For a dark minute, the Queen stood alone. Seemingly surrounded by enemies, and worse, loyal subjects-turned-skeptics, Nicki Minaj watched from afar as questions began to surface. Her credibility as an elite artist, once solidified, seemed disputed by fan and publication alike; the notion that she had something to prove became recurring water-cooler talk, and the emergence of an exciting new claimant did little to help matters. Sadly, it seemed as if Nicki found herself on the outside looking in, watching over a populace that once waved her banners. A familiar fable, leaving many wondering which of the two archetypes Nicki best embodied: the Evil  Stepmother or Snow White?

Many seemed eager to paint Minaj as the villain. One Forbes writer openly lambasted her, stating her creative choices “reeked of desperation.” Funkmaster Flex went so far as to hit her with the heisman, lumping her alongside “wack” rappers like Lil Pump and G-Eazy. Public support faded, save for the unwavering loyalty of Barbz worldwide. Is it safe to say that Nicki Minaj called her album Queen as a reminder, not simply to her doubters, but to herself? A declaration of self-worth, after the monsters turned on her, gleefully sinking their gold teeth and fangs into flesh. Perhaps that’s why that album opener “Ganja Burn” is steeped in emotion, culminating in a beautiful, yet vulnerable melody.

“Ganja Burn” speaks volumes about the album’s dominant themes. For one, two disparate elements appear to be at odds. Consider the intimately rendered arrangement, as melancholic guitar arpeggios swirl over lush synthesizers. Everything about the musical aesthetic suggests hope in the face of tragedy; the notion is reinforced by Nicki’s juxtaposing vocals, alternating from confident rhymes to haunted vocals. The video, while not technically “canon” to the album as presented, tells of a queen betrayed by her own people. Yet against all odds, the queen manages to rise, defeating her enemies and standing, blood-drenched, atop the heaping corpse-pile.

For that reason, redemption becomes a potential thematic branch of Queen’s wide-reaching tree. Yet while “Ganja Burn” ends on a wistful note, it doesn’t take long for Nicki to once again find her footing. “Majesty” and the notorious “Barbie Dreams” find a rapper at the height of confidence, with the latter earning special credentials for draining the game’s machismo like frat brothers drain Bud Light from key-punctured holes. Borrowing a page out of 50 Cent’s “How To Rob” playbook, Minaj hilariously weaves a tapestry of trysts gone awry, starring a cavalcade of male egos. Though scathing at times, it’s hard not to laugh as Minaj pokes fun at Khaled’s L-of-the-year blunder, in which he deemed vagina unworthy of consumption.

To be fair, Nicki’s battle-ready to approach to the plate does not guarantee a dub, as snarling and chest-pounding does not guarantee a fresh kill. For every focused turn like “Hard White” and the Jay-Z endorsed “LLC,” there’s a “Rich Sex,” which, for all its gratuitous swagger, feels a little like two bellies slapping post-meal. Afterward, the album undergoes what may best be described as a cuddling-section, rattling off a trio of superfluous melodic cuts in “Bed,” “Thought I Knew You,” and “Run & Hide.” For what it’s worth, Nicki remains too talented to fully commit to offensive mediocrity, though this particular chapter certainly leaves one longing for an stricter adherence to concision.

Yet the Queen can do as she likes. Though heeding counsel can be seen as a positive quality for any aspiring leader, Nicki has taken it upon herself to blaze this trail alone. You’ve no doubt heard her reinforce her songwriting prowess throughout her post-album press run. Authorship of her own material continues to be her dominant rallying cry, and an insight into her greater hip-hop values. Can one truly profess to be “royalty” if one has a ghostwriter on retainer? Without exploring some of the deeper connotations of her statement, it’s certainly a fair proclamation in my books. It goes without saying that Nicki’s pen game is one of her strongest, and most unique attributes; lyrically, she can go toe to toe with damn near anyone, and seldom will she be truly outshone.

To be fair, Eminem and Swae Lee certainly put in work on their respective turns, with the latter contributing his most memorable guest spot thus far. Hearing Swae’s off-kilter, eerie falsetto over a Metro Boomin trap carnival vibe makes for an undeniable highlight; it’s difficult to say whether Minaj’s fluctuating flow meets Swae’s elevated bar, though her contributions are certainly solid. Paired back to back with spiritual sequel “Chun Swae,” the one-two punch helps add a sense of direction to the album’s wayward midsection. The trail is altogether strengthened by brilliant technical turns on “LLC” and “Good Form,” which plays out like an early millennium take on modern-day trap.

Unfortunately, Queen’s melodic “radio” offerings only serve to dilute Nicki’s battle plans. Though her vocal chops consistently remain on point, songs like “Come See About Me” and “Nip Tuck” are plagued by pop-production hallmarks; crisp, compressed drums and underlying synth lines have no place beside the ruthless New York stylings of, say, “Barbie Dreams.” Versatility is nice, but one does not need to juggle while unicycling. Not when unicycling is impressive in itself. “Unlike a lot of these hoes whether wack or lit, at least I can say I wrote every rap I spit,” she rhymes, on the aforementioned “Ganja Burn.” In that sense, it feels like Queen may have benefitted from an adherence to her rap roots, especially given the emphasis on lyrical prowess.

Despite suffering from pacing issues, it feels safe to call Queen Nicki’s finest project thus far. At her best, she’s rapping at a level worthy of heavyweight status; those unwilling to recognize her greatness will no doubt scramble for excuses throughout “LLC,” scouring through the depths of their hating-ass-minds. Though in reality, Nicki doesn’t seem to care about the naysayers. Not anymore. Delivering Queen seems to have had a therapeutic effect on the rapper, who not-so-long-ago felt her back against the wall. Hearing her speak on the album has confirmed as much. Now, Minaj has once again picked up her crown and sword in equal measure. The landscape may have changed, but her position has once again been affirmed. May the trumpets blare in accordance.