Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
Taylor Swift was giving an interview on a Nashville radio station in February 2011 when she was prompted to request a song. She picked “Super Bass,” then a relatively unfamiliar, uncharacteristically pop-leaning deluxe cut from Nicki Minaj’s 2010 album Pink Friday, and proceeded to rap most of the first verse on air.
“I remember being at a hotel and watching Taylor Swift on my laptop, and being like, ‘Wow, she rapped every single word,’” says Kane Beatz, who co-wrote and produced Minaj’s ebullient, love-drunk tune. Suddenly, he explains, “it became a viral thing that girls wanted to show that they could rap the whole verse.”
Selena Gomez uploaded her own cover on YouTube next, and a few months later, Minaj was on Ellen performing the song with toddler-celebrity duo Sophia Grace & Rosie, whose chipmunk-ified version had gone viral. Minaj’s label, Young Money/Cash Money, perked up, designating “Super Bass” the album’s proper fifth single in April and producing a candy-colored music video in May.
Given the song’s success — it reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, where it became not only Minaj’s then-biggest hit, but the highest-charting rap hit by a solo female since Missy Elliott’s “Work It” nearly a decade earlier — it’s remarkable to remember that “Super Bass” wasn’t even technically on the original Pink Friday tracklist. As Minaj was putting the final touches on her album, Beatz had sent her a pop-tinged beat he made with producer JMIKE in Orlando on a whim. But something clicked: “Nicki described it as, ‘It sounds so pretty,’” Beatz says. “She loves rap music, but she always has melodic sounds, too.”
It was late at night over in Los Angeles, but Minaj quickly called up songwriter and frequent collaborator Ester Dean (Rihanna, Katy Perry), who jumped out of bed to meet her in the studio. Fortuitously for everyone, Dean happened to have a new crush. “I always wondered, ‘Can’t you hear it? Isn’t my heart beating that loud?’” Dean remembers, inspiring the song’s “boom-ba-doom-boom” chorus. “It just came out of the ether.”
Minaj contributed the song’s cheeky verses from there, fawning over her man (“He ill, he real, he might gotta deal/ He pop bottles and he got the right kinda build”) just as much, of course, as she hypes up herself: “Somebody please tell him who the F I is!”
Dean knew they had a hit on their hands from the moment she saw Minaj break into a rare Chesire cat smile at the end of their studio all-nighter. “You just can’t wait until those dimples come out,” she says.
A radio plug from Swift may have helped “Super Bass” reach new ears, but the song resonated all on its own. With its sugar-glazed hook and playful lyrics about confessing love, Dean thinks “Super Bass” perfected the same “liberating, colorful, unapologetic, happy” style of leading female pop stars at the time, like Rihanna and Katy Perry, in a way that complemented Minaj’s rap savagery rather than flattening it. In fact, Dean initially suggested that they ask Perry to feature on the song, but Minaj thought Katy wouldn’t be up for it — “Nicki was still a new artist,” Dean reasons.
Don’t forget that in 2011, Minaj was one of the few mainstream female rappers out there, in part thanks to her ability to bridge audience boundaries with genre-blending hits like this one. “Super Bass” established her as a pop superstar equal to Lil Wayne and Drake in the Cash Money hierarchy — in the aftermath, Britney Spears invited Nicki on her Femme Fatale Tour, she performed the song at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show that year, and was nominated for best new artist at the Grammys. She’d go on to own the rest of the ‘10s, racking up hits like “Starships,” “Anaconda,” and “Side to Side” with Ariana Grande, all the way to “MotorSport” with Migos and Cardi B and last year’s “Chun-Li.”
“Nicki isn’t like any other female rapper,” Cash Money co-founder/co-CEO Ronald “Slim” Williams told Billboard back in 2011. “We knew she had the goods when Lil Wayne signed her. She’s not a female rapper — she’s a pop star who happens to rap.”
In a similar vein, Entercom senior vp of programming and music initiatives Michael Martin thinks that the astounding success of “Super Bass” helped break down radio’s strict genre boundaries.
“At first, we didn’t quite know what to think of her. We tried to categorize her,” he says. “But once a song hits a certain level of familiarity, all the sonic barriers and preconceived notions of who that artist and song is supposed to be come crumbling down. And then it just becomes a smash.”