The Meteoric Rise of Nicki Minaj
The first rule of a Nicki Minaj interview is simple: do not ask about her ass. Although I’d intended to do no such thing, I find myself nodding in deference when warned against it by the 26-year-old rapper’s publicist while riding an elevator up to the 50th floor of Midtown Manhattan’s London hotel. “It won’t go over well,” she says as we approach the door to Minaj’s suite, which is flanked by three heavy-duty takeout bags from Red Lobster—evidence of a recent feast, and perhaps the secret to that globular, mythologized, and strictly off-limits derrière (an idea that wouldn’t have crossed my mind only moments ago). Her A&R coordinator, Safaree “Scaff Beezy” Samuels, alternately referred to by Minaj fans as her boyfriend, fiancé, best friend, brother, hypeman, and personal assistant, answers the door, then retreats to a nearby window, which he’s opened to expunge the smell of cigarette smoke wafting through the vents from a nearby suite. “She hates the smell of smoke,” he says.
Minaj breezes into the freshly ventilated room 10 minutes later wearing a brown velour tracksuit and what must be the most business-casual hairpiece she owns. Always seen in one of a seemingly endless procession of outlandish wigs, she has opted for a relatively demure look, choosing a black wig with blunt bangs instead of her Doritos-orange wig, her Technicolor, leopard-print wig, and her gravity-defying, Marge Simpson- inspired, pink cotton candy wig. (It’s the same one she donned in the music video for “Your Love,” a samurai version of R&B singer Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine,” in which Minaj instigates a scrappy, sword-wielding battle with her female opponent over their hunky sensei.) Like a pouty feline, or perhaps a teenage girl at a slumber party, she settles into a cream-colored settee, sits on her socked feet, and hugs the pillow in her lap. Curves aside (and, yes, those curves are spectacular), Minaj is tiny, something one might expect of, say, Reese Witherspoon, but not of the fiery rapper who once proclaimed on “Roman’s Revenge” that she’s a “bad bitch, I’m a cunt/ And I’ll kick that ho, punt/ Forced trauma, blunt.” (On that same track, guest lyricist Eminem describes tying a woman to a bed, urinating on her bound body, and videotaping the torture: “Two pees and a tripod.”) All that cartel-brand cattiness is the yin to Minaj’s girlie yang, of which there is also no shortage—from her innocent smirk to her Valley Girl speech tics—and both reside in the body of a twee woman with a sunny disposition who, tonight, is wearing sweatpants.
The self-proclaimed Harajuku Barbie is tired. A few days before checking into the London, Minaj was actually in London, and then Paris, to promote her platinum-selling debut album, Pink Friday. “It was my first trip to Europe, and it couldn’t have gone any better,” she says. “From the second we arrived in London, there were paparazzi everywhere. Kids were camped outside the hotel.” So many, in fact, that security at the Dorchester, a five-star hotel in Mayfair, was forced to set up barricades to keep the “Barbs” and “Ken Barbs,” as Minaj affectionately refers to her followers, from rushing the lobby. “They stood behind it for hours and hours, and they were very respectful and sweet, but something weird happened every time they saw me, like, ‘Oh my god, there she is! I need to get her right now!’”
There are no screaming hordes outside this building. There are no spare Sharpie markers for Minaj to autograph her fans’ breasts, something she does regularly. There are no flashing bulbs. No Leigh Bowery ensembles. On this snowy evening in late January, it’s just Minaj, without makeup or an entourage, sipping a room-service margarita, a drink she’s more than earned. Her impressive rise to superstardom is almost without precedent. Minaj was crowned as hip-hop’s new queen even before the release of Pink Friday in November 2010, with guest spots on seven hit singles in the latter-half of last year, all of which simultaneously enjoyed their time on the Billboard Hot 100—a record for a female MC. For a time, it seemed like something was amiss if Minaj’s playfully acidic rhymes weren’t on a track: everyone—from Mariah Carey and Usher, to Ludacris and Christina Aguilera—tapped Minaj for her jackhammer confabulations.
Take, for instance, Trey Songz’ “Bottoms Up,” in which Minaj channels one of her many alter egos, a “gay boy” named “Roman Zolanski” with a gravelly, growly baritone, when she says, “Yell fuck her/ Then Imma [sic] go and get my Louisville Slugger.” On other tracks, she has become “Martha Zolanski,” Roman’s mother, by adopting the inflection of a doting British woman. More recently, she’s summoned “Rosa” with little more than a Spanish accent.
“Everyone wanted the Nicki Minaj special,” she says, “because I added something different to every record I did.” In its first week, Pink Friday moved 375,000 copies, occupying an impressive second place on the charts behind My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West, who collaborated with Minaj for his recent smash single, “Monster,” and once referred to her in a radio interview as the “scariest artist right now.”
“I’ve always wanted fame,” she says, idly stirring her cocktail with a plastic swizzle stick. “But when I achieved fame, I started realizing that it wasn’t as important as being great at what you do, or being critically acclaimed. Still, I never wish I wasn’t famous.” Like anyone, though, she has her limits, which were tested overseas when a group of zealous female fans showed up outside the hotel room of Minaj’s makeup artist in the middle of the night. “Seven girls banged on her door and they were like, ‘Take us to Nicki,’” a not-entirely-inappropriate request given the singer’s propensity for alien-like exhibitionism, her quasi-maternal affection for her Barbs, and, well, the “Nictionary,” a glossary of neologisms, such as “Ben” (a broke-ass Ken Barb), “sighamese twins” (two back-to-back sighs), and “Dolly Lama” (a problem-solving Barb). Whether she’d like to admit it or not, she has become their leader.
“My mother can’t grasp the magnitude of my success,” says Minaj, who was born Onika Tanya Maraj in Trinidad and raised in the working-class neighborhood of South Jamaica, Queens. “She couldn’t tell Beyoncé from Alicia Keys, and when I try to explain the far-fetched things I’m doing, she’d rather talk about having to call the plumber.” Minaj shares a tight-knit relationship with her mom (who still lives in Queens in a house Minaj paid for with the money she made from her first three mixtapes), and she’s fiercely protective of her family. To wit: Does Minaj regularly see her mother? “Yes.” Does she know much about the music business? “No.” Was she a stage mom? “No.” Our conversation quickly devolves into an uncomfortable game of 20 Questions.
“I’m not a trusting person,” she says, by way of explaining her monosyllabic curtness. “I think it’s because I’ve had to deal with so many people letting me down.” When she came to America at the age of 5, after spending two years in Trinidad with her grandparents while her parents established themselves stateside, the dreams she’d had of a picket-fence existence were quickly quashed. Her father, from whom she is now estranged, became a drug addict during the ’80s crack epidemic. He stole from his family to feed his addiction and was verbally and physically abusive, a violent streak that culminated in his attempt to burn down their house with her mother still inside.
With the support of her mom, who was “always listening to music in the house,” Minaj was accepted at LaGuardia High School’s competitive drama program (a hoarse voice on the day of her music audition forced her to pursue acting, her second choice). After graduating in 2000, she held down a slew of thankless part-time jobs (including a gig at Red Lobster, whom she’s obviously forgiven), using her wages to rent studio space. “That whole time was so horrible,” she says. “It was like fucking torture. At the end of the day, after working at whatever job I hated, I would get all dressed up and go out with the hope of getting a record deal. At night, I was an artist, but during the day I was a slave. When I think back on that time, on the people who made my life a living hell, I want to say, Are you all seeing me now? This is me having the last laugh after all those years when you made it hard for me to get out of bed in the morning.” Success came to Minaj, sure, but it didn’t come easy. Discouraged after being let go from her last service industry position—“I probably got fired 10 times” she says, betraying a trace of insolent pride—Minaj considered abandoning her musical aspirations. “I had no money, I had no one to call, and I was out on my own,” she says. “I also had the burden of not wanting to tell my mother that I was out of a job, and could I come back home?” Instead of letting go of her dream, Minaj, then 22, decided to focus everything she had on realizing the career she’d always wanted. “Besides faith in God,” she says, “the only thing that got me through that time was the fear of what would happen to my family if I didn’t make it. I remember thinking, I don’t know if this is ever going work but I’m going to give it one final try.”
Hip-hop powerhouse Lil Wayne discovered Minaj one year later after coming across one of her many street DVDs, and signed her to his Cash Money label in 2009. Whereas most producers tried to emphasize her curvaceous sex appeal, Wayne encouraged Minaj to wave her freak flag, which isn’t all that surprising when one considers the source: Wayne, who was recently released from Rikers Island after serving eight months of a yearlong prison sentence for attempted criminal possession of a weapon, has a mouth full of diamond grills and teardrop tattoos under his eyes. Wayne, with whom Minaj will tour North America throughout March and April, became her mentor, and she began toying with alter-ego personae in her rhymes, injecting humor and high fashion into an arena where woman are often reduced to booty- and bottle-poppin’ fetish objects. “When I started making those weird voices, a lot of people told me how whack it was,” she says, naming a few label higher-ups who warned her against straying too far from tradition. “‘What the fuck are you doing?’ they’d say. ‘Why do you sound like that? That doesn’t sound sexy to me.’ And then I started saying, Oh, that’s not sexy to you? Good. I’m going to do it more. Maybe I don’t want to be sexy to you today.” For the first time since entering the room, Minaj loses her cool. Her voice goes up an octave, words run together in breathless exasperation, her lips purse, and she ever-so-slightly rolls her neck to suggest the quiet storm often obscured beneath the placid face of a wide-eyed princess.
Minaj’s theatrics—specifically her appropriation of Barbie, a doll known for perpetuating impossible body measurements, gender stereotypes, and the importance of sameness—have emphasized the plastic over the personal, calling into question her authenticity as a musician. (“Fake” is a term that gets regularly lobbed around by her critics.) “I’m definitely playing a role,” she says. “I’m an entertainer, and that’s what entertainers do. That’s what people pay for. They don’t pay to see me roll out of bed with crust in my eyes, and say: Hey guys, this is me, authentic. They pay for a show.” Like Lady Gaga, Minaj has come under fire for branding herself as an outcast, for personifying feelings of alienation with the hope of reaching a larger group of fans and selling more albums. “When I started doing all that weird stuff, I never thought in a million years that it would mean more people would start listening to my music,” she says. “It was basically a ‘fuck you’ to everyone who told me what to do and who to be.”
In the process of cultivating her outré (and very lucrative) public image, of escaping from what she calls “the sexy, slutty box,” Minaj wound up putting herself into another box—even if it is lined with glitter. “I do feel pressure to satisfy people now,” she says. The same could be said of Gaga, whose lobster hat was traded in for a meat dress, which was then traded in for a bra made of twin flamethrowers—all of which now make her Kermit the Frog cape and matching chapeau look downright Victorian. Gaga and Minaj share a number of similarities: both have cutesy nicknames for their fans (Gaga’s “Monsters” are the equivalent of Minaj’s Barbs); both have their own MAC Cosmetics line (Minaj’s lipstick is, appropriately, called Pink Friday); both have a devout gay following; and both are reconsidering, re-imagining, and reconfiguring the world of music—if not through music itself, then through the prurient spectacle of it all. Of the Gaga comparisons, Minaj says, “We both do the awkward, non-pretty thing. What we’re saying—what I’m saying, anyway—is that it’s okay to be weird. And maybe your weird is my normal. Who’s to say? I think it’s an attitude we both share.” But embracing her inner carnival for fans who’ve felt pushed to the periphery has become a never-ending game of beating one’s own proverbial high score. “I’ve already given my fans so much,” she says, “but the expectation is to go higher and higher. And when I’ve done that, I’m expected to go a little bit higher.”
The question, to paraphrase Method Man, remains: How high? Says Minaj: “You have to give as much as you can possibly give before you lose yourself. It’s better to give more than to regret not giving enough.” But while filming Nicki Minaj: My Time Now, a documentary that aired on MTV last November, Minaj worried she’d given too much when she welled up with emotion while discussing her late grandmother. “I was afraid I’d been too real, that I’d shown too much of the actual person behind Nicki Minaj,” she says. “Someone once told me, ‘People love the façade of pop stars. It’s not good to be a real person,’ so I lost sleep over it. But then I met tons of people who said, ‘I’ve became a fan of yours after watching that documentary.’ I’m realizing now that I’m never really going to know the rules. I just have to play.”
The second rule of a Nicki Minaj interview isn’t all that simple: do not ask about her “beefs,” another kernel of advice handed down from her publicist. Although her “Alfred Bitchcock” army is strong in numbers (the Master of Suspense nod refers to fellow Barbs who have her back), no one has made quite as much noise as Lil’ Kim has. Their acrimonious back-and-forth climaxed when Minaj released “Roman’s Revenge,” a less-than-subtle diatribe against her fellow MC. Although Minaj points to strong female artists like Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott as her predecessors, Kim, probably more than anyone, provided Minaj with the blueprint for smack-talking, body-shaking camp. But that was then. Kim hasn’t had much success since the late-’90s, and her baiting of Minaj, in the form of a retaliative, vitriolic track called “Black Friday” (she recently announced that she’ll be releasing an entire mixtape of the same name, a play on Minaj’s Pink Friday), comes across more like a calculated ploy to reclaim relevance than the bonafide return of the Queen Bee.
“I’ve lost my peace of mind,” Minaj says. “I no longer know who’s my friend or my enemy. I don’t know if they’re calling me because they like me or because they want a photo op, and that’s not a good feeling. I’m always second-guessing everyone, trying to figure out, Who is this person, and what do they want from me?” If she sounds paranoid, it’s not without reason: Minaj was at a friend’s house not long ago—a place she’d considered asylum from photographers and autograph hounds—when in walked three strangers looking to get their CDs signed. “I wasn’t expecting that from one my closest friends,” she says, sounding both annoyed and a little sad. The incident might explain the premise for her “Massive Attack” music video, in which Minaj and Amber Rose (Kanye West’s former Girl Friday) drive through the desert like a hip-hop Thelma & Louise in a pink drop-top. In the video at least, the pair exhibit a sisterly bond typically lacking in the “every bitch for herself” rap ethos. “Most people don’t treat me like a human being,” she says. “I’ve become an image, a persona, a robot: ‘Stand there, take a picture, and smile.’”
She was never much for clubs, but Minaj no longer has any interest in going out with her friends (“If I’m not getting paid to be there, I’m probably not gonna be there”). She doesn’t have much time for fun (“It’s called the entertainment business for a reason, and I’m working 24/7”). Her friendships have suffered (“My best friend is having a baby, and I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen her since she got pregnant”). Above all else, Minaj doesn’t have time for romance. “I’m not the type to be talking to a random dude in the club,” she says. “Unless I know him, I don’t even want to be introduced to him, because it always turns into me being perceived as the ultimate whore-bag. I remember one time I saw a guy, someone famous, who was at one of my parties. I kissed him on the cheek and went to my seat, and they put up a story that me and him left together that night and went to a hotel.” The frequency with which Minaj is wrongly linked to her male cohorts—Drake and Lil Wayne, among others—makes it difficult to pinpoint the event she’s alluding to, but she is not, for the record, talking about Sean “Diddy” Combs. “God, no,” she says, suddenly animated. “It was so disgusting to me that people would even link me and him. I grew up watching him. I look at him like a Russell Simmons figure, definitely not as someone I’d be getting it poppin’ with.”
The speculation about who, exactly, she is getting it poppin’ with has proven fertile terrain for online gossip sites. One version has Minaj, who has identified as bisexual, shacking up with her friend and collaborator Rihanna, with whom she recently filmed the music video for Minaj’s song “Fly.” Does she regret her initial candor about what may or may not transpire between her bedsheets? “No, I don’t regret it,” she says. “Regret what? It’s a non-issue.” Such a non-issue, in fact, that while on set, she and Rihanna used Twitter to send each other suggestively Sapphic messages, deliberately fueling rumors about Minaj’s sexual orientation. “I told her we should censor that,” Minaj says of their online correspondence. “But then Rihanna looked at me and we started cracking up. If we could, we would say so much more craziness and just get stuff brewing. We have to foresee what could be taken out of context, sure, but sometimes I don’t mind being taken out of context. It’s great to fuck with media because they fuck with me all the time.”
For her part, Minaj is taking it all in stride. “I have to watch my mouth sometimes,” she says. “All of those people who follow me on Twitter? They aren’t my friends. Some of them are fans, but many of them are people who hate my guts and are just waiting for me to tweet something that they can put on their blogs. It’s easy to see two million followers and think, Look at all these people who love me! But not all of them love me. Whether I’m smiling or not, I know that people are always waiting for me to slip up.” She subtly cocks her head, and then, batting her fake eyelashes, flashes me the most brilliant, volatile, Mattel-ready smile I’ve ever seen.
Photography by Andrew MacPherson. Styling by Brett Bailey.