The 25 Best Rap Verses of the Last 5 Years

Line for line, line for line. This is how we get down.

Not Available Lead
Image via Complex Original
Not Available Lead

What constitutes a truly great rap verse? There are as many different answers as there are fans.

Some rappers write dense, traditionalist bars. Some keep it blunt, reporting reality in stories from the street. Others adopt a manic personality and deliver their lines in character. Some have gifts for punchlines, others vivid imagery; some just have a great voice or distinctive flow. The one constant, at least for the great ones, is an ability  to imprint their words in the brains of anyone who hears them. That particular turn of a phrase, just the right combination of rhythm and rhyme that renders the listener helpless in the face of unforgettable art. "You're a slave to a page in my rhyme book," as Nas once put it.

It's a strong word, but one rap fans embrace willingly. We want to be that kind of slave. Here are our wrists, spit us those shackles.

Without further ado, the 25 Best Verses of the Last Five Years.

25. Meek Mill "House Party" (2011) (1st Verse)

Not Available Interstitial

Producer: The Beat Bully
Album: Dreamchasers
Label: Maybach Music GroupOut of the gate, Meek Mill's "House Party" is one of the most distinctive and memorable for its opening lines alone, "She said meet me in the bathroom, I fuck her while the water running/Her friend knocking at the door and she's screaming out, 'I'm coming!'" No more perfect image could be culled from the American language to open a song called "House Party" than the story told in the space of two bars. Just a few words set an entire scene and push a plot in motion. Our brains fill in the rest, but it's all so easy to imagine.

The power of his delivery makes it all the more truthful. It's the kind of scenario one might brag about in an offhand manner. With the alarm-klaxon production and his raw-nerve vocals, Meek transports the listener to that exact time and place thanks to a real sense of urgency. We hear her friend pounding at the door, the tension in the moment—a reminder that situations like that are what they are as much for the adrenaline of risk as the satisfaction of the reward.

That's not even taking into account the rest of the verse, each line delivered with intense directness that even sounds playful in parts, "White girrrrls, gone wild/We don't judge 'em though, they ain't on trial." Meek manages to hit the most important touchstones of a classic verse throughout: Unforgettable phrasing that lodges in your brain and stays there, striking imagery in his writing, and the ability to capture a feeling or mood larger than the sum of each word. —David Drake

24. Killer Mike "Reagan" (2012) (Verse Two)

Not Available Interstitial

Producer: El-P
Album: R.A.P. Music
Label: Williams Street
Rapping about politics has become taboo of late. Gone are the days of Chuck D and Ice Cube making music that challenged race relations and government oppression while still selling CDs. For many rappers, speaking on politics does not extend further than namedropping Barack Obama. Amidst that rubble of aloofness stands Atlanta's Killer Mike.

Last year, Mike and Brooklyn's double threat El-P came together to drop R.A.P. Music, an album that ambitiously tackled mature subject matter in a cohesive and enjoyable manner. The album was one of the best projects of 2012, and "Reagan" served as a standout example of why.

Nobody is safe from Mike's critique. He calls out rappers for perpetuating stereotypes but also takes the government to task for funneling the drug trade and subsequently creating a penal system that serves as modern day slavery. He takes things one step further, claiming that Reagan and Obama were both mere puppets being controlled by the strings of America's powerful business interests, pointing out that both men sent troops into Libya during their presidency. 

Mike's unabashed commentary closes with a bold declaration: "I'm glad Reagan dead." How many other rappers would go that far? —Dharmic X

23. J. Cole "Beautiful Bliss" (2009)

Not Available Interstitial

Producer: DJ Green Lantern, Mark Ronson
Album: Attention Deficit
Label: Allido, Interscope

It wasn't wise to go head-to-head with J. Cole on a track in '09. He was too hungry. He rapped like his life depended on the picture-perfect execution of every verse. He stole the show on Wale's clever ode to a certain part of the female anatomy, "Rather Be (Vagina Is for Lovers)," and out-shined Jay-Z on the torch passing, "A Star Is Born." It was only right he closed the year by owning Wale's "Beautiful Bliss."

Cole's verse was a summation of not only the year that changed his life, but the long journey from Fayetteville, NC to St. John's University that had finally paid off. His verse is filled with vivid imagery of a hungry kid blowing fame's door wide open as he relays life lessons, "Ain't nothing given, dog, it's earned/If you just living, dog, you learn/I let you niggas see the light/I'm like the prison yard, I yearn." 

In his last few bars, Cole adds an exclamation point to his verse like a crowd-silencing dunk that sends goosebumps up the spine of stunned spectators.  —Julian Kimble

22. Curren$y "Elevator Musik" (2009) (1st Verse)

Not Available Interstitial

21. Royce da 5'9" "Remember The Titans" (2010)

Not Available Interstitial

Producer: J. Cardim
Album: Mood Muzik 4: A Turn 4 The Worst
Label: eOne

Consider the lineup on this posse cut from Joe Budden's Mood Muzik 4. For starters, there was Joe himself, known for his fearless delivery and the precise insight he's offered on his signature mixtape series. Along with him on the track were Fabolous and Lloyd Banks, two rappers feared for their slick punchlines and smooth flow. Somehow, despite going against such fierce competition, Royce emerged with easily the best verse on the entire mixtape and one of the best verses of the year.

The Detroit native's bars featured a flow that danced all over the beat. He offered complex visual images, blunt yet powerful punchlines, and arguably the greatest reference to The Hangover ever. "You'll come up shorter than an Asian jumping out of a trunk in the desert/While my wolf pack looks for strippers and cocaine." As if that wasn't enough, he also recklessly threw in a cheap shot about Justin Bieber's virginity.

If anyone felt that Royce did not come correct on "Remember The Titans," here is a brutal rebuttal, courtesy of the Detroit MC himself: "Pour sugar in the gas tank, put a banana in the tailpipe/So the car can fit the driver." —Dharmic X

20. Jay Rock "Money Trees" (2012)

Not Available Interstitial

Producer: DJ Dahi
Album: good kid, m.A.A.d city
Label: Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope

To appreciate Jay Rock's definitive verse on "Money Trees," one must first recognize not only the position he was in at the time, but also his team's advancement. Top Dawg Entertainment's ascent into rap supremacy in 2012 was an inevitable affair. Schoolboy Q kicked off the year with the menacing daze of Habits & Contradictions, Ab-Soul flirted with pure lyrical meditation on Control System during the summer months, and Kendrick Lamar capped 2012 by delivering his rite of passage narrative, good kid, m.A.A.d city.

But where was Jay Rock? Just a year prior, he released his debut, Follow Me Home, to lukewarm response. Soon his Black Hippy colleagues cruised by him in popularity and skill level. His relevance soon became dependent on feature work, with Rock making appearances on each of the aforementioned projects, one better than the next.

"Money Trees" presents a moral struggle for the Watts-native, who like Lamar, is faced with the eternal task of capturing hope in a city that has anything but. "Imagine Rock up in the projects where them niggas pick your pockets/Santa Claus don't miss them stockings, liquor spilling, pistols popping," he starts out, evaluating the costs of his actions with a gruff delivery.

As his words scale the afflicted city, it becomes clear that survival will only come to those who are resolute in demeanor ("Gotta provide for my daughter n'em, get the fuck up out my way, bitch/Got that drum and got them bands, just like a parade, bitch"). It's a story that doesn't have a happy ending, nor did it need to have one. Jay Rock would know better than most; money trees can provide shade for only so long. —Edwin Ortiz

19. Tyler, The Creator "Yonkers" (2011) (1st Verse)

Not Available Interstitial

Producer: Tyler, The Creator
Album: Goblin
Label: Odd Future Records/Sony

Over that haunting 4/4 beat and an ominously chopped-and-screwed welcoming-"ODD. WOLF. HALEY."-comes in Tyler, The Creator on his first true solo single, which didn't really emerge as one until a few viewings by everyone in the known universe. At the time of its release, though, "Yonkers" was just another wild clip by those crazy Odd Future kids, until Tyler's deep baritone piped through: "I'm a fucking walking paradox/No I'm not/Threesomes with a fucking triceratops/Reptar."

In the opening lines of the first verse, Tyler makes a few things abundantly clear: First, that he will employ obscenities as they were meant to be used, which is to say that he will wield them, like weapons, meant to excite, incite, and assault. For another, that he's going to defy expectations universally, as lesser rappers have traditionally followed up lines about having complexities with anything but. Instead, Tyler makes a joke about threesomes with a three-horned animal, and then flips that animal into a Rugrats reference.

This is only a few lines prior to another line about a kids' cartoon ("Bedrock/Harder than a motherfucking Flintstone") and a line of pure nonsense, the meaning of which even Tyler isn't entirely sure of ("Making crack rocks out of pussy nigga fishbones"). As the words flop into each other, Tyler runs through his list of friends and what they mean to him in terms of identity: Anwar Carrots and his dreadlocks, Jasper Dolphin and his height issues, Syd Tha Kid and her newfound sex life with other women.

By the end of the song, Tyler's talked about his therapist—it takes most other rappers a while to do this—and has likely incited a bunch of 14-year-olds to try the "cinnamon challenge," as it were.

The point is that it's a verse that both primed us for and continues to guide us through the directions of Tyler's career as it grows, as everyone knew it would after this song. This is a rapper who cares deeply about his friends, who is still mired in his childhood, whose psychology is something he wears on his sleeve and takes as seriously as he takes anything else, which really just depends on the time of day you catch him.

Never has one rapper fought to be so disliked in one Big Moment verse and come off so patently lovable regardless. He is, after all, a fucking walking paradox. —Foster Kamer

18. Juicy J "Errday" (2011)

Not Available Interstitial

17. Lupe Fiasco "SLR" (2010) (2nd Verse)

Not Available Interstitial

16. Gucci Mane "First Day Out" (2009) (1st Verse)

Not Available Interstitial

15. André 3000 "Sleazy (Remix)" (2012)

Not Available Interstitial

Producer: Bangladesh, Dr. Luke, Benny Blanco
Album: Cannibal
Label: RCARap fans realized Andre 3000 had stolen Busta Rhymes's crown as the all-time guest-verse champ sometime back in 2007, after he bodied Unk's "Walk It Out" and Rich Boy's "Throw Some D's" and that jaw-dropping intro to UGK's "International Players' Anthem."

Teenie-boppers, though, didn't get their proof til a few years later, when he hopped on the drums of this gum-snapping pop hit and told Ke$ha a tender remembrance of growing up through divorce. "She say, 'Stacks, you're true-blue,'" he rhymed, confounding expectations as usual. "Nah, I'm navy..." —Dave Bry

14. Danny Brown "1 Train" (2013)

Not Available Interstitial

Producer: Hit-Boy
Album: Long.Live.A$AP
Label: Interscope/RCA Polo Grounds

Danny Brown has so many great verses that it's hard to choose just one. In this case, we'll opt to take the most high profile feature he's had thus far, because it helped introduce him to a new audience. The appeal of "1 Train" is that it's not just a posse cut, but a diverse one, with a range of artists who all boast unique rhyme styles and voices. Let's be real, though: No one has a voice quite like Danny Brown's. Even if he's sandwiched in the middle of these seven verses, his impact is invaluable. He unleashes a flurry of rhymes, "Novice, regardless, heartless and awkward," and "Adonis smoking chronic 'bout to vomit gin and tonic." His rhymes are compact, but his delivery is so fluid it's no wonder his flow goes over heads like pots in pantries. —Insanul Ahmed

13. Earl Sweatshirt "Earl" (2010) (1st Verse)

Not Available Interstitial

12. Gunplay "Power Circle" (2012)

Not Available Interstitial

Producer: Young Shun, Beat Billionaire, Boi-1da, Cardiak, Don Cannon, Tone Beats, The Beat Bully, Ayo The Producer, The UpperClassmen, KyeBeatz
Album: MMG Presents: Self Made Vol.2
Label: MMG, Def Jam

Who the hell didn't want to be rewarded with a plate of sea bass after hearing Gunplay's introductory verse on "Power Circle?" It was the most anticipated track on Maybach Music Group's second group compilation, Self-Made Vol. 2, and Gunplay went into it like it was his last verse, ever. It actually is all on Gunplay at that moment, and he's got some standout lines in the first verse. Laughable or not, you know them: "Been shittin' on you fucks a long time, time to pee now." But in the same breath, he's rhyming lines like "When you finish first they hate you worse, startin' to see now."

Gunplay's entire verse is representative of his newfound fame. A braggadocious line like "I'm at the round table, where your seat at? Where your plate, where your lobster, where your sea bass" is his reality that he's made. More significantly, he addresses the roles he now plays in the MMG power circle: "Taking pictures acting like we rap" signifies he's aware of how to handle himself in the spotlight, and yet he finishes the verse imagining his own death, and what he would do until the end. Gunplay's rhymes are angry. He's a character but his high-pitched, angered vocals assert his power in the MMG circle, and industry. It's such a powerful first verse that it even leaves a screaming Meek Mill looking weak in Gunplay's shadow. —Lauren Nostro

11. Diddy "O Let's Do It (Remix)" (2010)

Not Available Interstitial

Producer: L-Don Beatz
Album: N/A
Label: 1017 Brick Squad, Warner Bros. Asylum

No one saw this verse coming. More than a decade removed from the glory of the No Way Out-era, Diddy had essentially lost all respect on the microphone. Which was actually kind of unfair. So what if he wrote checks instead of rhymes? Diddy still cared about the craft of rapping and got rapper's rappers like Royce Da 5'9" to write for him. We're not sure who wrote Diddy's verse on here, but we're gonna go ahead and assume it was Rick Ross, since the Bawse's verse sounds in tune with, and immediately follows, Diddy's verse.

Ross might write braggadocious and borderline delusional lines for himself, but his words made sense coming from Diddy. After all, Diddy has the bravado and resume to back it up. He didn't just talk about smashing J. Lo, we all know damn well he did that shit. He doesn't just get paid to plug Ciroc, he probably gets paid every time your favorite rapper plugs Ciroc. This verse debuted a brand new swag for Diddy, the eccentric millionaire who was rich as fuck and didn't give a fuck. We guess this is what it feels like to be richer than them white folks. —Insanul Ahmed

10. Schoolboy Q "Brand New Guy" (2011)

Not Available Interstitial

9. Rick Ross "Devil in a New Dress" (2010)

Not Available Interstitial

Producer: Bink!
Album: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Label: GOOD Music/Def Jam

In this post "U.O.E.N.O."-era, it's hard to remember a time when Rick Ross could conjure up a shred of empathy when it comes to affairs of the heart. But listening to one of the best verses of his career brings it all back. Set against Bink's wistful Smokey Robinson sample, Ross's 28 bars follow two Kanye West verses about love and loss, and the lust for flesh and fame, and are immediately preceded by a melancholy guitar solo—which is to say the perfect mood is set.

The Bawse launches into a series of lines that are once typical and transcendent. He brags about his "bitch," his watch, his cars, his tux and his lavender shoes, yet his performance is compelling because his boastful words are suffused with pathos. For once Ross doesn't seem to be in character. When you're "making love to the angel of death," you don't need to put molly in her champagne. —Rob Kenner

8. 2 Chainz "Mercy" (2012)

Not Available Interstitial

Producer: Lifted, Mike WiLL Made It (add.) Mike Dean (add.) Kanye West (add.) Hudson Mohawke (add.)
Album: Cruel Summer
Label: GOOD Music/Def Jam

2 Chainz "Mercy" verse was, unquestionably, the peak of the rapper's long and unlikely climb, the crown jewel in a year of career-making guest verses ("Beez in the Trap," "Supafreak"). It was a verse 2 Chainz had built to over the course of thirty-plus years. His were the punchlines that kind of made you roll your eyes, and then he just kept pushing them over better beats, forcing them into rotation until they became undeniable. It was obvious he was in on the joke—he always seemed smarter than his own lyrics, almost as if he had hustled us by honing in on the perfect low-art formula. He'd figured out the low expectations of his audience, and raised the bar by pinpointing it with precision, then running into that creative vein as many times as possible. But ironically, somewhere along the way, he seemed to find his own accidental art there, his balance of self-awareness and chutzpah carving each goofy joke into the cultural conscious. And suddenly, he was a sensation.

His "Mercy" verse was an unbroken string of punchlines, and suddenly none of them seemed groanworthy; they were brilliant. The references, from foreign cars to money tall "like Jordan" (way to date yourself, bro!) weren't new, but like Guru bragging about how baggy slacks are crazy hip-hop, 2 Chainz was an unlikely, anachronistic hip-hop hero anyway. From "champagne on an airplane" (he's drunk and high at the same time...get it?) to "chain the color of Akon," every line seemed to have reached some kind of apotheosis, a moment of dad-joke transcendence. —David Drake

7. Kanye West "Niggas in Paris" (2011)

Not Available Interstitial

Producer: Hit-Boy
Album: Watch the Throne
Label: Roc-A-Fella/Roc Nation/Def Jam

As with much of The Throne project, Ye got the best of Jay on this one. Because really, who does wretched excess better than Kanye West? Where Jay indulges in standard-issue rap-mogul flossery—bragging about his watch collection and spilling Ace of Spades on his "sick Js"—Kanye digs into the dirty work of humiliating the less fortunate. Mr. West wastes no time belittling a bougie girl, telling her to meet him in the bathroom stall, and mocking her for ordering fish filet.

Listeners who've been paying attention since the outset of Kanye's career will recognize that he's still exploring the themes introduced on his College Dropout single "All Falls Down," a sympathetic portrait of a "single black female addicted to retail." The difference now is that his approach is less sympathetic than stuntastic. Not that he doesn't have fun with it. From his line about how Prince William should have married Kate and Ashley Olson to his "provocative" sample from Will Ferrell's Blades of Glory, Ye goes gorillas all the way. And just like the song says, "That shit cray." Don't let him get in his zone. —Rob Kenner

6. Eminem "Forever" (2009)

Not Available Interstitial

Producer: Boi-1da
Album: More Than a Game
Label: Zone 4/Interscope/Shady/Aftermath

The final verse in the all-star collaboration between Drake, Lil Wayne, Kanye West, and Boi-1da, Eminem's take was as much conversation starter as it was conversation stopper, as in, anybody who had written off Eminem at this point in light of his then-recent album output (Relapse) was definitively shut up. Not only could the man still be part of a hit single, but he can be the knockout performance on it, too, even alongside such of-the-moment names as Drake and Wayne and superstars like West, who were on a creative crossover tear through much of 2009.

Eminem's flow on the song is red-line speed for him, and the verse is over before you blink. If you don't? You'll catch double-entendres, triple-entendres, shots at other rappers (namely, Gucci Mane), and classic Eminemisms ("This shit is exactly what the fuck we talk about when we riot") in perfect track cadence, precisely aligned to power right through speakers, growls, bass notes, clenched teeth, consonant-pops and all, for the singular and rapturous effect that only Eminem at the top of his game can deliver. And of course Eminem was reportedly unhappy with the way it turned out, even after the accolades from fans and 'heads and other rappers poured in. It's the kind of malcontentedness we should expect and want in other artists still set on regularly proving their worth. It's telling that we get it from so few, and that Eminem, we learned, was still one of them. —Foster Kamer

5. Jay Electronica "Exhibit C" (2009) (2nd Verse)

Not Available Interstitial

Producer: Just Blaze
Album: N/A
Label: Control Freaq Records, Decon Media Inc.

Over a lush, soul-driven Just Blaze production, Jay Electronica starts by detailing his rise to fame: broke, poor, destined for greatness but unsure of its arrival, if it ever were to show up. Of course, by the end of that verse, it does show up, by way of Puffy, Q-Tip, and Nas, all—as he tells it—asking Jay what he's waiting on. But Electronica isn't Other Rappers, and he understands that for a single like this (and a boast like that), it's not enough to say it, he's got to show it, too.

As such, the second verse is the resounding answer to the first: In the first lines, Jay punches bars through the wall, linking Judaism to Islam ("They call me Jay Electronica/Fuck that, call me Jay ElecHanukkah/Jay ElecYarmulke/Jay ElectRamadaan") and then spitting some beautifully pronounced Arabic to top it off ("Muhammad Asalaamica RasoulAllah/Subhanahu wa ta'ala through your monitor"). And sure, certain references (the Verizon guy, Tweetstock) definitely date the verse a little too specifically at times, but with lines like "I'm bringing ancient mathematics back to modern man/My momma told me never throw a stone and hide your hand," it's excusable, seeing as how he produced the distinct sonic quality of a man on a roll, and one who isn't looking back in time (let alone that first verse). —Foster Kamer

4. Drake "Stay Schemin'" (2012)

Not Available Interstitial

Producer: The Beat Bully
Album: Rich Forever
Label: MMG, Def Jam

Once upon a time, Drake made a record called "Successful" on which he pledged: "Diss me and you'll never hear a reply for it." But that was way back in 2009 before he actually had "the money, money and the cars, cars and the clothes," not to mention "the hoes." Two years later Common dropped "Sweet," his harshest diss track since the time he went at Ice Cube on "The Bitch In Yoo." Drake was not mentioned by name but Common eventually confirmed that the song was directed at Drizzy. (Com never confirmed the speculation that he was enraged by Drake's dalliance with his on-and-off girlfriend Serena Williams.) Where "Sweet" was a relatively minor release, everybody heard Drake's reply. His guest verse on the final track of Rick Ross's Rich Forever mixtape made "Stay Schemin" one of the biggest hits of the year. Loaded with quotables, Drake's 28 subliminal bars decimated Common from the first line ("It bothers me when the gods get to acting like the broads.") He went on to question whether "Sweet" was just a publicity stunt to prop up record sales before delivering the coup de grace ("I'm just hitting my pinnacle, you and pussy identical"). Ouch.

Drake also took a swipe at Kobe Bryant's wife at a time when the couple seemed headed for divorce. (Ever the gentleman, Drake later apologized to her for the immortal line "Bitch you wasn't with me shooting in the gym.") Drake did not take back his line about how "we can't wait to run into you." In fact, he and Common reportedly got into a scuffle at the 2012 Grammy Awards. "You think Drake will pull some shit like that? You never know!" —Rob Kenner

3. Lil' Wayne "A Milli" (2008) (1st Verse)

Not Available Interstitial

Producer: Bangladesh
Album: Tha Carter III
Label: YMCMB

Lil Wayne comes full force on "A Milli;" its first few introductory piano chords paired with a quick decrescendo becomes the perfect segue into one of Wayne's best verses of his entire career. You know where you were when you heard it, and you know the first two lines, "A millionaire/I'm a Young Money millionaire, tougher than Nigerian hair," whether you wanted to or not. Lil Wayne's wordplay is on full display over the heavy bass and repetitive looped vocals. It's everything we want in a Wayne verse: a menstruation reference, arrogance, and imagery of himself surrounded by women, nice cars, and taunting any goon who gets in his way.

Wayne's too busy to write out his rhymes but he won't forget to remind you how his career keeps coming back like a menstrual bleed. He sounds practically possessed throughout the entire track; each line was weirder than the last, with a disregard for any and all logic: "Got the Maserati dancing on the bridge, pussy popping/Tell the coppers hahahaha you can't catch em, you can't stop em." Because that's what we want from Wayne, and it's what he gave on "A Milli." —Lauren Nostro  

2. Kendrick Lamar "m.A.A.d. city" (2012) (1st Verse)

Not Available Interstitial

Producer: Sounwave, THC, Terrence Martin (add.)
Album: good kid, m.A.A.d city
Label: Top Dawg, Aftermath, Interscope

The second title track on Kendrick Lamar's epic Compton tale from good kid, m.A.A.d city begins with a hell of a theoretical: "If Pirus and Crips/All got along/They'd probably gun me down/By the end of this song." Flatter yourself, much, K-Dot? And yet, by the end of the first verse, that line, which could sound like a persecution complex, is less theoretical than it is assurance, as Lamar details many of the plain realities of gang life on the ground in Compton, and the attitudes that go with it, especially as far as the local body count goes. It is a hyper-violent reminiscence, made all the more so by how patently real it is, or probably is, the detailing more or less rendering the question of whether or not it's real a moot point. And all of that goes without mentioning Lamar's flow, a lyrical ankle-breaking crossover offensive that includes a three-syllable Cognac pronunciation (cone-ee-yack) and a censoring bleep, the name of whoever K-Dot felt the need to redact (or "redact").

It's a fast, breathtaking, but utterly hard verse where lines smash into each other, and bars are connected by lyrical hairpin turns. There's a lot to point to on this album to explain the seemingly endless plaudits around Kendrick Lamar, but narrowed down, few stand up to the out-and-out creative brilliance and lyrical gymnastics quite like "m.A.A.d city." —Foster Kamer

1. Nicki Minaj "Monster" (2010)

Not Available Interstitial

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

Latest in Music