Critic’s Notebook: Nicki Minaj and Travis Scott Fumble Toward Yesterday’s Prize: A No. 1 Album

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On Sunday afternoon, Nicki Minaj went on Twitter to go over some matters of accounting.

Moments earlier, Billboard reported that Travis Scott’s “Astroworld” was the No. 1 album in the United States for the second week running, relegating Ms. Minaj’s “Queen,” her fourth studio album, to No. 2 in its debut week.

“I spoke to him,” she tweeted, referring to Mr. Scott. “He knows he doesn’t have the #1 album this week. I love my fans for the #1 album in AMERICA!”

What incensed Ms. Minaj was a boost in sales Mr. Scott had received by bundling his album with merchandise and tour packages, and also an Instagram post by Mr. Scott’s paramour, Kylie Jenner, “telling ppl to come see her & Stormi,” Ms. Minaj tweeted. (Stormi is Mr. Scott and Ms. Jenner’s baby daughter.)

But that wasn’t it. For about an hour, Ms. Minaj — whose album sales were supported by similar packages — listed her gripes: Billboard chart chicanery, Spotify blackballing, record-label spinelessness. Her complaints about how those alleged actions affected the rollout (and subsequent chart position) of “Queen” — which she later brushed off as “sarcasm/dry humor” — were implicitly tied to Ms. Minaj’s broader belief that, as a female rapper, she has not fully gotten her due.

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No one is entitled to a No. 1 album, and in general, record labels and artists try to strategize release dates to maximize their chances. For the past two months, most people have stayed out of the way of Drake’s “Scorpion,” which had a five-week run at No. 1. Mr. Scott bumped him from the top a week ago. Presumably, Ms. Minaj expected to dethrone Mr. Scott (and next week, be dethroned herself by labelmate and collaborator Ariana Grande).

But it wasn’t to be. Still, the resulting pyrotechnics obscure a far bleaker truth, which is that this fleeting battle for album-chart supremacy — itself a metric that’s becoming increasingly irrelevant — is between two artists preoccupied with the album format who are not especially well-suited to it.

For Ms. Minaj, a classically skilled rapper fired in the kiln of New York mixtape rap and one of the last true crossover hip-hop superstars, an album is an opportunity to show off, to wear different guises, to make a grand statement. It’s a declaration of pomp and range.

That’s what it is for Mr. Scott as well, but his approach is almost opposite. He is often less present on his own album than all of the guests he gathers. The sum total is impressive, almost overwhelming, but it says little about Mr. Scott on his own.

“Queen” is Ms. Minaj’s first album in four years, a stretch of time in which the music business has been upended by streaming, and hip-hop has been upended by the internet. The 19-track record often feels like it’s fulfilling a checklist, trying to appeal to multiple constituencies in a way that was de rigueur, say, a decade ago.

There is “Bed,” a blithe soft-R&B collaboration with Ms. Grande; “Come See About Me,” a ballad that sounds like it were written for Faith Hill; and “Thought I Knew You,” a listless pairing with the Weeknd. There is “Majesty,” an overbearing collaboration with Eminem — to be fair, one of the only rappers who can match Ms. Minaj’s theatricality — that extends for an uncomfortably long period of time. And there’s “Nip Tuck” and “Hard White,” songs where Ms. Minaj’s vocals are buried under digital effects — an effort to keep up with the sounds of the moment that ends up distracting from her familiar commandeering presence.

As “Queen” makes clear, Ms. Minaj is a far better rapper than a singer, and a far better writer of rhymes than melodies. Her most muscular moments are her best here: the lightheartedly savage “LLC”; a pointed collaboration with Foxy Brown, “Coco Chanel”; and “Chun-Li,” full of casually ferocious bars, on which Ms. Minaj doesn’t break a sweat.

And of course, there’s “Barbie Dreams,” a buoyant remake of the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Just Playing (Dreams),” a lewd rundown of his sexual fantasies about female R&B singers that verges on offense but was so skillfully executed it didn’t cross the line. The song is a crucial moment in 1990s New York rap, and Ms. Minaj does not take her inversion of the classic — which targets male rappers — lightly, delivering it with verve and also a fair bit of comedy.

That Ms. Minaj is so much more effective in this mode is only underscored by the songs in which she abandons it. “Queen” aspires to solve multiple problems at once, but winds up emphasizing a whole new one: the continuing fuzziness of her artistic identity.

Here again, she has something in common with Mr. Scott. He is hard to pin down on “Astroworld,” which may be the best of his studio albums but, like the ones before it, serves largely as testimony to his sense of scale and arrangement, and less as an affirmation of his technical skill.

The list of guests is long and borderline preposterous: a bracing Frank Ocean on “Carousel,” Drake on “Sicko Mode,” an effective tag team of Juice WRLD and Sheck Wes on “No Bystanders,” an ethereally blissful pairing of Gunna and Nav on “Yosemite.” “Stop Trying to be God” features vocals from James Blake, Kid Cudi and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey, and harmonica from Stevie Wonder.

Mr. Scott is on there, too, but there is a cardboard blankness to his vocal texture. Even all the layers of processing it’s run through don’t enliven it. That is a constant throughout this album, which is both excitingly ambitious and curiously hollow at the core.

Mr. Scott has had some indelible singles over the years — “Pick Up the Phone,” “Butterfly Effect,” “Goosebumps” — but over the length of an album, he recedes. The 17-track “Astroworld” is as long as it is merely to show off all the guests he can attract. He also makes albums for an old-fashioned reason: to win prizes. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Mr. Scott’s A&R representative, Sickamore, described the glut of nontraditional guests on “Astroworld” as an arrow targeted right at the Grammys.

What Mr. Scott does have is a sense of hip-hop as a fully immersive performance. His live concerts are creative and enthusiastically rowdy. His aesthetic sense is highly refined. Unlike Ms. Minaj, for whom hip-hop is first and foremost about rapping, Mr. Scott understands hip-hop primarily as a lifestyle. (Some of that has to do with age — Ms. Minaj is 35, Mr. Scott is 26 — and generational shifts.) His album is an opportunity for music, yes, but also for merchandise that is whimsical and maximal, just like his shows. For Mr. Scott, the album is a pretense, a necessary step in between him and the exuberant presentation that is his true gift.

But albums aren’t for everyone. This tussle over Billboard chart dominance — never mind that Ms. Minaj is judging her first week against Mr. Scott’s second — feels especially futile given that it’s between artists who could probably continue to thrive without them. Ms. Minaj’s celebrity is secure. Mr. Scott has figured out how to embody modern hip-hop while bypassing the usual steppingstones. For both, the album is an albatross, not an answer.

Original Article

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