Nicki Minaj: The rapping superstar serves up spectacle – and breaks the rules again

Nicki Minaj at the O2 Arena
Nicki Minaj at the O2 Arena

It wouldn’t be a Nicki Minaj tour without some kind of drama. The Trinidadian-American rapper was arrested in Amsterdam last Saturday for alleged “possession of soft drugs” – derailing the start of the UK leg of her tour in Manchester that night, and dragging the city’s hapless Co-op Live arena into yet more cancellation controversy. She made no reference to the incident during her show in Birmingham the following night, though she did find time to hold (rather inexplicably) a moment’s silence for Princess Diana.

A cancelled show is a costly hiccup, but that didn’t deter Minaj from incurring even more expense in London a few nights later by performing for 40 minutes beyond the O2 Arena’s curfew. Then again, budget seemed no object. All the hallmarks of a superstar show were present: five acts, eight dancers, a three-tiered stage complete with runway, countless costumes, sophisticated digital visuals, hydraulics and pyrotechnics – an appropriate level of spectacle for the best-selling female rapper of all time, now also the first female rapper to sell out the O2 three times.

Few among Tuesday night’s 20,000 fans failed to adhere to Minaj’s brash pink uniform, established back in 2010 on Pink Friday – her hit debut album with which she broke through the stronghold of male rappers, clearing a path for the likes of Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat, and Cardi B. The show opener I’m The Best (also the first track from Pink Friday) acknowledged that achievement. And though this current tour is ostensibly designed to celebrate the recent sequel Pink Friday 2, the night functioned like a high-speed career retrospective, the 35-song setlist serving as a reminder that across 16 years Minaj has remained consistent commercially, if not always artistically.

In a series of doll’s boxes, she posed as several of her erratic alter egos for songs including Chun-Li, Red Ruby Da Sleeze, and Barbie World, her hit contribution to the Barbie film soundtrack. She’s a notably theatrical performer, from her exaggerated facial and vocal expressions to her agile stage moves – like a less wholesome take on yoga during Feeling Myself (her hit with Beyoncé), and actual line-dancing during Cowgirl. But songs such as Roman’s Revenge and Monster (a 2010 Kanye West track on which she upstaged every other male guest rapper) reinforced her main superpower: as a technically formidable rapper with a memorably crisp, percussive style.

However, just like Eminem – who featured on the original version of Roman’s Revenge – Minaj has not only undeniable talent as a rapper, but also plenty of annoying songs in her arsenal, from the aforementioned Barbie World to the stale sample of Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun on Pink Friday Girls, and a sped-up sample of Junior Senior’s Move Your Feet on Everybody. Several slow, tedious interludes disrupted the pace set by those eye-wateringly bouncy tracks, threatening to lose the attention of the crowd.

But she rescued energy levels in the final act, bringing on rapper Stylo G and Jamaican dancehall legend Beenie Man for two songs, alongside her biggest hits Super Bass and Starships. Nicki Minaj may court controversy and make headlines more often than she makes albums, but Tuesday night left fans in no doubt of her prowess as a barrier- (and curfew-) breaking rap superstar.

Touring the UK and Europe until mid-July;