Reviews: Monster by Kanye West

Monster is a rap song about things that are associated with literal monsters and also things that are associated with figurative monsters. It loudly marks the exact point Nicki Minaj became undeniable and also quietly marks the moment Kanye West began making radio singles that weren’t structured like traditional radio singles.

There’s this clip of Nicki Minaj from back before she was very famous, and it’s part of a mixtape DVD series called The Come Up1 (basically just videos of rappers rapping in the street stitched together). In the clip, she looks not at all like what she looks like today, which is to say alternating between a box of highlighters and a vampire very interested in sex.

She’s wearing a silly brown zip-up hoodie with writing all over it, and she’s also wearing very ordinary jeans and a silly black patrol cap with buttons on it. Her hair is all the way black and straight, and it looks nice enough to not look like an afterthought, but it also doesn’t look premeditated and central to her creative existence like it has since 2010.

When the video opens up, Minaj is rapping about things (Chinatown, Big Pun’s weight, a car the color of bubble gum, etc.), then there’s a small break, then Minaj begins an a cappella rap, then she stops and begins talking about how she only became a rapper because she happened to be so naturally good and devastating at it, which doesn’t sound like a lie. Then she says, “That’s why I act the way I act. [But] don’t get it twisted. If you see me, holler at me. I’m never too ill to say ‘what up.’ Like, it’s not that serious. Trust me, I know that.”

In November 2010, Nicki Minaj was scheduled to make an appearance at an unattractive nightclub off a major freeway in Houston, Texas. I was working for the alt-weekly in Houston at the time, so I was supposed to be there to cover it. And I was excited, inasmuch as someone can be excited about standing in a nightclub for a couple of hours.

This was about a week before her first album, Pink Friday, came out, but still, she had no small amount of buzz around her, owing to an impressive couple of mixtapes and guest-feature runs, as well as the backing of Lil Wayne, who had helped turn Drake into a megastar the year before behind nearly an identical set of circumstances. She was scheduled to be there from nine P.M. to two A.M., though nobody honestly expected her to get there until midnight, and it was $35 to get into the club that evening, so that meant we were all paying $17.50 per hour to stand in the same building as her.

Just prior to her arriving, a short man wearing a lot of cologne who was working as one of the event’s promoters went around and told all of the members of the media that nobody was allowed to take any pictures of her while she was there. He said something close to, “Her management said she’d leave if she saw one single camera,” or something equally dramatic. I didn’t understand why, because what’s the point of making a scheduled appearance if not to be photographed appearing? But the tone was set, and the instructions were firm: Any cameras and she’d leave. He was very serious. She was very serious.

She played at cocky on the DVD but felt the need to explain it away immediately afterward. She played at silly as she began method-acting her way toward stardom, but felt the need to have a handler explain her seriousness. It was an inversion. And in between both of those moments is her verse on “Monster,” which changed her everything immediately.

“Monster” has a bunch of pieces. Let’s go in reverse order, from least to most impactful.

BON IVER, BUT REALLY JUSTIN VERNON

Bon Iver is a group, not a person, first of all. They’re a folk band, to be slightly more accurate, and Justin Vernon is their main singer and songwriter. He sings the intro to the song.

He told New York magazine’s Vulture.com that Kanye had heard Bon Iver’s album For Emma, Forever Ago and appreciated the way he stretched and contorted his auto-tuned singing, and so that’s why Kanye called him and how Vernon ended up on “Monster,” stretching and contorting his auto-tuned singing at the very beginning of the song. Kanye recorded all of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in Hawaii.

He flew the people who were contributing to the album out there to work on it with him. Vernon also told Vulture.com that he and Kanye would start each day by playing basketball. Kanye West shooting a lay-up is my all-time favorite thing to think about.

HI, RICK ROSS

Rick Ross comes in immediately after Vernon, and he raps a bit, but it’s such a short bit that it’s more fair to say it’s a bridge between Vernon and the rest of the song than a verse itself. Ross was never actually supposed to be on “Monster”; that’s why his verse is so short.

He was in Hawaii working with Kanye on a different thing4 and happened into hearing the song, and that led to him being on it. Ross was still floating from the release of Teflon Don, which had come out earlier that year and was (correctly) being called the most lush, most impressive album of his career, and so Kanye siphoned some of Ross’s energy from him for it. Kanye’s a very real master at that sort of thing. More than that: He’s a very true master at extracting only the most essential parts of a person’s creativity. Ross sounds like a hero on “Monster.”

JAY Z: A ZOMBIE WITH A CONSCIENCE

All of the parts of a rap career are represented on “Monster,” and I can’t imagine that’s by accident. There’s Nicki, who was about to become huge but ultimately had not done anything of true note yet. There’s Ross, who was certified and also as influential as anyone in rap that year.

There’s Kanye, who was an unquestioned star who suddenly became questioned following the blowback from the Taylor Swift debacle.6 And then there’s Jay Z, who checks off the Legend box. There’s one part of the song where he raps, “Sasquatch, Godzilla, King Kong, Lochness / Goblin, ghoul, a zombie with no conscience,” and that’s an easy way to tell that he was eighty-seven years old when this song came out, because only a very old person would answer “Name a monster” with “King Kong.”

KANYE, THE GENIUS

First, there’s the artistry of the song, which was dark and sophisticated and foreboding and helped pull rap in that direction, too, because of the surprising gravity of its beauty.

Then there’s the construction of the song, which was atypical, especially for a radio single from an album. It’s choppy and unhurried (more than six minutes long) but still energetic and overwhelming, and it seems okay to say that Kanye perfected the traditional radio single with “Gold Digger” in 2005 and then ripped it to shreds for this new version of it five years later.

Then there’s the overarching theme of the song (this villainous, ugly thing trying to become beautiful and lavish by association), which was really an overarching theme of his life.

Then there’s the backstory: how My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the (gorgeous) result of his having his flesh peeled from his bones after his drunken and swollen attempt at valor at the 2009 VMAs; how it was a pitch-perfect coalescence of his creative existence (which was, and is, mostly adored) and his personal existence (which was, and is, mostly loathed); and how “Monster” was the most obvious signal of his awareness of the conundrum on the album and of his career. Also, he rhymed “sarcophagus” with “esophagus,” and that’s (probably) the first time that had ever happened.

NICKI MINAJ, AND THE VERSE THAT CHANGED HER CAREER, AND RAP, TOO

Writing about Nicki Minaj’s verse on “Monster” is like writing about the solar system or Steph Curry’s jump shot, in that words can be used to describe it, but none ever hold all of what it is or does. Picture an atomic bomb going off inside of a bank vault, or picture someone pumping your head full of air until it bursts, kind of like the guy from Big Trouble in Little China but not exactly like that.

That’s her verse. It twists and bends and she alternates between her characters to have a conversation with herself, and it sounds so perfectly placed and crushing in front of what Kanye created. Complex.com said it was the best rap verse over a five-year period (from 2008 to 2013).

The New York Times called it “legendary.” Pitchfork called it “masterfully manic.” On and on and on and on. Picture a submarine filled with neon paint crashing into the sun at light-speed. Picture a hundred thousand parrots dive-bombing right TF into a Mardi Gras parade. It was gargantuan. It was, to be clever, monstrous.

That’s what her verse was. Prior to the release of Pink Friday, there was a modicum of doubt about Nicki Minaj’s potential, specifically after the release of “Massive Attack,” which was supposed to have been the album’s first single. It was a clear departure from her rap-heavy mixtape songs, but not nearly clever enough to survive as a pop single, and so it tanked, and it tanked so badly that it was eventually removed from Pink Friday altogether.

And yet, there she stood, a month away from the release of her first album, anchoring a song that celebrated the bigness of Rick Ross, the mythic Jay Z, and the transcendent return of Kanye West. “Monster” was built to culminate with Nicki Minaj’s verse, and that Kanye West would do that is indicative of the way she was already being seen by rappers, despite having not even put out an album yet. But “Monster” was really the culmination of her arrival as rap’s next great figure.

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