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Nicki Minaj and Rihanna: Acting Out vs. Staying Private

Nicki Minaj and Rihanna at the American Music Awards.

Nicki Minaj is a very good rapper, and over the past few years she's used mixtapes and guest appearances to let everybody know it. Both formats suit her, the same way sketch comedy suits some actors better than leading roles. She's funny, and surprising, and sometimes she leaps from voice to voice with showy speed — a Barbie-inspired chirp gets followed by a Caribbean growl, following which she's just a tough girl from Queens, following which she's English, or crazy, or an evil twin she calls "Roman Zolanski." That range leaves her sounding unhinged and dominating at the same time, which is usually a fun combination. More important, it turns one of the obstacles to her work — being a woman in a job almost exclusively done by men — into an opportunity. The average male emcee doesn't have access to the same number of poses Minaj does: She can roar and spit the way her peers do, but they can't necessarily bat their eyes and drop into coy, teasing voices like she can. Sometimes, next to Minaj, they seem a little penned in by their own masculinity, while she can perform any role she likes — right down to the Day-Glo wigs, bizarro fashion, and Betty Boop facial expressions that have endeared her to the pop world.

This isn't to say that male rappers aren't doing plenty of clever stuff with their own personas. It's just that Minaj has a lot more space to perform such things, to make them obvious, theatrical, occasionally even campy. This fall she did a guest appearance on Kanye West's "Monster," alongside two of the most successful emcees in the country — Jay-Z and West himself. After that track was released, it was Minaj's verse people were raving about. West had ghoulish boasts of his own, and Jay-Z had plenty to say about everyone gunning for his spot, but Minaj was the one who actually sounded transformed, ramping up from a sinister doll's voice to a full-on monster snarl.

Of course, at the same time, she had a top twenty solo hit with a song called "Your Love." Minaj raps on that one, but in the slow, gentle way you might expect from an R&B singer; the music is twinkling, sweet-hearted, and built around an Annie Lennox sample. (One critic's description of the single invoked the old image of a high-school girl scribbling in a notebook.) It was followed by a similar track, "Right Thru Me," this one with an equally dreamy sample from a Joe Satriani song — the focus, again, was Minaj singing a hook about someone's love. Neither song is trying to be fierce: They sound more like coronations or victory laps, a new star luxuriating in the fact of already having won something.

You can probably imagine some people's disappointment when Minaj's much-anticipated debut album, Pink Friday, leaked to the Internet last week, and turned out to be ... not so much a rap record. For the most part, it's not about Nicki Minaj the head-turning emcee — it's about Nicki Minaj the "girly" pop star, and whether it'll succeed on that front remains to be seen. I don't know that there's much point grieving for whatever mad-scientist rap classic she might have made instead; in the end, it's just not what she decided to do. (And judging from what I hear, it's genuinely what she decided to do, and not a commercial move that was forced upon her.) But before you let anyone write the record off as a bizarre disappointment or ill-advised flop, consider this: What if this tension is exactly what's great about it?

Because to my ears, hearing bits of glittery pop from Nicki Minaj is different than hearing it from anyone else, and I suspect she knows that. The album even feels calculated to create that tension, starting with its cover. It's a photo of Minaj in a striking silver dress, surrounded by pink tulle. But her body's stretched into a grotesque, Barbiesh shape, with no arms, and absurdly long legs capped with toylike platform heels. Two early tracks work hard to establish that Minaj is still the unhinged, funny rapper you've heard on other people's hits: "Roman's Revenge" brings out that evil-twin Zolanski persona, and invited Eminem to bring back his crazed and antisocial side, too. A line of his about urinating on someone leads swiftly into another track, "Did It on 'Em," that's about defecating on people. (Figuratively speaking.) You will not hear this and mistake Minaj for someone who's trying all that hard to be demure.

Setting up the album like that makes the pop songs sound a lot more interesting than they otherwise might. There's similar stuff happening in the pop, too — for instance, the chorus of "Right Thru Me," where the regal, chest-beating hook about love just asks "how do you do that shit?" It's dreamy, but phrased in an unglamorous, everyday way. Parts of Pink Friday feel like the woman who was just full of threats has invited you into her bedroom, and it turns out the place is full of stuffed animals, glitter, and posters of Drake, the Black Eyed Peas, and ponies — and hey, she's still standing behind you, batting her eyelashes and making funny faces. Which is strange and fascinating, right?

If Minaj's problem is having too many personalities to juggle, Rihanna's is the opposite: Sometimes it's hard to get a sense of who she is in the first place. This isn't because there's anything bland or vapid about her — quite the contrary. She's a commanding and efficient performer, every bit the pop star. She's from Barbados, and sometimes, when she sings on a track with a Caribbean feel, she sounds more natural, more relaxed and expressive. But for a lot of the country, she's probably best known as the utilitarian pop voice behind "Umbrella," or for her often-changing haircuts, or for an event that had nothing to do with who she is — boyfriend Chris Brown beating her up before the 2009 Grammy ceremony. Her music is almost always good pop, but when she tries to inject more personality into it, debate tends to start from the question of whether that personality is "convincing" enough.

Last week I watched Rihanna perform in Times Square for MTV and appear on BET's 106 and Park, and on both occasions she gave little away. Her demeanor ranges from that of someone who's at work to that of a teenage girl who's been invited to an adult party and finds the whole thing slightly mortifying. At moments I like to imagine that her pop career is all research for a doctoral thesis she's working on, or that she's a pop star solely because she's incredibly good at it, and not because she's burning to have anyone know her business or precisely who she is.

And yet the sales pitch behind her new album, Loud, is that it's expressive, unapologetic, and, you know, loud. Rihanna talks about recording it during a wild-and-crazy tour, and trying to reflect that feeling in the music. If I strain my ears I can hear bits of that in there, but in a way I'd sooner describe as "appealingly smug" than "loud." Much of the album is danceable and clubby, as is the vogue for pop records this year, but in a comfortable and joyous way. If there's any emotional message or pose to glean from the songs, it's the sound of someone who just got out of a relationship and is feeling pleased about it: going dancing with friends, getting mushy over someone new, spreading rumors about how much you like S&M, in hopes that they'll wind up making your ex jealous. (That's the first track, "S&M," which is a good song, except that Rihanna's attempt to sound in-control and edgy is not, in this case, "convincing.")

A lot of critics fawned over Rihanna's last album, Rated R, which had her getting dark and stylish, and venting a little turmoil — but it didn't sell nearly as well as its predecessor, Good Girl Gone Bad. Early reactions to Loud seem to be hinting in the opposite direction: critics disappointed, fans happy with solid singles like "What's My Name" and "Only Girl (In the World)." I find Loud perfectly convincing — it's just that the personality I'm being convinced of is that of someone who's sort of quietly, privately pleased with herself. That might not be the best pop-star look, but I quite enjoy it.

Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images (l) and MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images (r)