A few months ago at the nationally televised Grammy Awards, Nicki Minaj staged what looked like an exorcism while singing “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Then she levitated.
There was nothing quite as outrageous (or bewildering) as that moment Monday during her 90-minute performance at the sold-out Chicago Theatre. Instead, the first two-thirds of the concert consisted largely of Minaj singing and rapping along to a backing track, accompanied by six dancers, a DJ and a hype man on a two-tiered stage that morphed from a church to an alley to a living room illuminated by a fireplace.
It was an increasingly rote, mechanical run-through of some of the catchiest pop music of the last couple years. The real show might’ve been in the seats. An hour before Minaj took the stage, her fans strutted in cheetah-print hot pants, fish nets, stack heels and wigs, and posed for photos.
But two-thirds of the way into the concert, Minaj went off-script and reclaimed her turf. She started rapping like the performer who “used to play in front of 200 people at a club,” the precocious personality who caught the attention of rap kingmaker Lil Wayne. It saved the show.
Minaj, born Onika Tanya Maraj 29 years ago in Trinidad, is as much known for her multiple personas, wigs and costumes as she is her music. She did not disappoint with several outfit makeovers (gowns to tights, taffeta to leather) and three wigs (two platinum, one brunette if you’re keeping score).
She’s at the leading edge of a new wave of female MC’s bubbling up in hip-hop, a genre that has not been overly kind to women in the past, both in its lyrical content and its reluctance to embrace artists who don’t fit the hard, macho profile.
After being signed by Lil Wayne to his record label, she delivered a series of scene-stealing cameos on other artist’s hits, demonstrating formidable lyrical chops and a palpable hunger to prove she not only belonged, but could destroy all challengers. She then released two multimillion-selling albums, “Pink Friday” (2010) and “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded” (2012). Along the way, she became the first female solo artist to post seven singles on the Billboard top 100 at the same time.
The hits, from “Moment 4 Life” to “Starships,” dominated the first part of the show, which was divided into three distinct portions, focusing on hip-hop, dance pop and ballads. The fast, furious string of putdowns, boasts and one-dimensional leers that opened the concert ignited the fans.
Then Minaj shifted gears to her more overtly pop-oriented material and the momentum sagged. She came off as just an add-on in David Guetta’s electro-pop single “Where Them Girls At” and her ballads (“Save Me,” “Fire Burns”) could just as easily have appeared on a Katy Perry album. The vocals, sung to a backing track, were dispatched with verve-free professionalism, her personality buried by formula.
But after a DJ interlude, Minaj re-emerged in an outfit that looked like an homage to the street-smart, leather-cap-wearing “My Life?”-eraMary J. Blige. She dug deep, snapping together punchy snippets from her 2009 mix tape, “Beam Me Up, Scotty,” and instructing her DJ which track to play next. Minaj reeled off lines with rapid-fire precision, changing up her inflections and leaning into the sharp lyrical turns. She brought a few fans on stage and dedicated Drake’s “I’m So Proud of You” to “all my ambitious, independent women … (who are) in school or working.” It was the first time all night that Minaj looked at ease.
When she brought it back around for a confetti-strewn version of “Super Bass,” she had earned the celebration.
Nicki Minaj set list Monday at the Chicago Theatre:
1. Roman’s Revenge
2. Did it on 'Em
3. I Am Your Leader
4. Beez in the Trap
5. Stupid Hoe
6. Dance (A$$)
7. Right by my Side
8. Moment 4 Life
9. Automatic (DJ interlude)
11. Pound the Alarm
12. Turn Me On
13. Where Them Girls At
14. Va Va Voom (DJ interlude)
15. Fire Burns
16. Save Me
17. Marilyn Monroe/Fly (DJ interlude)
18. Mix tape medley
19. Come on a Cone
20. Up All Night
21. I’m So Proud of You
22. Bottoms Up
24. Super Bass