Kanye West, Jay Z, Nicki Minaj
Two rap titans and an impressive newcomer snarl over a foreboding beat. Kanye West is sneering and dismissive, Jay Z cold and calculating; Nicki Minaj is unhinged. They are ruthless. Hungry for power. The song explores success and arrogance through the metaphors of violence and insanity.
madness · power · superiority · danger · confidence · swagger
From the very first moment of its runtime, Monster conveys menace. Bon Iver — an artist usually known for soft, mournful vocals — opens the track with a distorted vocoder growl that sets the tone for the next six minutes. His words evoke foreboding and fear: ‘I shoot the lights out, hide ’til it’s bright out’. As his warning ends a cartoonish scream soars over the track and a lion roars to herald the arrival of the monsters.
The first monster is the beat. Built with constant metallic drums punctuated by a harsh high-hat, it rumbles and bumps along methodically like a tank on square wheels. The brusque Rick Ross proclaims himself a ‘no-good bloodsucker’ and ‘fat motherfucker’. ‘As you run through my jungles, all you hear is rumbles’, he rhymes, echoing the rolling pattern of the instrumental. But he is gone in a moment: he is only really here to introduce the main event.
Kanye West, master of ceremonies on one of the most widely-acclaimed rap albums ever, anchors the song with a rhythmic chant delivered through a light electronic distortion. He is detached and cold: tired of the press attention, confident in his own abilities. He positively demands your support and enthusiasm:
Gossip, gossip, nigga just stop it
Everybody know I’m a motherfucking monster
I’ma need to see your fucking hands at the concert
Profit, profit, nigga I got it
The words ‘motherfucking monster’ are delivered in a warped low voice, heightening the sense of madness. In the background a short sample of cheering is repeated twice with sharp cuts; it is an eerie parody that returns as a flourish a few times during the rest of the song. Almost lazily, West rhymes ‘gossip’ with ‘profit’ and ‘got it’ to namecheck his second area of dominance: money. Underneath his vocals, the beat has been joined by a lilting, almost playful organ riff. A weird and catchy nonsense vocal sample loops in the background.
As his verse begins in earnest, his voice becomes closer, clearer. ‘The best living or dead, hands-down, huh?’ he sneers, with characteristic hubris, daring you to disagree. Then the first example of the aggressive sexuality that permeates not just this verse but most of his work: ‘Less talk, more head right now, huh?’
His voice is drawling and drips disdain for those who would oppose him. The desire to do everything and be everything in his lifetime is a defining characteristic of Kanye’s ambition; here he boasts his ability to do everyone’s job, producing and rapping, with ‘no assist’. He dismisses an argument with an ex-lover ‘acting like I owe her shit’.
Part of Kanye’s appeal as an artist is his tendency to juxtapose the conflicting elements of his personality: arrogance and vulnerability, straightforward brashness and knowing irony. A playful and sometimes black sense of humour runs underneath many Kanye lines. ‘Bought the chain that always give me back pain,’ he raps, mixing age-old rapper clichés with the banality of the human body. He comments offhand that the craziness of his public image has affected his income, so he has had to pretend to be normal. He gleefully exaggerates his Chicago twang to rhyme ‘act sane’ with ‘accent’, bragging that women love his voice. These women litter the lyrics of the whole album, often powerful and sexually forward:
She came up to me and said, ‘This the number to dial
If you wanna make your #1 your #2 now.’
Kanye sees himself, accurately, as a creative genius — but his flippancy permeates everything. He imagines mixing Grey Goose vodka and Malibu rum to make a new substance called ‘Malibooyah’, a concoction that so impresses everyone that they comment on his ability to switch things up yet again and ‘hit ’em with a new style’. The joke has a point: he has been a major trendsetter all through his career, from his soul-sampling beginnings, through his sparse autotune phase, to the industrial grindings and patchwork quilt styles of his most recent albums. In this vein, he imagines onlookers marvelling at what he will do next:
Know that motherfucker well: ‘What you gon’ do now?’
Whatever I wanna do. Gosh! It’s cool now
He intones ‘gosh’ in the same manner as Napoleon Dynamite when he is asked the same question in the 2004 film, channelling his dropout attitude. As he advises everyone to ‘cool down’, multiple instances of his voice trail off, the cheering voices in the background loop weirdly again and the beat is stripped down to just a bassline and melody to give extra focus to the next few lines.
Kanye’s level is so high, he boasts, that ‘you will never get on top of this’, so instead he advises all women to ‘get on top of this’. He is arrogant, drunk on his power and consequent success with women; and he goes further with his blackly comic sexual fantasies: he is a king, a ‘pharoah’, so will ‘put the pussy in a sarcophagus’ (i.e. kill it with pleasure). His penis is so big, it will ‘bruise her oesophagus’. Finally, her oral technique is so good she is ‘head of the class’ and wants a ‘swallowship’. The rhymes are audacious, and the lyrics so sexually dominating as to be alarming, even upsetting, as Kanye draws off the fountain of male power he embodies in the song. He finishes with a contemptuous snarl:
My presence is a present; kiss my ass
The chorus rolls heavily into view again, Kanye’s brash voice growling through a bad speaker the rhythmic cycle of his life: ‘gossip, gossip’ / ‘profit, profit’.
The beat becomes more sparse for a few moments to give space for the first lines of our next monster to breathe. In contrast to Kanye’s brash and belligerent delivery, his mentor Jay Z hisses and spits his opening lines dramatically:
Sasquatch, Godzilla, King Kong, Loch Ness
Goblin, ghoul, a zombie with no conscience
Question: what do these things all have in common?
Everybody knows I’m a motherfucking monster
As the backing returns, Jay Z elegantly rhymes his dominion: he will ‘conquer, stomp ya, stop your silly nonsense’. His flow is unpredictable, and rhythmically asymmetrical. As far as he is concerned, he is in a different league, and those claiming to be an iconic monster like him are kidding themselves. ‘None of you niggas know where the swamp is’, he says, theatrically, before anchoring his coldness in the struggle of drug addicts (fiends) that haunt him from his young life as a dealer:
None of you niggas have seen the carnage that I’ve seen
I still hear fiends scream in my dreams
Murder, murder in black convertibles
The violent imagery continues, supported by the crashing, thumping instrumental, as he threatens to ‘kill a block’ and ‘murder the avenues’. Jay Z endeavours to ticks all the boxes as a medieval tyrant: he will ‘rape and pillage a village, women and children’. Over the next few lines, the backing systematically removes elements until it becomes just a beating heart of bassline, pumping underneath the wordplay.
Everybody wanna know what my Achilles’ heel is
I don’t get enough of it
Is this an admission of weakness? A loving heart despite the cold, heartless exterior? Jay Z has occasionally had a soft, poignant side to him, most notably in the track Song Cry from his seminal 2001 album The Blueprint, in which he laments the breakdown of a relationship due to his infidelity. But he doesn’t dwell on this, cleverly pivoting around the word ‘love’ to complain that he is taken for granted by ‘vampires and bloodsuckers’ — that all he has around him are people he made ‘millionaires, milling about, spilling they feelings in the air’. His continued monster references and playful rhymes betray a love for melodrama that gives the whole verse an air of calculated, amused disdain. As the beat returns in full force, Jay Z gives the last few lines of his verse:
All I see is these fake fucks with no fangs
Trying to draw blood from my ice cold veins
I smell a massacre
Seems to be the only way to back you bastards up
He is at his most dismissive here, accentuating the consonants on the last few lines so that once again he seems to hiss. His success comes with ruthlessness, and he has no time for hangers-on. He sniffs the air menacingly before the last idea, demonstrating his power because the strong must rule.
Once more the chorus bookends the verse, as the song gears up for its final and in some ways most impressive monster.
In the years since this song was released, Nicki Minaj has become a household name as the most recognisable female rapper ever. Most remember where they were when they first heard this verse, though, and probably sat up to ask ‘who the hell is this?’
Pull up in a monster, automobile gangsta
With a bad bitch that came from Sri Lanka
Yeah, I’m in that Tonka, colour of Willy Wonka
You could be the king, but watch the queen conquer
For a full twelve bars, the melodic part of the instrumental disappears, the better to accentuate Minaj’s delivery; her voice is belligerent, crazed. ‘First things first,’ she raps forcefully, ‘I’ll eat your brains / Then I’ma start rocking gold teeth and fangs’. She reels off her commitment to her villainy: she has a ‘monster (hair)do’ and a ‘monster shoe’ and a ‘monster crew’. All the while her voice wavers ever more unstably, building up pressure.
Even more than her companions on the track, Nicki Minaj embraces cartoonish insanity, swapping characters like in a pantomime. Now she is a masked robber, ‘all up, all up, all up in the bank with the funny face’, and her words are slapped on top of each other like onomatopoeic slogans in a comic book. If she’s ‘fake’, she hasn’t noticed, because the money she makes is all too real. As she raps this last line, her voice rises and harshens into a growl as she threatens to explode at any moment -
But she doesn’t explode. As the melody slips back in underneath her, she slips into an entirely different voice, so different that first-time listeners might think it a different person: sweet, sickly, almost poised — the kind of voice one might expect from the lips of a mocking Barbie. This character feigns confusion at claims she is just a newcomer — her financial success so far says otherwise.
Let me get this straight, wait, I’m the rookie?
But my features and my shows ten times your pay?
Fifty K for a verse, no album out
Yeah, my money’s so tall that my Barbie’s gotta climb it
Hotter than a Middle-Eastern climate, violent
As she says ‘Fifty K for a verse, no album out’, the saccharine character morphs horribly back into the raucous Nicki, who hammers home the syllables of last line shown here, as if to hammer home her status once and for all. As one of the only female rappers to truly break into the mainstream, she basks in the acts of adoration normally afforded male stars by their female fans, writing her name on their breasts and marvelling at her enemies’ tendency to be ‘one-track-minded’ and inflexible.
The sugary alter-ego makes an second appearance to spell out like a petulant child the word that describes exactly what she does not give: a ‘F-U-C-K’. The voices argue and bicker with each other, her voice contorting once more as she jokes unsmilingly that she is dieting but her pockets are still ‘on cheesecake’ (i.e. filled with money). ‘Just killed another career,’ she says, and one imagines her examining her nails as she quips, ‘it’s a mild day’.
She throws her sexual weight around, too, suggesting with tongue in cheek that she, Kanye and the model Amber Rose (who had been dating Kanye for some time) have a ‘ménage Friday’ — a play on her own name, Minaj, and the name of her then-unreleased debut album Pink Friday.
The last half of the verse is a dizzying run of ideas expressed in multiple characters, thrown madly onto the page. It is disorientating, exhausting, even. But now, her verse is ending, and so she gets down to brass tacks, spitting curt, punchy bars:
Pink wig, thick ass, give ’em whiplash
I think big, get cash, make ’em blink fast
Now look at what you just saw — this is what you live for
Agh! I’m a motherfucking monster!
Minaj’s unhinged scream ends the verse on a high as she surrenders completely to the monster inside her lines. In a song with two of the biggest male rap stars on the planet, a newcomer — and a woman — utterly steals the show with her ferocity and schizophrenic delivery. The lion roars once more as the song begins to wind down.
And like a wounded creature, Bon Iver slinks back into the space left in the wake of the three attacks, singing only with himself against the drumbeat. Kanye has always exploited the gap between strength and weakness, and the softer side of the coin makes an appearance here, however briefly. Bon Iver’s lyrics are ambiguous, but seem to tell of exhaustion and surrender to the will of God. He repeats the refrain three times, joined as time goes on by a meandering, soulful voice that echoes and falls as the song fades to nothing.
This song is a perfect character piece: three incredibly talented artists bending their imaginations towards the surreal and monstrous. All give powerful performances, culminating in Nicki Minaj’s wild and shocking delivery. The whole project is tied together by an ominous, clattering instrumental — Kanye West’s modern version of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ weirdness.