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Review: Nicki Minaj, torn between two worlds

Posted 11:45pm on Sunday, Jul. 29, 2012

Who is Nicki Minaj?

The feisty 29-year-old Trinidadian rapper and singer-songwriter brought her "Pink Friday" tour to a nearly sold-out Verizon Theatre Sunday, and intentionally or not, spent the evening raising that very question.

Sunday also marked her first appearance in Dallas as a headliner (you might recall her dazzling work as a opener a little over a year ago for Britney Spears) and, unfortunately, highlighted the bumpy transition she's undertaking.

Having made her name as part of the ferocious Young Money roster (Lil Wayne famously discovered the woman born Onika Maraj) and as a fearsome rapper, Minaj is undergoing a shift from foul-mouthed, fleet-tongued MC to pert pop star with the sharp edges somewhat sanded down. That split, between the streets and the top of the charts, played out over and over during the course of Minaj's breakneck 75-minute set. (Scarcely 10 minutes had passed Sunday, and Minaj was already eight songs into her set list.)

The stage, littered with back-up dancers, a hype man and a DJ wedged behind a staircase, was filled with video screens and little else. Whereas her opening set for Britney Spears had a clear through-line, Sunday's performance hopscotched from one "theme" to another, with no discernible connection.

The uncertainty extended to the headliner as well. As a rapper, Minaj remains electrifying, a commanding presence. As a pop star, however, she seems more hesitant, unsure exactly how to carry herself.

Of course, if she is to capitalize upon her growing fame (thanks to hits like Starships, Turn Me On, Moment 4 Life or Beez in the Trap, for which she was joined by opener 2 Chainz), Minaj has to strike fast, hence this "Pink Friday" tour (and this fall's "Pink Friday: Reloaded" tour). Only, given how little meat there was -- Minaj changed costumes three times in 45 minutes, disappearing from the stage for minutes at a time and sapping momentum -- it seemed as though a tour, even one of such modest scale, might be too much, too soon.

It's not a question of Minaj's charisma, or even her skill as a rapper, but whether she's fully committed to this pop star thing. Surely she knows that, by and large, rap remains almost uniformly a man's game (a sad, but true, reality in 2012). To make the leap and earn bigger paychecks -- one cannot live on guest spots alone, although Minaj offered several reminders Sunday why she's a go-to cameo, spitting verses from Bottoms Up or I'm So Proud of You -- Nicki Minaj has to give in to pop music, sacrificing gutter for glam.

While the audience, clad in all sorts of zany sartorial tributes to Minaj, went absolutely bananas from start to finish, the night didn't feel satisfying. Instead, it was a rare glimpse of talent in transition. Watching a high-profile performer navigate the unforgiving glare of popularity, while struggling to retain a sense of self and put her best foot forward, is fascinating in theory, but in practice, doesn't make for a very rewarding evening.

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