Nicki Minaj takes aim at the throne with Queen, her long-anticipated latest album, which was surprise-released ahead of schedule on Friday. Plus: Mitski offers up a tender, nostalgic ballad in Two Slow Dancers; Cher covers ABBA as only Cher can; Sia, Diplo and Labrinth’s latest collaborative experiment as the supergroup trio LSD leads to the warm-weather tune “Thunderclouds;” and Elle King returns with the rousing new single “Shame.”
'Barbie Dreams,' Nicki Minaj
On her long-awaited 19-track album Queen — released a week earlier than expected — Nicki Minaj proves that her confidence remains unchecked. Guests like Eminem, Ariana Grande and The Weeknd make strong appearances, but when Nicki is left to her own devices she seems to have the most fun. That’s certainly the case on “Barbie Dreams,” in which Nicki name-checks nearly every rapper in the game while asserting her own dominance. Over a spare beat, she takes her time to eviscerate rappers like Meek Mill — with a knowing wink. “I’m just playin’, but I’m sayin’ ” she repeats in a simple chorus. Then, three minutes into the track, things take a turn; it might as well be a separate song entirely, with a new beat and a sped-up Minaj. This part is the mile-a-minute, drama-happy, accent-switching fire spitter you might be expecting. The rapper has range.
"Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!," Cher
What’s better than classic ABBA? Maybe — just maybe — Cher’s updated take on ABBA. Cher, who recently acted in the Mamma Mia! movie sequel, is deep in an ABBA phase these days, announcing that she’s releasing an album of exclusively ABBA covers this fall. The first that we get to hear is “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight),” an ABBA favorite and a song perfectly suited to Cher’s distinctive register and delivery. In fact, with a few contemporary production flourishes and Cher’s dramatic performance, this new take feels fresher than ever. And with its urgent beat and memorable melody, it’s just as catchy now as it was the first time around.
"Two Slow Dancers," Mitski
Mitski is best known for her raw-edged indie rock. But on “Two Slow Dancers,” the third and final single off of her upcoming album Be the Cowboy, the insightful artist takes a sweeter, more acoustic tack. Slow, stately and wistful, the ballad sees Mitski reminiscing about a love of years past, allowing a gentle falsetto to guide her into a new range. “It would be a hundred times easier if we were young again,” she sighs. “But as it is — and it is — we’re just two slow dancers, last ones out.” Sometimes the memories are the best of what remains.
"Thunderclouds," LSD (Sia, Diplo, Labrinth)
The combination of pop hitmaker Sia, EDM producer Diplo and British rapper-producer Labrinth may sound at first pass like an odd coupling. But the trio — who have dubbed themselves “LSD” — have an unusual alchemy together, each bringing a distinct sound to the mix. “Thunderclouds,” their third release following the bombastic “Genius” and club-lite “Audio,” is a sunny, uplifting track that belies its own stormy name. Over an easy-going beat that amps up with a touch of jazzy horns and a few tropical-adjacent riffs, Sia and Labrinth trade verses and echo each other in gentle support, urging each other onward. As Sia suggests, “Don’t be afraid of these thunderclouds.”
"Shame," Elle King
Grammy-nominated singer Elle King has a lot of fun on her new single “Shame,” off of her upcoming second album. The vocal powerhouse (and daughter of comedian Rob Schneider) is perhaps best known for 2015’s earworm hit “Ex’s & Oh’s.” On “Shame,” she continues to mix a bluesy tendency with her soulful tones, full of attitude and a catchy pop sensibility underlying its hard edges. King loves to give her voice an extra raspy quality, making her sound distinctively her own. “I’m a fire, just a spark under your halo,” she winks on “Shame,” clearly not such a good influence at all.