With love to Danny Brown and the pre-Pulitzer Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Minaj was unquestionably the greatest rapper of the first half of the 2010s
Her introduction to the non-mixtape world is called “I’m the Best.” But even hip-hop fans who didn’t purchase Nicki Minaj’s debut on November 22, 2010 could’ve told you that if they gravitated to the far more anticipated fifth Kanye album instead, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, released on the very same day.
Many of them are now willing to acknowledge that her theatrical, Tasmanian Devil-like inferno on Yeezy’s “Monster,” besting not just his and Jay-Z’s verses but virtually everyone else on the thing, is a candidate for the verse of the decade. It resembled nothing so much as Busta Rhymes’ breakout stanza on a Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario,” which she quotes directly on the second track of Pink Friday, just before going toe to toe with a moderately on-fire Eminem. Then the scatological “Did It ‘on Em” finds a nasty synth riff to match its lyric. Pink Friday seems like an indisputable rap classic all the way up to track four, where the Peter Rosenbergs of the world seemed to get stuck.
It’s the 2020s now, and we know how this ends. But Nicki sings. Mind you, Drake had already sung his way to major acclaim and ubiquity (though not yet a fraction of the dominance he would achieve on, say, “One Dance”), and that wouldn’t have happened if Kanye hadn’t already released the shocking but well-received 808s and Heartbreak, which now stands as probably the most materially influential album of the 2000s, considering how it changed pop and rap completely. Singing in rap had existed before, from Lauryn Hill to Cee Lo to André 3000 to take your pick. Somehow, a lot of people insisted, Nicki’s singing was different, bothersome, obstructing her potential in some way. This is very, very stupid. Sure, people wanted more rapping from the best rappity rapper to come along in years, from the best female rapper to shake the industry in years. But Pink Friday is a rap classic whether people wanted a pop classic at the same time or not.
VIDEO: Nicki Minaj ft. Rihanna “Fly”
For one thing, her melodies are as gorgeous as anything the more trained Lauryn ever put to tape, especially “Fly,” where she and Rihanna harmonize gorgeously as one organism, sustaining notes to alien lengths, the vulnerable “Save Me,” the doleful “Moment 4 Life,” looping her own hook’s syllables like Rihanna herself (plus arguably Drake’s quintessential one-liner: “Everybody dies but not everybody lives”). Best of all is the sweeping synth-ballad “Dear Old Nicki,” where Rich and Famous Nicki thanks her former self for making it through the struggle of “nameless cowards” who “couldn’t defeat your prowess.” Try not to tear up when she says “I live the life now that we would daydream,” while still reminiscing about the days “we was just on some stupid shit.” Right, those quotes are from her rap verses. But they’re glued together by the surrounding aural beauty. Few tunes about the Faustian bargain of success are so warm and sweet.
What I’ve always suspected is that it’s not the singing that got in rap’s way, it’s the pinkness. Lauryn Hill’s music was not fluorescent pink. The boom bap of Lil Kim, Minaj’s most obvious aesthetic predecessor, was Mobb Deep by comparison. Nicki is a lot more like the Eminem who claims he and Dre have been fucking for years, and the André 3000 who let his freak flag run wild in Outkast’s latter days. Nicki’s theater student delight in playing alter ego Roman’s British mother, or grunting out a quick Pee Wee Herman aside, combined with the champagne sparkle of her Eurosynths, open bisexuality (try deluxe bonus track “Girls Fall Like Dominoes”), two-colored hair, overall cartoon-superheroine-who-just-huffed-nitrous affect — it was the most outwardly unapologetic femme performance in rap, proudly pink and simultaneously talking tough. What really got Hot 97 fucked up wasn’t the fact Nicki was a woman or a singer or outwardly willing to be sexualized or how pink this music was but how much they felt the new Busta/Eminem did not need to do these things because she could rap so well. What they didn’t understand then is how she knew this to begin with; it was all her choice. She could’ve made a whole album of “All my n****s get buck – overbite” if she wanted. (Nicki didn’t do that until 2018’s defensive, still-pretty-good Queen.)
The idea of someone wanting to be so pink, so emotionally open, so unabashedly a woman bending hip-hop to her will rather than trying to conform her explosive runaway muse to meet someone else’s standard, that was the ground Pink Friday broke. It’s no surprise that Drake and her successor Future (funny how rap became okay again with singing most of your album just two years later?) were more readily accepted by hip-hop fans as being on a roll with their actual overlong, bloated full-lengths rather than raw talent squandering their potential.
Well, here’s some news: With love to Danny Brown and the pre-Pulitzer Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Minaj was unquestionably the greatest rapper of the first half of the 2010s, and while there’s no debate about her run of essential verses and guest drops on other people’s songs (especially Big Sean, who brought out the best of her comic side on “Dance (A$$) (Remix)” and “MILF,” and her unparalleled streak of Beyoncé and Ariana Grande team-ups) , this also includes Album Maker. Play not just Pink Friday (deluxe edition, please, with the world-conquering “Super Bass” but also “Blow Ya Mind” and “Muny,” but the “Re-Up” of follow-up Roman Reloaded including a whole second disc (try “I Endorse These Strippers”) and the grandiose, breakup-themed Pinkprint, which still got her sex fans fucked up with “Anaconda” and “Only.”
To throw the Hot 97s a bone, you definitely need her breakthrough mixtape Beam Me Up Scotty, with her wicked laugh all over “Itty Bitty Piggy,” but they should also give credit to her David Guetta floor-fillers “Where Dem Girls At” and “Turn Me On” and the stirring Keyshia Cole walk-on “I Ain’t Thru.” From 2010 through 2014, you need all of it.
Until the healthier, more sex-work-friendly Cardi B came along to make her unravel the way she made Lil Kim unravel, nobody did it better.
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