Review: Nicki Minaj @ SSE Hydro

Published

Credit: Flickr / Ralph Arvesen

Axel Koch
Music Columnist

Since the beginning of her career, Nicki Minaj has been battling a duality in her music. In a matter of months between 2010 and 2011, she catapulted herself from the realm of critically belittled mixtapes to the world stage, with a top-ten rap verse of our generation on Kanye West’s “Monster” and a top-ten pop song of our generation with her very own “Super Bass”.

“Monster” caught the eyes and ears of even the most perfunctory of hip hop fans, s persona-switching menagerie of horrors that steals the limelight from Jay-Z, Rick Ross, and West himself, all performing at top form. Its unabashed theatricality has inevitably made the song into a meme, but even its being rapped by teenage actresses on talk shows and ironically covered by pop stars in concert hasn’t dimmed the sheer confidence Minaj brims with on the track.

Released a few months later, “Super Bass” was a different beast entirely. An effervescent electro-pop confection that allowed Minaj to prove her vocal range. The song slowly made its way up the charts and into the collective consciousness on both sides of the Atlantic, helped as much by the fact that it was as PG as you’re going to get from Minaj, as by its ear-wormy sugar rush of a hook.

That she can switch from one to the other and still retain an unmistakeable musical identity is central to Minaj’s appeal, but it has also held her back from attaining the mass fandom to be expected given her sustained presence in the musical zeitgeist. Some deride her for the hard-core vulgarity of “Did It On’em” and “Stupid Hoe”, some for the boorish carnality of “Anaconda” and Big Sean’s “Dance (A$$)”; others for her shameless embrace of generic pop on “Starships” and collaborations with will.i.am and David Guetta, and even others for her over-eagerness to jump on any and all questionable trends in popular music.

No one really seems to love Nicki Minaj. But clearly, she does have a devoted fan base, who enthusiastically flocked out to the SSE Hydro on St Patrick’s Day evening to see her. Glasgow is her latest stop in a world tour fraught with mishaps, one that saw not one but two unscheduled changes in her support, as initial co-headliner Future pulled out due to what was said to be “scheduling conflicts”, while Lil Xan was hastily chosen as the opening act for select shows after previous choice, 6ix9ine, was incarcerated. Future was replaced by the decidedly less illustrious Juice WRLD, everyone’s favourite emo rapper / Michael Jackson apologist and a less than compatible companion for Minaj.

After the entire North American leg of the tour had to be cancelled due to Future’s sudden drop-out, luck was none the kinder to Minaj in Europe. On extremely short notice, concerts were cancelled in both Bratislava and Bordeaux due to cited problems with electricity (amusingly, fans got to chanting Cardi B’s name upon exiting the venue in France, arguably the best thing to have come out of this unnecessary and petty rap beef). Then, on the night before her show in Glasgow, Minaj’s concert in Dublin couldn’t take place as the adverse weather conditions prevented the technical equipment needed for the rapper’s elaborate stage design from being delivered to the Irish 3Arena in time. Minaj’s Scottish fans feared the worst the following day due to similar weather in and around Glasgow, but eventually, all went ahead as planned.

Nicki Minaj is of course far too seasoned and professional of an entertainer to let off any hint of insecurity following such organisational tribulations, but her not-quite two-hour-long set at the Hydro, to which she returned for the first time since the 2015 Pinkprint Tour, did carry a whiff of playing it safe and getting things over with just as planned. This is where the previously mentioned balancing act between pop and hip hop figures in again, as Minaj has to provide both a performance worthy of her status as an (almost) arena-filling superstar and a demonstration of her rapping chops. To achieve this, she runs through a rigorously rehearsed colossus of a set, one in which practically every song of hers one could think of on the spot is performed, but only a select few are played for more than a nightclub portion of one verse and chorus.

Choreography and set design are both on point; including twerking men in latex suits, Minaj wearing a blue Snow White costume to rap her “Monster” verse over a live drum beat (which actually works really well), and her riding on to stage on a giant Pegasus for reasons that make perfect sense when you’re several pints in on St Paddy’s. There is practically zero room for improvisation, which I suppose is to be expected with a concert of this magnitude. The only times when Minaj interacts with the audience are for a greeting (she says “Glass-gow”, of course) and for a semi-spontaneous bit when she remarks on the good looks of the Scottish men present (which, sure) and picks one lucky lad named Stephen out of the crowd to dance on stage with her. As it turns out, Stephen is actually Irish, a charmingly unplanned act of imposture that consequentially leads to the young man being cryogenically frozen on stage. I have not seen him since.

For the rest of the time, Minaj goes through the motions, covering everything from “Beez in the Trap” to the more recent singles “Chun-Li” and “Good Form”, and a whole slew of songs that she’s been featured on. At times – and not only when fun.’s “We Are Young” is hilariously chosen to play over the speakers during one of several short breaks – one gets the feeling of listening to a top 40 radio station, where Minaj just happens to be one of the voices to be heard next to Ariana Grande (“Side to Side”), 6ix9ine (“FEFE”) and Jason Derulo (“Swalla”). It doesn’t help that there is an audible distinction between her live vocals and the previously recorded playback, which constitutes almost half of Minaj’s singing and rapping. She’s not even on stage for her verses on “Where Dem Girls At” or “Ganja Burns”.

But the predominantly female audience is clearly enraptured, while the efforts made by all the male spectators I noticed to hide their enjoyment were sociologically interesting. I was sat in the back, bopping along and having a very good time. “Super Bass” ended things on a high note, and I saw more lighters in the air than I would ever have expected at a Nicki Minaj concert. I just hope Stephen’s all right.