Rascal Flatts need to explore new directions, write different songs, go after news pairs of ears. They may have gotten their mojo back, but it’s the same mojo we’ve seen before. Perhaps “Recycled” would have been a more appropriate title.

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