Nicki Minaj is chilling on Bowery, her petite glamour neutralizing the dank of Manhattan’s original Skid Row. Buxom and physically expressive, wearing a plush black fur jacket and thigh-high patent leather stiletto pumps, she looks like a snow bunny lost in the frigid city, except instead of a designer pocketbook, she’s clutching an open box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Half a block from her luxury room at The Bowery Hotel, a small crowd is gathering and gawking at her silhouette, a couple dudes weakly trying to holler from across the street. One 40-something Boricua with a camera phone musters the courage to ask for a picture, excited to send it to her son, and Minaj sweetly obliges. The scene’s not quite paparazzi status, but in the middle of winter, on a block half flophouse and half condo, this buzzing group of various onlookers is a testament to Nicki Minaj’s universal appeal.
The 25-year-old rapper is hanging around town after her second appearance on BET’s 106 & Park in a week, the latest, to perform “Shakin’ it for Daddy,” her cheeky strip club anthem with Robin Thicke. Though Thicke is presently the bigger star, and it is his song, the crowd (mostly young girls by the sound of it) was clearly there for Minaj, shrieking wildly when she appeared and chanting along rapt during her Thicke-hyping call and response. Immediately after the show aired, the eye-popping, red lace bodycon minidress she wore was a trending topic on Twitter, but even more people are talking about her performance, which completely eclipsed the charismatic Thicke. She was a bespandexed ball of fire, her accents weaving as they do through feminine New York bark, lilting British brogue, valley girl gangsta and the occasional wild tones that came from who knows where but sound like the dialect of a planet not yet discovered. As Minaj emerged and rapped audacious lyrics like Money in the air it’s a festival/ Cause I ba ba ba ba ball (no testicles), her eyes grew wide and wild as if temporarily possessed. But right now she’s not sweating all of that. She’s just trying to get her photo taken as quickly as possible without freezing to death. She’s also trying to snack on some cereal. “You know when I like cereal? At 2AM, right before you go to sleep,” says Minaj. “It’s not the best tip, I don’t think, if you’re trying to lose weight, but I like it right before bed. And you know what I like when I wake up? Leftovers. Like, real food.”
Nicki Minaj is down to earth in more ways than her eating habits, but as anyone who’s heard her rap can tell you, she is superhuman on the mic. The sheer force of her character, whether rapping or occasionally singing (she’s got a great voice), is one of the main reasons so many people are drawn to her, including the aforementioned legion of young females. Scour MySpace and you’ll find hundreds, if not thousands, of girls whose profile pics mimic Minaj’s signature “Harajuku Barbie” look: stone-washed jeans, black tank, pink bra, pink extensions. She artfully peppers the most voracious of her verses with totally unexpected but extremely girlish punchlines, as on the Young Money sex anthem, “Bedrock,” when she turns I’ll be coming off the top/ Asbestos into one of the most peculiar descriptions of an orgasm in rap history. “I had so many people over the years tell me that I should sound a certain way, and I never thought my personality came out when I rapped that way,” she says. “Anybody that knows me knows that I have a very, very bipolar personality, so one minute I’m excited and the next minute I’m crying and the next minute I’m cussing and yelling and the next minute I’m singing Enya. I’m not kidding. And the point is, my rap style now reflects my true personality. Because I am so weird.”
Weirdness is the great unifier of her fanbase. Straight men are drawn to her ability to stand on Mars with Lil Wayne (her looks are a bonus). Gay men love her theatrical flair and strength. Her young female fans look up to her; the more mature ones are just glad to have a woman of note back near the top. And then there are the women who really like Minaj, allowing her to cultivate the rather rock star-ish habit of signing women’s breasts after shows. “I wish I could fricking remember the first boob that I signed,” she says. “I don’t know why I did it, but now I can’t go anywhere and not do it. People come up to me wherever I am, girls—sexy girls—like, ‘Can you sign my boob?’ I mean, niggas in the club look at me like I’m a pimp. They like, Whaaat? Cause they be fly chicks. I don’t know, but I do know it’s a great thing.”
Minaj’s resistance to convention is part of what makes her one of the most promising new rappers to emerge in recent memory—and certainly the most interesting New York rapper since Cam’ron helmed the Dipset epoch of the early ’00s. With the ubiquitous Lil Wayne as her label head and mentor, and radio heartthrob Drake as one of her closest confidants, Minaj is also in good company at Young Money. Even as the rest of the music industry slowly asphyxiates, her crew is building a legacy in the mold of old Bad Boy or Roc-A-Fella, with Minaj as its warrior princess.
Born Onika Maraj in Jamaica, Queens, Minaj grew up with her parents and older brother and attended LaGuardia High (“the Fame school”) for acting. But despite the appearance of a nuclear family, behind the scenes was tumultuous, her father addicted to drugs and alcohol, and her mother supporting them on a nurse’s aid salary of $200 a week. “From a very early age, I didn’t know what peace was like,” she says. “I didn’t know what it was like to go to sleep and not know if something crazy was going to happen, so I think I was always kind of crazy, loud and random. My father was out of control. Stealing our furniture, selling it, stealing our money to get drugs.” Minaj’s mother held the family together, was her first strong female role model and fostered her interest in music. “My mother was my best friend all my life. We would sing together. I knew every Diana Ross by the age of eight. Nobody would expect me to know those songs, but my mom would be singing ‘I Hear a Symphony’ and all this crazy stuff. That’s what I grew up on, loving how music allowed me to escape.”
Minaj started rapping when she was 12, doing verses for her friends on the street, cipher-style, a young fan of Capone-N-Noreaga. “The first rap I ever wrote went, Cookie’s my name/ Chocolate chip’s my flavor/ Suck up my rhymes/ Like a cherry LifeSaver!” she recalls. “Oh my god that‘s so embarrassing! Cause my name was Cookie, but I don’t know why it was Cookie’s my name/ Chocolate chip is the flavor! Only when I got older did I realize that in rap, dark-skinned girls would be called, like, chocolate or something. I don’t know what the hell I was talking about. But it was my favorite rap. I said it to everybody that I met, and I remember all the boys in the neighborhood would gather around to hear me spit this rap. And then they would all crack up laughing. I thought it was because my rap was so hot, you know?”
Suck up my rhymes/ Like a cherry LifeSaver is actually a telling first lyric, a precursor for a slew of playful, charming metaphors and inherent bad-assitude. Minaj’s rhymes have evolved from the playful innocence of a girl unaware of her sexual power, to a savvy woman’s complete ownership and control of it. She was discovered on MySpace in 2006 by Dirty Money CEO Fendi and released her first mixtape, Playtime is Over, on his Brooklyn imprint. After a couple years sharpening her skills, Minaj flipped Notorious BIG’s “Warning” into a biting tale of a cheating man in Fendi’s street video The Come Up. Lil Wayne saw it, signed her to Young Money, and not long after, she appeared with him on “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” from the wildly popular Da Drought 3 mixtape. She rapped the unforgettable line Now it’s not hard to find me/ Top behind me/ You be Harry Potter/ and I’ll be Hermione in a breathy, but tough Marilyn Monroe drawl, setting the stage for her own frenetic, gutsy mixtape, Beam Me Up Scotty, which came in early 2009. On it, Minaj proved she could rap over anybody else’s beats and own them no matter the tempo, showcased her raw Queens ferocity, invented a clutch of quirky catchphrases from the lexicon she calls her Nictionary and established herself as the completely mesmerizing, freaky spirit she is. She’s supposed to be working on her debut album now, slated for later this year, but has been touring constantly and keeps getting paid to rap on other people’s singles.
Lately, the list of artists blowing up Minaj’s spot for a verse is noticeably female: Mariah Carey, Keri Hilson, Cassie and Rihanna. Though Minaj has made a habit of sonning the hottest male rappers around with inspired and empowered guest appearances, it’s her tracks with other women that are the potential gamechangers. In the past, these women have chosen men to add some dimension to their songs, and usually what they get is a very traditional and very predictable gender dynamic: they are in love or they are falling out of love, et cetera. Minaj, on the other hand, is like a life coach, an unapologetic voice supporting whatever the singer is saying. If a man has been disrespectful, move on to something better. If he has been amazing, make a move to keep him. But above all, own your decisions. Be about it. She recently wrote a song for Rihanna’s Rated R, over Brit dubstep producers Chase & Status’ “Saxon.” It didn’t make the album, but the guide track leaked to the internet, much to Minaj’s chagrin. “This wasn’t supposed to come out in the world with Nicki Minaj on it,” she says. “This was written for someone else, and I felt so fucked up behind it. But I thought the beat was very different, and I wanted to write something for Rihanna that showed like, I already shut the shit down.” Listening to Minaj sing Switch my hair, dey gon’ copy her/ Switch my gear, dey gon’ copy her/ Look at how they stare just to copy her/ Roger dat, did ya copy dat, copycat? in pitch-perfect Rihanna patois, you have to wonder if maybe Rihanna just wasn’t ready to be that tough. Even if that’s the case, Minaj will most likely hold a controlling interest in many female anthems in the future.
Her own album, though, will be the first real measure of her reach. So far, nothing has officially been leaked from it, but one of the best recent examples of her ability to roll solo is the song “Itty Bitty Piggy.” “That’s the craziest one I’ve written yet,” says Minaj. “I sound like
a Martian. I just really didn’t give a damn, just being as crazy as I could possibly be.” Over a spare handclap, she charges out of the gate with an exaggerated twang, Flyer than a kite, I get higher than Rapunzel/ Keep the Snow White I can buy it by the bundle/ Step ya cookies up ’fore they crumble/ Don’t be actin like the Cardinals and go ’n’ fumble, launching into a machine gun barrage of cultural references and wily fairytale repudiations. By the time the song ends with the line And if you see a itty bitty piggy in the market/ Give that bitch a quarter and a car tell her park it/ I don’t fuck with pigs like As salaam alaikum/ I’ll put them in the field and let Oscar Meyer bake ’em, it feels like Minaj has just grabbed your brain by the hand and whipped you through a hurricane. Like Wayne, she is a walking cultural aggregator, referencing everyone from the obvious (Biggie, Foxy Brown) to the random (Melissa Joan Hart, Monica Lewinsky). But whereas former female rappers under the tutelage of men either had them write their lyrics (BIG and Lil Kim) or were rumored to (Jay-Z and Foxy Brown), Minaj writes everything. Anyone who doubts this should consider the specific slant she takes on testicles in her punchlines. In addition to the aforementioned Thicke verse, on Young Money’s “Finale,” she says You at the bottom of the pole/ Totem/ Like Lamar Odom I ball/ Scrotum. In these times of “pause,” what man would ghostwrite that knowing he would inevitably be put on blast? The reality is that Minaj’s grasp on cojones is as much a natural part of her humor as it is a sly assertion of her prowess. “I am so territorial, that [from the start] I just felt like whatever I was gonna do I was gonna write it myself,” she says. “It’s my personal preference to always be in control of everything I do in life.”
Since the beginning, female rappers have grappled with the conventional wisdom that they were secondary players in rap’s hierarchal sausage party. Though many of rap’s frontierswomen were viewed as equals by virtue of their determination and liberated lyrics—Salt-n-Pepa, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Roxanne Shante, Yoyo—the last two decades have seen the essentialized, sexually explicit and subservient personas pioneered by Lil Kim and Foxy Brown become the norm. Barring Remy Ma, who went to prison in 2007 for shooting her best friend in the stomach
and is currently serving an eight-year sentence, there hasn’t been a new rapper since the heydays of Missy Elliott and Eve with the potential to transcend her gender. Lil Kim and Foxy Brown put their sexuality on a platter, which was complicated, but at times felt revolutionary, like a reclamation—the sexual power gleaned from the money/power/respect-era became diluted and sad as the years went by. Sexual power as a tactic is a futile effort—it pigeonholed Kim and Foxy into caricatures of what they thought men wanted, and eventually felt farcical, personas that overshadowed their true personalities. Early in her career, Minaj did a photo shoot paying homage to Kim’s Hardcore by squatting in a bikini licking a lollipop, but the cover of the Beam Me Up Scotty mixtape, her Wonder Woman leotard juxtaposed with the Starship Enterprise, was the last time she’d be in public with that much flesh on view. “I don’t know where I fit in the spectrum of rap yet,” says Minaj. “I think now I’m kind of proving myself, but before, people thought I was more of a sex symbol or a wannabe sex symbol—and I never wanted to be a sex symbol. Now they’re seeing. That’s why I make the goofiest faces, I don’t want people to think I’m up there trying to be cute. I’m trying to entertain, and entertaining is more than exuding sex appeal. I don’t think that’s fun. I don’t find it fun watching someone trying to be sexy. It’s wack. I’m trying to just show my true personality, and I think that means more than anything else. I think when personality is at the forefront, it’s not about male
or female, it’s just about, who is this weird character?”
If Minaj’s reaction to the insanity of her childhood was to be “random and crazy” as a shield, her craziness is now her greatest weapon, offsetting the reductive stereotyping female rappers have been so subjected to over the years. Underneath her outrageousness, though, Minaj possesses gifts that not many, regardless of gender, can match. She has a presence that could crossover beyond music, and the talent to choose whatever path interests her. She is not only the best rapper with the most personality, she is an icon in the making, or maybe more accurately, an iconoclast. Already, Minaj is forging a new path for her hordes of pubescent female fans to follow, and a new feminine image for men to admire, one based on intelligence and achievement rather than subordination and conformity. And the best part is that she doesn’t appear to be sweating it for a minute. As we walk back down Bowery, a man who claims to have been a friend of Grand Wizard Theodore rolls up and tells Minaj she’s keeping hip-hop alive. She grins, looks down sheepishly, thanks him, and struts off, her stilettos clacking the pavement.