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.