Whether the clash is real, Minaj's scrappiness came off as far more entertaining than Carey's demure, even queenly, manner. Carey is getting a truly royal paycheck: $18 million, to Minaj's $12 million.
The award for least self-absorbed judge goes to genial country singer Urban.
The two-hour episode opened by showcasing last year's winner, Phillip Phillips, and those alumni with established careers, including Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson.
Then host Ryan Seacrest brought "American Idol" back down to Earth and to its new judges.
"Our legacy continues as a new era begins," he said, reciting the panelists' resumes, including record sales, Grammys won and, in Carey's case, vocal range (five octaves, "the definition of diva," Seacrest said).
Cue the parade of good, bad and touching performances and biographies, with contestants facing serious challenges once again an "Idol" hallmark.
The judges, including veteran Randy Jackson, hardened their hearts and rejected a young man who had lost a leg to cancer but melted for a teenage girl whose family fosters children with medical concerns and another singer with partial hearing loss.
Forty-one people survived the New York auditions to sing another day in the Hollywood rounds, with the action moving to Chicago on Thursday's episode.