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How Nicki Minaj took hip hop by storm in 2010

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In early 2010, Nicki Minaj jumped on a plane to Hawaii for a recording session with some of the biggest hip-hop stars in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONSTER")

KANYE WEST: (Singing) I shoot the lights out.

CLOVER HOPE: So you have a Kanye West, a Jay-Z, a Rick Ross and, you know, she's kind of coming in and blowing all of them away.

SUMMERS: Clover Hope is the author of "Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip-Hop." At the time, Kanye was holed up in a Honolulu studio making his album, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy," with a long list of superstar guests. Nicki Minaj was an anomaly. Not only was she just one of two women - Rihanna was the other - but she hadn't even released a debut album. And yet...

RICK ROSS: At some point, it's almost unbelievable.

SUMMERS: That's Rick Ross reflecting later on watching her write and record her verse for Kanye's song "Monster."

ROSS: Just to be in the studio and me to actually watch and just to see everybody reaction - I was just happy I was there to witness that moment in hip-hop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONSTER")

NICKI MINAJ: (Rapping) Pull up in the monster, automobile gangster with a bad bad that came from Sri Lanka. Yeah, I'm in that Tonka, color of Willy Wonka. You could be the king, but watch the queen conquer.

SUMMERS: She brought a ferocious energy to the track.

HOPE: You hear her ability to play with her voice. She's funny, and she's loud. And she, you know, has this dynamic quality to her.

SUMMERS: For years, Nicki Minaj had worked her way through a music industry freshly disrupted by the internet. She released tracks on Myspace. She called her fans on the phone and streamed it on live video. She made mixtapes that were devoured by rap blogs, and she became the queen of featured-guest verses on other artists' songs, which she nods to in "Monster."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONSTER")

MINAJ: (Rapping) Fifty-K for a verse, no album out. Yeah, my money's so...

SUMMERS: In 2010, it all seemed to converge.

HOPE: It's almost like her thesis - some sort of, like, coronation for her - this force who comes in, just lays them out - and anyone who's listening also.

SUMMERS: Then a few months later, that debut album finally came. It was called "Pink Friday."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOMENT 4 LIFE")

MINAJ: (Rapping) In this very moment, I'm king. In this very moment, I slayed Goliath with a sling. This very moment, I bring. Put it on everything that I will retire with the ring. And I...

SUMMERS: Nicki Minaj had arrived, and so had a new chapter in hip-hop. The next decade would see women rising to the forefront. All week, we have been celebrating key moments from the first 50 years of hip-hop. Today, Nicki Minaj and the internet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOMENT 4 LIFE")

MINAJ: (Rapping) Shoutout to my haters. Sorry that you couldn't faze me.

SIDNEY MADDEN, BYLINE: The dexterity of Nicki Minaj has been studied and clearly replicated so many times in the trajectory of other artists' careers.

SUMMERS: Sidney Madden is one of the hosts of NPR's podcast Louder Than A Riot. That dexterity went beyond her lyricism and chameleon-like voice. Starting on Myspace, Nicki Minaj figured out early on how to wield the internet to build an army of fans - an army she called the Barbz.

MASANI MUSA: Before it was super cool to be, like, really locked in with your fans, she was extremely locked in.

SUMMERS: Masani Musa is host of the "Culture Unfiltered" podcast.

MUSA: Like, giving away money to her fans, paying for her fans' college educations. Like, she really has shown the Barbz a lot of love. And in return, they show her an insane amount of love, too.

SUMMERS: When I sat down with Sidney and Masani, I asked first about the ways this kind of digital community-building disrupted the music industry.

MUSA: The fans liberate artists. There is no middleman. It's just them and the fans. They can do what it is that they want to do, and they can know that, even if they don't have the label's support, they have their fans' support. And at the end of the day, that fan support can, like, take them to the moon.

MADDEN: Yeah, absolutely. Changing hands from the, quote-unquote, "gatekeepers" in the music industry and putting more emphasis and more autonomy in the hands of the artists themselves and the fans who feel seen and heard by them - it really is the optimistic future of where the internet and music spaces can go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPER BASS")

MINAJ: (Rapping) This one is for the boys with the booming system, top down, AC with the cooler system. When he come up in the club, he be blazing up. Got stacks on deck like he saving up.

SUMMERS: OK. So I want to unpack some of the gender dynamics that are at play here. How were female rappers generally treated by the culture at this time?

MUSA: I think most female rappers weren't really seen as a threat in terms of chart success and album sales. And when Nicki Minaj debuted and, you know, all of those numbers started pouring in, that's when the conversations about whether Nicki Minaj was a rapper or a pop star started to happen. And those conversations kind of threatened her title as a rapper. People wanted to place her as a pop star because of her commercial success.

MADDEN: Yeah. The first word that comes to my mind for so many huge artists who are women in the space still was an accessory, an extra, a plus-one. I think about people who live in the lineage of Nicki before her - people like Foxy Brown, people like Lil' Kim. There was always a level of connection to a man that was deemed necessary. And even Nicki really also had to follow that line and that path. She was on Young Money, which was Lil Wayne's huge juggernaut of a crew at the time in the early 2000s. But no matter the influence, she stood on her own. And she started - she became so big that she started to eclipse any other male around her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S NEW")

MEGAN THEE STALLION: (Rapping) Ayy, ayy, look.

SUMMERS: Can you all give us, like, a couple of examples of female rappers who followed in this mold after Nicki Minaj paved the path and showed them it could be done this way?

MADDEN: Absolutely. I think of Megan Thee Stallion. I think of Cardi B and the idea that they don't allow themselves to become a caricature. They are able to sell themselves in a pop lane, and they don't allow the figure that they originally popped off in the hip-hop lane to define them.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOJA CAT SONG, "WOMAN")

MUSA: I think what's interesting is we have Doja Cat doing it in reverse nowadays. She had a really big pop career over the last handful of years, and she made a very public, kind of harsh announcement that, you know, she wants to go back to rap and back to making, quote-unquote, "real music." And so somebody like Nicki Minaj, who has been able to do both, you know, throughout her entire career, has kind of given other women in hip-hop and in pop the space to say, hey, I actually want to do this now.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICKI MINAJ SONG, "PILLS N POTIONS")

SUMMERS: We're 13 years, at this point, after "Pink Friday." Where does the hip-hop community stand when it comes to embracing female rappers?

MADDEN: This is such an interesting question because, yes, there are absolutely so many other women flourishing in the aftermath of what the tidal wave of Nicki Minaj did for the industry. Like Cardi, like Megan, most recently Ice Spice, who she's now dubbed the princess of rap - I don't think female rappers are waiting for the hip-hop community - i.e., men - to embrace them or put them on any longer.

MUSA: I definitely feel like, with hip-hop turning 50 this year, I think there is still a long way to go. But, you know, if it wasn't for Nicki, I don't think we would be here. So even though there is a long way to go with women fully being recognized for their contributions in hip-hop, I think, over the past two years, we've seen people for the first time, like, admit that women in hip-hop are actually doing their thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STARSHIPS")

MINAJ: (Rapping) Let's go to the beach-each. Let's go get a wave. They say what they going to say.

SUMMERS: That was journalist Masani Musa and NPR's Sidney Madden. That wraps up our weeklong celebration of 50 years of hip-hop. This series was produced by Kat Lonsdorf and Noah Caldwell and edited by Patrick Jarenwattananon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.