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The way that Keys grabbed the world's attention, by loudly denouncing the most popular female rapper of the moment, all but demands that she plausibly position herself as a worthwhile alternative to Nicki Minaj. That could mean taking the gritty "real hip-hop" route, or beating Minaj at her own punchline-heavy pop rap game. And unfortunately, on her new mixtape, the Baltimore native mostly opts for the latter while frequently claiming to do the former.
The internal contradictions between the aims of Infiltration and its actual content are immediately apparent in the first two tracks: an intro skit playing up her role as a crusading hardcore MC invading the vapid world of shallow bimbos, leading directly into the title track, which jacks the beat from "I'm Goin' In" by Minaj's labelmates Drake and Lil Wayne and features some watery, AutoTuned singing. More Young Money beats ("Ain't Over") and more AutoTune ("Comrade") follow, and throughout the 40-minute tape, it's difficult to tell whether Keys is parodying Minaj or unwittingly parroting her.
Perhaps Keys intends pop-culture punchlines such as "fuck killin' Kenny, bitch, I killed Cartman" ("Four"), or the goofy Martian voice she adopts while saying "take me to your leader" ("Hit 'Em") as satire. But if so, she's not selling the joke hard enough for it to be funny. "Sponsor," over the beat from the current Teairra Mari single of the same name, cleverly inverts the original song's concept, trumpeting female self-reliance while mocking gold diggers with a valley-girl accent. But it remains difficult to envision a rap world conquered by Keys when, from a production standpoint, it sounds exactly like the world we've already got, thanks to her reliance on industry beats.
When Keys does back off from squeaky wordplay over current radio hits, however, she sounds like just another East Coast mixtape rapper, complete with poorly mixed vocals. "I'm a Spartan" is a shrill, monotonous attempt at a street rap anthem, and when she raps over the beat from one of the most venomous and iconic diss tracks of all time, Nas' "Ether," her barbs come off tame and toothless. It's only on the ominous, aggressive "I Am" that she sounds like she can compete with Baltimore's best female battle rappers, such as Ms. Stress or Shy Lady Heroin, nevermind an ascendant mainstream star like Nicki Minaj.
Keys is only 21, and shows the potential to grow into a solid MC with interesting word choices like "they was abscess bitches and they needed to be lanced" ("Infiltration"). But she's got all eyes on her right now, and based on this first mix she's not ready to stand up to that kind of scrutiny. And as annoyingly vapid and mediocre as Nicki Minaj's music is, it shouldn't seem so hard to do better.
Infiltration is available for download at cdfreedom.com