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Five Producers & Songwriters on the Making of Nicki Minaj’s 'Pink Friday'
Nicki Minaj's debut album, Pink Friday, recently turned 10. We spoke to five producers and songwriters about the songs they worked on, and the legacy the album leaves behind.
Long before the days of Instagram Live, Nicki Minajannounced the title of her debut album, Pink Friday, on Ustream. It was summer 2010, and Nicki was a frequent user of Ustream, a live streaming social media platform that looks downright prehistoric in the age of TikTok. Nicki would hop on Ustream to connect with her already rabid fanbase.
Having garnered much attention for her mixtape work, Minaj was determined to get her debut right. Minaj, who was 27 at the, was already a big name in New York City’s underground scene. Nicki started her rap career as part of the rap collective Hood$tars. The group would disband in the mid-2000s, and Nicki would go solo, eventually aligning with Brooklyn-based independent rap label Dirty Money Records (home to Gravy, a pudgy Brooklyn rapper who would play The Notorious B.I.G. in Notorious.) Nicki would make regular appearances on the hi-hop DVD series The Come Up — which was produced by Dirty Money Records — often overshadowing contemporary New York City-favorites at the time. Her appearances on DVDs are what caught the attention of Lil Wayne, who was the most popular rapper in the world at the time. By spring 2007, Lil Wayne was introducing his newly-minted Young Money label and bragging about signing Nicki Minaj. On the Da Drought 3 standout "Upgrade U Freestyle" he rapped:
"We are Young Money, bitch, and I am the leader
He are: Curren$y, Mack Maine, and T-Raw
And I just signed a chick named Nicki Minaj"
Wayne would appear in Nicki's debut mixtape, 2007's Playtime Is Over, and then host her second tape, Sucka Free, a year later. From there, Nicki's profile just kept rising. Shewon the female artist of the year award at the Underground Music Awards later that year. In 2009, Minaj released her third mixtape, Beam Me Up, Scotty, a classic mixtape featuring one of her first truly great songs — “Itty Bitty Piggy.” In August 2010, she officiallysigned to Lil Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment under Universal Music Group, just two months after Drake signed his deal. A press release at the time said an album was coming at the top of 2010. It would take a little longer than that.
Despite her buzz and a dominant performance on Young Money's We Are Young Money album, Drake was the first solo artist to drop an album, releasing the hyped — but somewhat underwhelming — Thank Me Laterover the summer. (That album featured a standout performance from Nicki on "Up All Night.")
And with Wayne serving out a one-year prison sentence for a gun charge, it was clear Nicki was next. She knew that Pink Friday had to be impactful and she was committed to making all of the surrounding buzz worthwhile. A month after her Ustream, Minajcalled into V103 where she told DJ Greg Street why her album was important for women in rap.
“They won’t look to sign other female rappers because they’ll say, ‘Her buzz was so crazy and if she couldn’t do it, then no one can do it.’ And I don’t want that to happen, so I’m doing this as well for all the girls,” she said to Street. “I hope that with the success of the album — because I know it will be successful, I believe it will be successful — I hope that this opens doors for all of the girls everywhere.”
As Minaj predicted, Pink Friday was, in fact, a success. The album was released on November 22, 2010, the same day as Kanye West's masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Although Kanye's return to rap got most of the attention, Pink Friday was no slouch. Pink Friday debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart, moving 375,000 copies in its first week and becoming the second-highest debut for a female rapper. (Lauryn Hill's Miseducation of Lauryn Hillwas and still is No. 1.)
Pink Friday was stubborn. The album spawned hip-hop hits like “Did It On ‘Em” and “Roman’s Revenge,” with Eminem, and also saw Minaj experiment with R&B sounds on soft rap ballads “Right Thru Me” and “Your Love.” Nicki already had credibility as an MC. What this album did was bring pop respect. Pink Friday would spend 14 consecutive weeks in the top 10, hitting No. 1 three months after its release, eventually selling over 3 million copies in the US.
On Pink Friday is Nicki is clearly the star. But the all-star level of talent she worked with is extraordinary: Swizz Beatz, Rihanna, Drake, Eminem, will.i.am, Kanye West, Bangladesh, Kane Beatz, J.R. Rotem, and T-Minus all had meaningful contributions to the album. With Pink Friday turning 10 recently — and with Nicki celebrating by announcing a new docu-series on HBO Max — we decided to speak with a number of songwriters and producers about their contributions on this game-changing album.
Andrew “Pop” Wansel, One half of producer duo Pop & Oak, who produced the album’s lead single, “Your Love.” Pop talks connecting with Minaj via MySpace in 2007, shortly after he had just dropped out of high school. Pop created the beat for “Your Love” in 2008, and the song would eventually become Pink Friday’s lead single.
She was just doing The Come Up DVD. Before her first mixtape was even out, we started to correspond. I was such a fan of the way she rapped. On MySpace you used to be able to post, like, four songs. I would always post my beats and switch them up. She’d [hit me up and] be like, “Yo! Your beats is crazy!” We just started corresponding from there.
[My sister was] cleaning the house one day, and she had [Annie Lennox’s cover of The Lover Speaks' "No More 'I Love You's'"] on so loud. And I was so annoyed by the song, I was like, "What the fuck is this song she keeps playing on repeat?" But I kept singing it myself throughout the day, and I was like, “You know what? Let me go sample this. “
I went downstairs to the basement and I looped the sample up. I added a kick and a snap, and nothing else. That’s all the beat was because I didn’t want to forget my idea. Not too long after, I was sending Nicki some new beats. I had another beat that I was supposed to send her, but I sent her [“Your Love”] by mistake. I would never send her something so unfinished.
She was like, “Oh, this shit is crazy, I’m about to go in on it.” And I was like ‘I mean, do your thing.’ And she did it.
At the top of 2010, someone was at a recording studio in Atlanta called Hot Beats, that’s no longer there. But somebody at that studio leaked a couple of Nicki Minaj songs and [“Your Love”] was one of them. At the time, leaks were super big in the music industry. People were hacking into emails and trying to get their hands on new songs. Leaks usually went away after a few weeks, so we just left it alone.
[The original planned lead single] "Massive Attack" came in April, but ‘Your Love’ never went away. DJs were playing it and I remember that leak charted on Billboard off radio play alone. We were super blown away.
Nicki’s management at the time hated that song. They were like, “This isn’t the kind of shit you need to be putting out. It’s going to ruin your legacy. This song is a pop record.” So we left it alone. And Baby was like, “Fuck that, we need to put this out.”
But there was an issue with the master. Annie Lennox would not clear the master. And then comes in the fucking legend, Oak.
Warren “Oak” Felder, half of producer duo Pop & Oak. Oak approached Jimmy Iovine, who co-produced The Lover Speaks’ original “No More 'I Love You’s'” for his blessing to recreate the sample for “Your Love.”
I figured, “If we can’t get the master cleared, let’s see if we can get the publishing cleared.” I went through a week-long process of studying the creation of “No More I Love You’s.”
I went back and read all the magazine articles I could about [Annie Lennox’s] setup. And I went back and looked at every single piece of gear that I could find. I went back and looked at the process of how she wrote her songs and how she recorded her songs. And I tried to meticulously recreate it by getting the same gear and recording it in exactly the same way. And then it worked really well, because in the end, [Minaj] couldn't even tell the difference.
[Annie Lennox’s team] actually threatened to sue us because they thought it was still her original recording on the song. Apparently, we did that good of a job recreating the vocals and recreating the sample. I had to take the stems from the recreation and send it to a musicologist to have it certified so that they wouldn't come after us.
Bangladesh, producer of “Did it On ‘Em.” When he first made the beat for “Did it On ‘Em,” He shopped it around before Nicki ended up with the beat.
It was a train wreck of events that led up to Nicki having that track. I sent the beat to Lil Wayne, but I never heard back. Probably three months went by. I recorded the same track and sent it to The Game. He recorded the song, but then Wayne reached back out saying he wanted the beat. But the conversation didn’t go nowhere. After that, I think Wayne got locked up. I was in L.A. and Diddy was working on his [Last Train to Paris] album and he called me and wanted me to come to his house. When I got there, I played him some beats and [“Did It On ‘Em”] was one of them. At that time, I think Puff was managing Nicki. I guess he played the beat for her and she loved it.
But the catch was, she knew Wayne had the beat already. She called me personally about wanting the track. I mentioned Wayne wanting it, because I ain’t want no mixing up. She told me that he told her that she could have it. But when Wayne got out of prison, he did an interview and he was explaining that he didn’t know how she got the beat. [The song "Breathe," which uses the "Did it On 'Em" beat, would later appear on the T-Waynealbum with T-Pain.
Andrew “Drew Money” Thielk, a music producer-turned-golf instructor. Drew Money’s career in the music industry was short-lived; however, he is grateful that three of his beats ended up on Pink Friday.
I sent those records to my manager, Stephen Hacker, who sent them to her manager at the time, James Cruz [who was managing Minaj alongside Diddy.] A lot of times, people hear the beats and want to record them right away. You don’t always have time to book studio sessions. That’s the way that it started. My manager sent her manager the tracks, and they were like, “Ok, don’t send these to anyone else, or we’ll kill you.”
I met her in New York at Daddy’s House Studio — Diddy’s Studio — and we just kind of put the finishing touches on those songs. And she recorded those in Burbank and Glenwood.
[“Right Thru Me”] started with a song I sampled by Joe Satriani called “Always With Me, Always With You.” I kind of like integrating different genres into my music. That song experienced a new life in this genre. I really felt it was a very special beat. We sent it to [Nicki] only, and that was pretty much the catalyst of this song. I thought it was cool because it was kind of a departure from her other stuff. It was a relationship-type song where she was being very vulnerable.
When I was a young man, my dad showed me the movie The Breakfast Club. The main theme is the song "Don’t You (Forget About Me)" by Simple Minds.’ I’ve always loved that song. I started making music by making a lot of samples. I kind of toyed with the notion of taking the sample out [of “Blazin’] because Simple Minds wanted, like, all of the publishing. So we tried it without the sample. But obviously, it’s a very cool sounding song, and it's hard to replicate that or something that wouldn't be doing justice. So we ended up leaving it there.
I remember hearing from my manager that it may have been Katy Perry featured on [“Last Chance”]. I really liked that she did choose Natasha Bedingfield to feature on the song because it was kind of different and she really has a lovely voice. The other two songs I did incorporate samples but [“Last Chance”] is 100% composed by me. I play the guitar on it and [Nicki] asked me to put a bridge on it.
She’s very meticulous and very detail oriented, which I appreciate. If I changed one little thing, she’d be like “Why’d you do that? Why’d you turn this thing up and this thing down?” We both had our reasons for what we like to hear.
I was on tour and I got a call from her team saying that Nicki would love me on her record. I didn’t know her yet. That was her big breakthrough album. We got a call saying, “She’s going to be the biggest artist in the world, she really loves you and would love you to be on ['Last Chance'].” I had just released an album called Strip Me, which was all about peeling back layers. The songs that I was writing at the time were about getting to the heart of who I am.
Her team was like, “she’s going to be bigger than Lady Gaga,” and I’d seen that happen before because Lady Gaga toured with me and New Kids on the Block. I’d seen her and a few other artists going from nobody knowing them and seeing their determination and seeing them become mega-huge.
So I was like, “yeah, send me her music,” and they were like “the only thing is, you have to record it today, because the album is closing in a week.” I was in Detroit, and I was like, “Maybe we can go to Eminem’s studio.” We managed to get into his studio, where he recorded most of his stuff. It was after I had just performed on stage, so it was like 10 or 11 PM. The bus went ahead [to the next tour stop] and I stayed [to record the next song] and I flew the next day.
I remember working until very early hours and just feeling so recharged. I feel like there was a magic in the song, and there was a magic in Nicki’s voice. I just got so much energy from recording on it.
She really started a whole era. I mean, we had amazing women in rap before her, like Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill. But since Nicki Minaj, there’s been this explosion of female rappers. She just gave us what we needed right at the perfect time. She’s just so spectacular and still very determined. She’s given us so many flavors of herself.
Alex Gonzalez is a journalist who has written for MTV, Dallas Observer, and more. Follow him @alexgwriter.
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