This is a feature on Nicki Minaj that I wrote for 944 magazine’s Atlanta edition. It was published in November 2010.
You can’t pin down Nicki Minaj. She’s a burgeoning sex symbol, a fashion idol-in-the-making, a blooming pop tart, and an impressive rap lyricist. And with the forthcoming release of her debut album, Pink Friday, the 25-year-old woman from Queensbridge, New York may become the first major female hip-hop star in a generation.
Nicki embraces the pressure. “I have high expectations for myself,” she says during a conversation at the W Hotel in downtown Hollywood. As she sits on the bed in her Wonderful Room suite, she drapes herself in a white terrycloth bathrobe, nearly covering her street clothes, save for a pair of hot pink Keds sneakers. She’s sweet and unpretentious, politely introducing herself as she enters the room with her management team. But the day’s round of promotional activities have clearly taken a toll. Near the end of the conversation, she slumps and hangs her head, exhausted from all the attention.
Whatever happens, though, Nicki Minaj doesn’t want to be defined by our perceptions of who she is. But that has become increasingly hard to do since she joined rap megastar Lil Wayne’s Young Money camp in 2009. She’s scored a flurry of high-profile collaborations with Usher, Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera. Memorable verses for hit songs like Ludacris’ “My Chick Bad” and Trey Songz’ ‘Bottoms Up,” as well as a solo hit single in “Your Love,” have branded her as a potential superstar.
But controversy has followed her as closely as those accolades. On songs like Usher’s “Lil Freak,” she rapped, “I’m looking for a cutie with a big ol’ ghetto booty/ I really like your kitty cat.” For Robin Thicke’s “Shakin’ It 4 Daddy,” she portrayed a stripper “who’s rockin’ those Daisy Dukies.”
Nicki’s raunchy “try-sexual” lyrics have led some to speculate that she is bisexual, a rumor that she flatly denies. “A woman doesn’t have to have sex with a woman to say, ‘I keep a bad bitch.’ I mean, that’s like if you say, ‘Yo, I keep a handsome man by my side,’ does that mean you’re having sex with him?
“I cannot be defined. I don’t want to be defined.”
Nicki has gotten used to the relentless gossip surrounding her life, but sometimes it gets ridiculous. When she joked in a Twitter post that she eloped with her Young Money label mate, platinum-certified balladeer Drake, fans wondered if it was true or an elaborate hoax. And when she rapped “My Chick Bad” at the BET Awards – where she nabbed two trophies, including one for Best Female Hip-Hop Artist — bloggers claimed that she lip-synched her performance.
But she’s also drawn serious criticism. Last summer, Lil Kim dissed Nicki Minaj in several radio interviews. (When asked about the Lil Kim’s “beef,” Nicki politely replied, “I don’t want to discuss that.”) Although Lil Kim’s public attacks seemed like a desperate ploy for attention, others stridently questioned Nicki’s artistic intentions. In a recent documentary on female MCs, My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women and Hip-Hop, an editor from Essence magazine agonized over Nicki’s complex persona: “Do we celebrate her? Do we question her? I still don’t think we’ve all agreed.”
If Nicki Minaj is indeed the first major female rapper in years, then what kind of heroine will she be? In one of her publicity photos, she strikes a power pose as Wonder Woman; in another, she looks unhinged as a real-life Barbie doll dressed in Harajuku-inspired fashions. On the surface, those images seem to contradict one another: how can a woman be a strong, confident superhero and an airheaded toy? Yet with each new visual and musical transformation, Nicki gracefully avoids easy classification. She claims Lil Wayne as a lyrical inspiration, and his influence is most pronounced in her zany, metaphor-driven wordplay. But her glossy, carefree fantasies, which some fans have creatively dubbed her “Barbie World” — are decidedly her own.
“A lot of characters come out in my raps when I’m having the most fun,” she says. “Just like Cyndi Lauper, ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.’ I don’t have some mad scientific explanation. Anything that’s kooky and strange and colorful and bright and big and extravagant, that’s what I like.
“I think people make it into a bigger deal than it is.”
Nicki was born Onika Tanya Maraj in Trinidad, migrating to Queens, New York as a child. She often notes, perhaps self-consciously (and undoubtedly aware that many have brought it up before), that her attendance at LaGuardia Arts School, where she majored in drama, proved crucial. After graduating, Nicki focused on a rap career. She spent years toiling in the grimy, underground “rotten apple” scene, and compiling mixtapes like Playtime Is Over. It was through an installment of the street rap DVD series The Come Up that Lil Wayne discovered her.
“My attitude is New York,” she says. “It’s funny, because I still see myself as an underground, Southside Jamaica Queens rapper, just with thirteen Billboard entries.”
Nicki has left behind those halcyon days of freestyle rhyming in dirty staircases. Now she performs for an audience of thousands, including young fans. But she doesn’t plan to edit her provocative raps. “I think children are so much smarter than we realize. They know when I’m kidding, and they know when I’m being sarcastic. They get me,” she says. “When they come and see me, they want to have fun.”
Surprisingly, despite all the buzz surrounding Nicki Minaj, few have noted that she may be the first new rap star from New York in nearly a decade, too. “I don’t get my credit because I don’t have a penis,” she says, promising that her Pink Friday album will be “an emotional rollercoaster.” “If I had a penis and a pair of nuts I would be hailed as the one who brought New York back.”