It wouldn't be all that much of a stretch to say that when we first met Nicki Minaj, she felt like what we'd all been waiting for: immeasurably creative and unapologetically self-confident, like a profanity-spewing antidote to every other paint-by-numbers pop star, or maybe just the second coming of Missy at her peak. And from the first track on Reloaded, the rapper makes good on her potential: "Roman Holiday" is delivered mostly in Minaj's winsomely terrible English accent, over marching-band drumbeats and lasery synths, with a ghostlike rendition of "O Come, All Ye Faithful" shoehorned in for fun. It's Minaj at her most unhinged, utterly thrilling in its weirdness, and so it goes: "Beez in the Trap" pairs an absurdist, staccato, schoolyard taunt with a spare burble of a bass line, while "HOV Lane" contains some of Minaj's most addictive and intelligent rhymes ever.
But something happens around track six, and for those of us who fell in love with Minaj off of her early mixtapes or her ferocious, name-making verse on Kanye West's "Monster," the album's second half, larded with milquetoast pop ballads and club jammers, feels like that much more of a disappointment now that we know what she's capable of. At best, it's complacent, and at worst, it's cynical: "Sex in the Lounge," while earning points for candor, swiftly fades into KMEL after-hours unlistenability; and even though "Starships" is as good as anything you'll find on the latest NOW incarnation, it's nowhere near what we know Nicki to be when she's cut fully loose. We can be confident that Minaj will find her way back at some point, but in the meantime, let's just chalk that second half up to a youthful mistake. (Young Money/Cash Money/Universal)