Rookie of the Year: Nicki Minaj
The most exciting new voices in rap all come from the same bewigged head. 2010's reigning scene-stealer is about to become 2011's superstar.
“I represent my entire generation,” a female vocal careens from Studio A at Daddy’s House, the dingy midtown Manhattan recording mecca owned by Sean “Diddy” Combs. When the studio door opens, there is Nicki Minaj, wearing a cotton-candy-colored fright wig. She is surprisingly short — Kewpie-ish, even — in jeans, a T-shirt, and brown riding boots, mouthing along to every word of her new song, “Fly.” Two cameramen, a boom operator, a recording engineer, her publicist, and her hype man and closest confidant, simply known as S.B., surround her. She is smiling, but not happy.
“Do you mind if we tape this?” she asks, immediately after I ask the same exact thing. Our conversation is being filmed.
Of course it is. Because Nicki Minaj is the most beguiling female rapper since Missy Elliott and the most exciting new artist of the year. In 2010, if your song had a guest verse from Nicki — and no fewer than 11 did, turning megastars like Kanye West, Mariah Carey, Lil Wayne, Drake, and Usher into afterthoughts on their own tracks — it was probably a hit. And so MTV is making a documentary about her before she’s even released her first album.
“She’s like the Gaga or Beyoncé of rap,” says Swizz Beatz, who produced three tracks on her debut, Pink Friday, including the antic Eminem collaboration “Roman’s Revenge.”
“Can you put that second ‘whoo’ back on the end of the chorus, please?” Minaj says to the engineer, who cues up the song. “Yeah, right there.” On this October afternoon, she’s putting the finishing touches on Pink Friday, but she’s not letting anyone hear it yet — especially not a journalist. For the past five days a crew has trailed her to chronicle the making of the album, and the constant presence of cameras is starting to get to her. But the former drama student dutifully plays her part.
Nicki Minaj was born Onika Tanya Maraj in Trinidad 25 years ago. One of her earliest memories is hearing “Somewhere Out There,” the heart-melting theme from the 1986 animated mouse fable An American Tail. “It made me feel sad,” she says. “Like there was something in the world I wanted to see or be a part of.”
She found it when she moved to Queens at age six. A self-proclaimed class clown and teacher’s pet, Minaj studied acting at Manhattan’s LaGuardia Arts, better known as the Fame school, but only because she was rejected by the singing program. When Lil Wayne saw her rap on the 2007 street DVD The Come Up, acting had to take a backseat. He adopted her into his Young Money collective, and eventually helped sign her to his label.
And you can hear Wayne’s influence: Minaj is known for attacking with a cadre of voices (loud, soft, deep, girlish, accented, sensual, hysterical) and alter egos (tough chick Nicki, sexy Harajuku Barbie, phantasmagoric Roman Zolanski, and Roman’s British mother, Martha). “Artists should definitely get therapy,” she says with a sort of hard-knock Valley-girl inflection. “I don’t think this is a normal thing. It’s on the verge of being insane to be an artist. There is no other way to vent, unless you want to go to jail.”
At times during our conversation, Minaj appears numb to her own narrative, fidgeting and applying makeup. (She’s prettier without it.) She speaks quickly but rounds out thoughts with “So, yeah,” and then stares blankly, her massive brown eyes unblinking, waiting for the next question.
But Minaj, for all her impatience, is savvy about fostering fandom. She calls her followers Barbies, or Barbz for short, building her own inclusive community. “People ask me if there’s some scientific definition of it and, like, I’m supposed to have an epiphany of an answer,” she says, exasperated. “It’s not like I did a thesis and decided, Oh, Barbie, yay! It’s an endearment I use.”
“I need to know if this bar mitzvah thing is still happening!” Minaj is on the phone with her business manager, trying to confirm tonight’s private gig.”I’m willing to do whatever I have to do,” she says. “A fan is a fan.”
Minaj’s frankness is refreshing, but it’s the fact that she is already receiving such requests that’s so unusual. Though she has been rapping since she was 16, her 2008 mixtape Sucka Free was her coming-out moment. In the run-up to Pink Friday, she’s built her reputation with a unique look — a delightfully kooky, bewigged, robot-on-cocaine sort of thing — and her ability to steal songs in just 16 bars with a keen mix of purring sexuality, agog aggression, and steely braggadocio. On West’s “Monster,” her best guest verse, she unleashes this brash mission statement: “Let me get this straight, wait / I’m the rookie?/ But my features and my show’s ten times your pay? / 50K for a verse, no album out.”
So, Pink Friday is a big deal.
“It’s a challenge, because there hasn’t been a major female rapper in a decade,” says Bryan “Birdman” Williams, the CEO of her label, Cash Money. “But she is nothing but swagger. Her skills are incredible. I think she can be one of the biggest females to ever do it.”
It’s true, female rappers have historically sold far less than their male counterparts, but Minaj’s arrival also marks an intriguing return to oddity. She balances her zaniness with pop-friendly constructions — her best-known solo hits, “Your Love” and “Right Thru Me,” are more about melodrama and singing than inventive rapping. But those songs lack the electrifying eccentricities of her verse on Trey Songz’s “Bottoms Up,” a Roman Zolanski appearance that finds her stammering, convulsing, and modulating her voice to sound like Marilyn Monroe. So the normalizing of Nicki Minaj seems a tricky proposition. Swizz Beatz thinks that’s hardly the point. “Her music is rap in different lights,” he says. “She’s not scared to experiment.”
She used to hate the studio, she says, until “the music changed and it got so good. I’m a fan of Nicki Minaj now.”
At the end of the interview, with my recorder off, Minaj and I chat amiably. I press her about hearing the rest of Pink Friday. When it becomes clear that I’m asking as a fan and not a journalist, her disaffection cracks. She stands up, opens both arms, and motions for me to hug her. “Come here, I won’t bite,” she says, a broad smile creeping onto her face. “Thank you for coming to talk to me.”
She’s so small, I think, and when I touch her back, I feel her microphone pack. Our conversation is still being recorded.