A guest blog written by George Griffiths. You can agree/disagree with him here.
Song: ‘Va Va Voom’
Artist: Nicki Minaj
US Chart Peak: 22
Release Date: September 12, 2012
Writers: Nicki Minaj, Lukasz Gottwald, Allan Grigg, Max Martin, Henry Walter
Producers: Dr. Luke, Kool Kojack, Cirkut
Quintessential Max Moment: The quite nonsensical “If you want it I’m gonna be va va voom voom” which is, at once, amazing and bemusing in its grasp of English grammar
Video Synopsis: Nicki watches some Disney films and thinks ‘you know what these cartoon princesses really needed? More boobs.’
By the release of her second album, ‘Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded’ in 2012, Nicki Minaj had become a cartoon character. Her real breakthrough moment had come the previous year, with ‘Super Bass’ becoming her first solo hit in the US Top 10. It was big, it was colourful and it superseded what many assumed to be Minaj’s true crossover from hip-hop artist to pop superstar.
‘Va Va Voom’ was supposed to be the single to bring about this transition, but at the last moment, its release was cancelled and ‘Starships’ was sent to radio as the album’s lead single instead. We can never know truly why this happened; maybe it’s because ‘Starships,’ with its RedOne-produced, Eurodance-come-Bad-Romance sledgehammer beats and cacophony of silly voices was a stronger representation of Minaj’s ‘personality’, and a bigger opening statement than the rather tamer, sleeker and (dare we say it) sexier vibe of ‘Va Va Voom.’ Well, that or she didn’t like the video because it was shit, but, equally, have you seen the ‘Starships’ video? What a travesty.
‘Starships,’ banger as it is, is musically all over the place. ‘Va Va Voom’ represents a more streamlined state of affairs. Even though Max wasn’t personally involved in the production per se there’s a sense of his trademark lyrical nonsensicality in the titular phrase; can anybody actually tell me what a ‘Va Va Voom’ is exactly?
So what is ‘Va Va Voom’ about? Well, not to be vulgar here, reader, but it’s about Nicki Minaj wanting to fuck a man who already has a woman in his life. Is Nicki Minaj bereft of all morals? Well, thankfully we’re not here to discuss that. We’re here, instead, to celebrate the fact that ‘Va Va Voom’ is her best straight-up pop tune (all morally grey boundaries aside) and I personally like to think that Max Martin has a lot to do with it.
This is because I also like to think that Max Martin brings out the best in the pop stars that he works with (or at least he tries to – Jessie J is beyond help). You can see effects of this in several places, but my favourite highlights are Ariana Grande’s ‘Into You’ and Taylor Swift’s ‘Style.’ These songs are perfectly constructed and endlessly elegant, but they also strip away all of the, shall we say rougher edges, of their pop star’s persona. This is the same on ‘Va Va Voom,’ because, essentially, Nicki Minaj doesn’t sound quite as manic when she starts rapping. There’s no English accent or iffy homosexual alter egos in sight. Nicki’s raps are not played for laughs or used to egregious effect like they were in, say, ‘Monster’ or even ‘Super Bass’ – that’s all stripped away here, and we have Nicki Minaj, essentially, singled out as a purified pop entity. She can rap! She can sing! She can deliver a straight-faced pop banger without compromising her image or her roots!
All this, you’re surely crying, points out to the perfect fairytale ending; ‘Va Va Voom’ being released to a world which has already embraced Nicki Minaj’s more bonkers pop music and welcomes this more streamlined and elegant version of her pop persona. To ensure this happened, Nicki’s record label tried a little trick that had paid off with ‘Super Bass,’ namely hiding it on the deluxe edition of her album and waiting until all normal promo had died down to release it onto an unsuspecting public.
TL;DR, it didn’t work. Despite being her most commercially viable single – I still wonder how pop radio didn’t gobble this one up – ‘Va Va Voom’ stalled outside of the US Top 20. Was it released too late in the year for a tune of viable ‘song of the summer’ status? Did people just not ‘connect’ with the song? Or was everyone just not interested because the music video was fucking horrendous?
So, yes, on ‘Va Va Voom,’ despite the video trying to tell you differently, Minaj has her most straightforward pop crossover movement. Her vocals and the song’s backing track are all far less aggressive than the RedOne produced singles from the album, like the aforementioned ‘Starships’ or ‘Pound the Alarm.’ In fact, it’s actually quite nice to see a Nicki Minaj pop single where her rap vocals aren’t played for laughs or overly characterised. We don’t know how much influence Max actually had in the track – he’s listed as a writer, but not a producer – but this represents the kind of smoothing over of a pop star’s rough edges that Max specialises in (he would work the same magic for everyone’s problematic fave Iggy Azalea on ‘Problem’, and Nicki once again on the collaboration heavy ‘Bang Bang’.) Minaj takes front and centre on this song and, for once, it doesn’t seem like she’s taking the piss whilst doing it.
If you’d like to write a guest blog on a Max Martin song that didn’t make the US Top 10 then there’s information on how to do that right here.