It's obvious that Minaj has earned her seat at the table; she has amassed over 100 entries on the Billboard Hot 100 list and established her musical versatility with a plethora of hit songs. Still, there are critics who try to box her in, attempting to confine her to a neat genre or category. Now, the re–release of her breakout 2009 mixtape Beam Me Up Scotty shows that even with both feet planted firmly in rap, Nicki has always pushed the envelope of her genre and her persona. In celebration of this release, and in defense of Nicki Minaj’s right to make music however she goddamn pleases, here are six of her most underrated tracks; featuring everything from her happiest ballads to her most brutal takedowns, circa 2009 to the present day.
1. “Itty Bitty Piggy” from Beam Me Up Scotty
“Itty Bitty Piggy” is a fan favorite from an era when Nicki Minaj was still conjuring all of her identities. Tellingly, around the 3–minute mark, she proclaims “Nicki Minaj, Nicki Lewinsky, Nicki the Ninja, Nicki the Boss, Nicki the Harajuku Barbie.” This song is the best introduction to bring new Barbz into the fold, because of how it showcases her rap talent and swagger; now, the track's availability on streaming platforms is sure to give it even more notoriety. Nicki’s flow today isn’t as focused on quotable one–liners as it used to be, and the more straightforward style she adopts in this song really lets her writing really shine. Even over such a hyperactive beat, she makes sure that her fans and haters catch every syllable of “I don't fuck with pigs, like "as–salamu alaykum" / I put 'em in a field and I let Oscar Mayer bake 'em, bitches.”
2. “Check It Out feat. will.i.am” from Pink Friday
After making a name for herself with her “Monster” verse on Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Nicki’s sugary, heavily autotuned Pink Friday definitely rubbed some listeners the wrong way. “Super Bass” is still the lasting standout from that record, but don’t sleep on “Check It Out” either. The song’s beat, produced by will.i.am, incorporates an ingenious Buggles sample that sounds tasty enough to eat. Unsurprisingly, it’s Nicki’s presence as an MC that elevates things beyond just a saccharine, repetitive hook. Her fierce disses, like “I just pop up on these hoes on some pimple shit / And put the iron to your face you old wrinkled bitch,” are laugh–out–loud moments, and only get funnier the more you think about them.
3. “Come On A Cone” from Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded
If you asked me to name the best Nicki Minaj project, or at least the best display of her talent and charisma as a pure rapper, it would be hard to top the first seven tracks of Roman Reloaded. Together, these tracks, including “I Am Your Leader” and “Beez In The Trap,” culminate in an EP full of extraterrestrial, futuristic beats complete with deranged, demented wordplay. Nowhere is Nicki more charismatic than on “Come On A Cone,” which features Clipse–style production from none other than Hit-Boy. But the beat is simply a big top tent that houses Nicki’s death–defying vocal acrobatics, an endless barrage of quips that will leave you hanging on every last word. Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene described it as, “One of the most creatively unhinged vocal takes in pop–rap history.” I would just tell him to drop the “pop–.”
4. “Shanghai” from The Pinkprint
Nicki Minaj was by no means the first female rap superstar, and her music owes a sizable debt to trailblazers from Lil’ Kim to Foxy Brown. Perhaps the clearest forebear to Nicki’s off–the–wall–humor is Missy Elliott. The candor of “Shanghai” is far more severe than, say, “Get Ur Freak On” or “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” but the track's beat is heavily reminiscent of the great Missy–Timbaland braintrust. Nicki’s in take–no–prisoners mode here but there’s still room for her clever, Elliott–indebted wordplay, like “I’m winter fresh, they’ll get chewed out.” The Pinkprint shows Nicki Minaj flitting effortlessly between her iciest bangers, like “Shanghai,” and her most vulnerable ballads. Perhaps that’s why it’s considered her magnum opus.
5. “Come See About Me” from Queen
And speaking of ballads, they’re the one component of Nicki Minaj’s creative output that’s guaranteed to improve with every subsequent release. As she matures, Nicki’s capacity for baring her soul has deepened. “Come See About Me” is an entry in a lineage of slower, more emotional melodies that stretches back through “Pills N Potions,” “Marilyn Monroe,” and even “Dear Old Nicki” on Pink Friday. It’s on songs like this that we hear Nicki singing not as Roman Zolanski, or as Harajuku Barbie, but as Onika Maraj. “Come See About Me,” is lacking in polish even compared to these other slow burners, since it features a) no rapping and b) no autotune, but it’s refreshing to hear Nicki’s voice unvarnished, a perfect match to her uncomplicated plea for love.
6. “Fractions” from Beam Me Up Scotty (Reissue)
The Genius page for “Fractions” isn’t broken up with features, choruses, or hooks–it’s just a single monolithic verse. The message behind the track is explicitly clear: Nicki still has her rap cred after all these years, and now she doesn’t even have to stand up from her throne to look down at the competition. While the song’s production fits comfortably amongst the rest of the original Beam Me Up Scotty, these sentiments could only come from Nicki’s current, real persona. She even acknowledges this in the song’s intro, digressing “I did the mother thing, I did the wife thing” before setting the record straight that “I think it's quite clear now / You need the bad guy.” These lyrics make explicit a longstanding truth: that Nicki Minaj has always been the best at rendering the bad guy good.