Nicki hasn’t been to media training yet— that’s next week— but she knows better than to pick fights and name names. She’s still getting used to talking about herself for hours at a time, but she certainly looks camera-ready. Like other L.A. girls, she’s in a Robin’s Jean phase. Today it’s blue motorcycle skinnies that look like leather but feel like felt. There are angel wings embroidered above the back pockets, drawing the eye to a part of the body that, when you’re looking at Nicki Minaj, would be tough to miss anyway. “Do you know some of them cost $900 now?” she says.
Still, her publicist is never too far away: “Who’s hungry?” she says, bursting into the room with her handbag. “Because I am starving.”
OVER LUNCH, NICKI grabs her laptop and slides in a CD. A Swizz Beatz track swells and in comes her familiar, adorable, Queens voice. There are no accents or guests. It’s just Nicki, alone, over a top-drawer beat. She sounds almost somber, and then the hook comes in and she’s . . . singing. No Auto-Tune.
“James!” she barks. James Cruz is on the phone. “Did you hear the hook, James?”
“Yeah, what about it?” he says, covering his BlackBerry.
“It’s me! I’m singing!”
“I knew that. I just wanted you to say it,” he says.
“Do you like it?”
“It’s a great pop record.”
Oh dear. Pop is a dirty word in some hip-hop circles, and within her cabal of A-list advisers, there’s some discussion these days about whether or not Nicki is at risk of going too pop. Too out there. Too Lady Gaga.
“With this album, you got people saying ‘Oh that might be too pop for you,’ or ‘That might be too dance for you,’” she says later. “And I just started meditating on what makes them say that. I think people say those things just because of the past. I have to invent something, to show that a girl can rap over any kind of beat and still be hip-hop.”
“You know when you’re doing something you were put here to do,
and there’s a moment when it’s so easy. And you’re like, ‘Wait, not everyone can do this?’”
Conventional wisdom says that in order to succeed as a female MC you should write songs about how good you are at sex before you throw them a curveball, if you throw them a curveball at all. Nicki has done the sexbomb thing, to be sure. She posed like Lil’ Kim for her second mixtape’s cover art (“I don’t like the picture and I don’t like to talk about it”), she until now let rumors of her bisexuality fester (“I don’t date women and I don’t have sex with women”) and she’s done collaborations where she’s the girl-kissing freak (with Usher), the temptress (with Ludacris) or the stripper (with Robin Thicke).
But she has mixed feelings about all that now. “When I grew up I saw females doing certain things, and I thought I had to do that exactly,” she says. “The female rappers of my day spoke about sex a lot. . . and I thought that to have the success they got, I would have to represent the same thing. When in fact I didn’t have to represent the same thing.”
So perhaps that’s out. What about cartoon-character Nicki? “I’m not abandoning the funny voices. I just did a crazy tribute to ODB’s ‘Shimmy Shimmy Ya,’” she says, perfectly impersonating the late Wu-Clansman. “But it’s coming up more with the album. I had a teacher in elementary who would stand on her table and whisper. We’d all turn around like, ‘What is this lunatic doing?’ But she would achieve what she wanted. She wanted us to stop talking and listen. I feel like I need to mellow it down so people can hear what I have to say.”
“She has to find her thing,” says Robin Thicke. “It’s hard to know what to do when you can do anything. She could do dance, she could do hip-hop, she could do street, she could do gutter. She can do whatever she wants.”
It would be two years, though, before Nicki made it to New York. At first she was thrilled. “Very thrilled,” she says, “until I saw it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.” Nicki’s father was already in the grips of a crack and alcohol addiction. “I thought we would just be happy, but with a drug-addicted parent there is no such thing as being happy. When you have a father who is stealing your furniture and selling it so that he can buy crack, you suffer. You come home from school and your couch is gone. You’re like, ‘What happened?’” For a while she kept a diary, but one time her dad found it and read it, so she stopped.
On “Autobiography,” from her 2008 mixtape Sucka Free, Nicki’s most personal song to date, she talks about the time her father tried to burn down their house while her mother was inside it. “They shoulda thrown the book at you,” she raps, “because I hate you so much that it burn when I look at you.”
“All my dolls, all my stuffed animals, all my pictures are burnt,” she says today. “I was one of those kids that kept all that stuff. I cared a lot. I swear you’d have to hypnotize me to get me to remember some things that happened. I think psychologically I blocked them away.”