Nicki Minaj is at the point in her career now where she can release a puppy-love duet with Chris Brown that doesn’t even include rapping of any kind for the first two-and-a-half minutes and nobody will think twice about it. “Right By My Side” is rumored to be the second official single off Roman Reloaded, and it certainly sounds like it, a big, catchy and cleanly produced number that could have been equally at home on the top of the charts at nearly any point in the 21st century. But is this what we really want from Nicki Minaj? The jury is still somewhat out on that one.
More than anything else, “Right By My Side” sounds like a Rihanna song, maybe a slightly more successful version of “You Da One.” In fact, the song even has the Ester Dean lyrical stamp on it, top-line writer behind not just “You Da One” but nearly every other non-”We Found Love” Rihanna hit note from the 2010′s—and you can tell her work both from the song’s summery, sentimental vibe and the use of the stutter hook (A Dean trademark: think “Oh na na” or “Na na na na c’mon”) on the song’s “I can’t eat / I-i-i-i / I can’t sleep / I-I-I-I” bridge, which we wouldn’t really blame Ri for being furious upon hearing for the first time.
Of course, this striking similarity becomes minorly problematic when considering the song’s primary collaborator. Chris Brown’s presence on a love duet will always be troublesome to many given his checkered (to be generous) history in dealing with the opposite sex, but to do so on a Nicki track that seems custom-fit to Rihanna’s specs seems unnecessarily inflammatory. To his credit (or not), Brown doesn’t do much of anything memorable on the track—he’s auto-tuned within an inch of his life, to the point where you can barely understand the words he’s singing on his verse, which mostly just replicate the “You own my heart / and (s)he’s just renting” sentiments of Nicki’s verse anyway. It’s a headline-only guest performance, but it might get those just the same.
Ultimately, “Right By My Side” is quite nice, but it raises the unshakable question of whether pop music really needs another Rihanna when the one seems to be doing just fine on her own. Nicki does show up as herself on the last verse to rap for a minute (“When my pussy game so cold that he always seem to come back / Cause he know that it’d be a wrap when I’m riding it from the back”) but it’s a little weird that she feels like a guest star on her own song. Not an original complaint, and one that she was smart enough to preempt herself, but Dear Old Nicki, would you make sure that New Nicki doesn’t lose herself entirely on the way to super-duper-stardom?