Here were four, immediate consecutive thoughts I had yesterday upon listening to Nicki Minaj‘s “All Things Go”:
1. This is the best Nicki Minaj song since last winter’s “Lookin Ass.”
2. This is the best introspective song Minaj has released since her major-label debut.
3. This is the first truly good song we’ve heard from The Pinkprint.
4. It is a Drake song.
In every way — the tastefully muted chorus vocals, surrounded by chilly space; the specific laments about specific family estrangements — “All Things Go” is basically a mournful flipside to Drake’s “Too Much” from Nothing Was The Same. On his part, Drake aired out his cousins, and uncles, and even his mother. On an album called Nothing Was The Same, “Too Much” felt like the ultimate acknowledgment of that sentiment and the insurance policy that nothing ever would.
It’s this lonely-Alphas air that has always linked Minaj and Drake, who present themselves like beleaguered CEOs leaning on each other in their weaker moments. Their loneliness says as much about the industry as it does about their personal lives: They are the last players to demonstrate that rap can also be global pop. Jay Z and Kanye are survivors of earlier commercial epochs, and their grip on the culture has been loosening steadily as they recede from the limelight and slip into comfortable celebrity-dad phases. Drake and Minaj are, effectively, the only significant pop rappers of the last half decade, and thus “pop rapper” is officially the loneliest job it’s ever been.
Minaj’s success, in particular, has immense, stifling contours — she is (arguably) the most successful female rapper ever in the midst of rap’s ongoing Great Recession. She has to figure out a lot of things — what to do after Sprite gives her commercial to Cee-Lo; how to hit hard in the international market without losing her credibility—that no mainstream, white pop star struggles with in quite the same way. In the middle of nowhere, she just feels so alone. All this triangulation kind of puts a limit on your ability to speak freely, and she’s often a cagey, inscrutable interviewer.
All of this context plays into “All Things Go,” her most powerful unguarded moment on record in years. Since her major-label debut, those moments have been countable on one hand — “Champion” from Roman Reloaded, “Dear Old Nicki” and the “my dad was on crack” lines from “I’m The Best” on her debut. Of them all, “All Things Go” is possibly her most honest, because it is chiefly about severing ties, regretfully but firmly, with whoever you used to be.
Within the song’s five minutes, we flash on a lot of moments in Minaj’s pre-fame life. “Ten years ago, that’s when you proposed/ I looked down/ ‘Yes I suppose’,” she raps in the first verse, a reference to Safaree “SB” Samuels, who was in a relationship with Minaj dating back at least to her mixtape years. That relationship ended recently, due to, gossip bloggers say, tensions over her fame.
She also mentions the death of a little cousin, for which she explicitly blames herself: “Family ties, broken before me/ N***as trying to kill him, he ain’t even call me/ And that’s a reflection of me, yes I get it, I get it was all me/ I pop a pill and remember the look in his eyes the last time he saw me.” This is the second time she’s referenced pills on a Pinkprint song, and it’s telling: Pills are the ultimate workaholic’s addiction, a vice you don’t have even stop what you’re doing for a second to indulge. They are also what you take in Alice in Wonderland, or The Matrix, to forget everything that’s ever happened to you.
In the song’s final verse, we also meet a former boyfriend and learn a startling bit of news: “My child with Aaron would have been 16 any minute.” That’s all we get to know, about Aaron or the child, and the poetic distance enhances the song’s regal air of loneliness. In her recent performance of “All Things Go” on SNL, Minaj rapped every line of the song, clear and firm, only lowering her mic for this line, turning her back and leaving only her backing track speaking to us. It was a small, powerful gesture, one that allowed the line to flit between spoken and unspeakable. When the song ended, however, she flashed her megawatt grin, every inch Nicki the brand, thanking SNL. “All Things Go” is the end-stage of CEO rap: Success might be the worst thing that ever happened to you, but instead of crying, you pop a pill, shrug, and move onto the next meeting.