Staying power is fundamental to a long career in pop. Embattled rapper Nicki Minaj turns out to have vast reserves it. Tonight, the curtains on the first British night her troubled arena tour finally shut at 11.37pm, well after curfew. This rarely happens – unless you’re Bruce Springsteen, infamous for three-hour-plus sets, or rich enough to pay the fines without batting a false eyelash.
When Minaj finally disappears, to the closing strains Starships, her 2012 mega-hit, it is in a cloud shocking pink confetti, mounted on a giant frosted unicorn Pegasus with iridescent plastic wings. It’s actually hard to remember what occurred nearly three hours before, when rapper arrived on stage on the same camp steed. So much happens – the interludes seem to have interludes – as a decade-plus music is flung, haphazardly, at her public alongside ample cleavage, twerking thighs, blinding metallic surfaces and busy hydraulics.
Throughout, this maximalist show’s costumes jump eras (Egypt, Rome, futurist-medieval, Fendi), and the normal rules engagement – set pacing, song sequence, narrative arc – are number-two’d on from a great height. (“Get your number twos up!” commands Minaj early on. Did It on ’Em (2010) is a deathlessly excellent Minaj standby about ltily passing “number twos” on the heads rivals and haters.) The eccentric illogic the set is epitomised when Minaj dispatches all her ballads at once, while dressed in a giant Battenberg cake a wedding dress. It feels like the end. There are at least two more sections to come. Photographers were not allowed in the venue, and Minaj’s production team could not supply any newspaper with pictures from this gig.
London, course, is “special” to Minaj – as it is to a handful US rappers, not least Drake. None them, however, can touch Minaj’s mockney accent – hilariously on point tonight. And the Trinidadian-born artist can tap into a deep reserve Afro-Caribbean British sounds here in her choice guests.
To the delight the crowd, she brings out dancehall stars Lisa Mercedez and Stylo G to perform their own track, Yu Zimme – plus the mercurial UK MC Ms Banks, whose verse on the remix Minaj fell hard for in 2017. Soon after, a shy-looking Yxng Bane sings his 2017 hit Rihanna to the grinning Minaj, who promptly gyrates alongside him. There’s a queenly munificence to all this – and warmth.
Reasserting her rank remains a constant theme for this high priestess self-esteem, whose self-declared regal status has wobbled somewhat late. This gig is, in an exhausting sort way, a triumph for an artist who has had to cancel two recent shows – Bratislava and Bordeaux – at the last minute due to the venues not having enough power to run her production. The French were unforgiving, with the crowd chanting “Cardi B! Cardi B!” as they exited the venue.
These technical contretemps were just the latest Minaj’s problems; it’s like she’s been jinxed. This entire tour – supporting 2018’s Queen LP – had to be re-imagined after Minaj’s co-headliner Future suddenly pulled out. Ticket sales were not brisk, to the point where the promoters were fering a two-for-one deal on tickets just last week.
When it was eventually released after sample-clearing headaches, Queen – Minaj’s fourth studio album – stalled at No 2 in the US charts, blocked from the top spot by Travis Scott. Minaj was not amused: she told US talk show host Ellen De Generes that she wanted to punch him in the face.
When the tour finally began, Future was replaced by Chicago rapper Juice Wrld – a terrible pairing. Hip-hop is currently undergoing major stylistic forks, and Juice Wrld is one those emo-inflected sing-rappers who chants short undemanding couplets about taking too many drugs.
Minaj, by contrast, came up in an era where quicksilver intelligence, verbal gymnastics and sexual braggadocio ruled; around the time her The Pinkprint album (2014), she pivoted away from this caustic, porny battle-rap and towards a cartoonish sideline that has continued to flourish alongside her flamethrower verbiage: or “bars” as they are known.
No sooner had Minaj emerged as a more goy, three-dimensional artist, acquiring child fans, along came Cardi B – a lesser talent, but younger, brasher, and with an ongoing real-life soap opera with fellow rapper Offset to keep fans engaged on Instagram between tracks.
Minaj has had plenty her own boy trouble to keep gawkers rubbing their thighs – her ex, Safaree, first claimed he had written her raps, then later recanted – but over the course the past 18 months, Minaj seems to have been edged out position by Cardi’s online domination – a run culminating in Cardi B’s best album Grammy.
Nicki and Cardi circled each other respectfully enough at the start, but the quaint idea that two female rappers could coexist was smothered under abattoir levels beef. There was a fracas last autumn in which a shoe was thrown during New York fashion week. More recently, on the occasion Cardi B’s Grammy, the US network BET (Black Entertainment Television) tweeted its congratulations, while in the same breath mocking Minaj. Minaj and her entire label pulled out a BET event. BET has since issued a grovelling apology.
So it has gone on: no sooner than Minaj claws back some respect – witness the praise for Queen tunes such as Majesty, on which Minaj and a reinvigorated guest Eminem stood up for lightning-fast rhymes – only for Little Mix to have to enter the Nicki/Cardi fray to clarify that Cardi had not been fered Nicki’s guest spot on the band’s all-conquering 2018 track Woman Like Me.
Seeing Minaj in the flesh, the jinx seems to be in retreat. The electrics don’t blow. It’s easier to think a tune the assured Minaj doesn’t include tonight than list those she does. Most her early or guest verses make at least a snippet an appearance in the DJ section.
Career landmarks are well seeded around the mammoth set. There are screams for Beez in the Trap, from the Roman Reloaded era. She even throws out her verse on Monster – the 2010 Kanye West track in which Minaj went head-to-head with old masters Jay Z and Rick Ross and kicked them to the curb – almost as an afterthought.
More recently, Minaj’s 2018 hit single Chun-Li – named after the first female warrior in the Street Fighter series – attests to her mastery the zone where dextrous bar-making meets cutting-edge digital art.
“Y’all need rappers like me,” Minaj declares. She ends the tune in a montage alongside a bevy dancers, all wrapping a fist in the opposite hand, echoing a martial arts posture. It’s sublime, and ridiculous: the dancers are wearing wobbly Chinese conical hats.