Producer: Kanye West, Mike Dean, Plain Pat
Album: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Label: GOOD Music/Def Jam
Three years ago, Nicki Minaj was an upstart mixtape phenom, recently signed to Lil Wayne's Young Money Records. Not everyone had heard of her; not everyone who had heard of her believed in her potential. Then one verse, the 32 bars she delivered on Kanye West's "Monster" deaded all questions.
It was surreal—for listeners and for Nicki herself. A lifelong fan of Jay-Z, she could hardly contain her excitement at the thought of appearing alongside him, Rick Ross, and Kanye West on one of standout tracks on Kanye's hugely anticipated fourth album. But she settled her butterflies and stepped up to the mic. Ross himself has said watching Nicki in the studio was witnessing "history being made." The verse stands as a milestone in Nicki's career, proof that she was in the game to stay.
The song starts with the pained, distorted singing of folk-rocker Justin Vernon, and Kanye's dense, dark beat sets the scene. Ross pops in for a few lines that are so vivid you can actually imagine him rumbling through the jungle. Kanye skates over his verse, dropping memorable lines like "Have you ever had sex with a pharaoh?/I'll put the pussy in a sarcophagus!" Jay-Z follows with breathy, eerie vocals that fit the ghoulish soundscape. But the boys club saved the best for last: Nicki.
Her wide-ranging verse showcases every trick in her over-stuffed bag. The first four bars announce her arrival, and her inevitable takeover. "You could be the king," she says to her more famous colleagues, "but watch the queen conquer." Once the beat drops, we meet the many faces of Nicki Minaj. Passionate, erratic, imploring, comedic, her performance has the power, years after its release, makes you stop dead in your tracks. Altering her vocal style on every line, she bounces her wordplay from Giuseppe Zanotti shoes to Tony Matterhorn's "Dutty Wine" to suggesting a ménage à trois with Kanye and his then-girlfriend Amber Rose. The full cast of characters that Nicki Minaj embodies is on full display—a glimpse into where she would take her career as a whole. After all, Nicki is more than just a rapper, she is a full-fledged entertainer—from her Barbie-voiced TV appearances to her radio-friendly pop crooning to her raspy, street-smart rhymes.
The proof of the verse's impact came just a month later, when Nicki's debut album, Pink Friday topped the charts on its way to selling well more than a million copies. It was clear, she did her thing alongside the best in the game—she stole the show, in fact, outshined them all. And fans remembered. —Lauren Nostro