Perhaps, but when Nicki first heard about LaGuardia, it was singing that interested her. She already played the clarinet and the idea of going to a school where you could sing all day sounded like heaven to her, in a “what’s the catch?” kind of way. The catch was that she was hoarse the day of her audition.
“I knew I’d flunked miserably,” she says. “I was crying and embarrassed and I didn’t want anyone in the school to see me. I just wanted to go home. That was the first time in my adolescent life where my mother put her foot down. Normally I made the rules.” Her mother insisted she go through with the drama audition, so she stomped to the basement, walked into the auditorium, and then something remarkable happened.
“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?’” The next thing she knew, she’d been accepted to the drama program.
After high school, Nicki had two things on the brain. First, she wanted to make sure she had a job, because a job meant she could afford her own apartment and that white BMW she had her eye on. Second, she wanted to make rap music.
One of her jobs was serving biscuits and shrimp to jerks at Red Lobster in the Bronx for $12 an hour. She hated it, but she always found a way of amusing herself and the other waitresses on her shift. One time, on an especially busy night, she was rushing to get some plates to a table and one of her super-long nails popped into a customer’s salad.
“Our manager said ‘Look at this, Onika. This is not good,’” recalls a former coworker. “And Onika goes, “Damn, I know! I can’t believe I just broke my freaking nail!’” That didn’t get her fired, though. She was fired for following a customer into the parking lot, knocking on his car window and giving him the finger. “He stole my pen!” she says cackling. “I gave him the pen to sign the credit card slip, and I was gonna show him: I will lose my job for a pen. So I chased him into the freaking parking lot. Who does that?!”
The hardest part about getting fired— and Nicki always got fired— was telling her mother she would have to come back home. “I never wanted to accept that I was not ready to live on my own. My mother would call. I would be like, ‘Everything’s great!’ But I wouldn’t have food in the refrigerator. I refused to ask for anything.”
They still talk every day, but the timbre of the calls has shifted. “Now it’s ‘Hey, can you buy me a house?’” Nicki says with a weary laugh. “It’s a completely different conversation. In such a short space of time, everything changed.”
All the while, she was making music. The guys she hung out with in Queens all rapped, and at first they just wanted her to sing their hooks. “I hated doing anything that made me seem like a girl at that time,” she says. “I wanted to be as strong as the boys and as talented as them and I wanted to show them I could do what they did.” She’d save up her money for studio time, record songs and then drive around the neighborhood in her BMW playing her music. “They always took notice,” she says.
Other people took notice, too. First was Fendi, a Brooklyn street-rap guy who discovered Nicki on MySpace and signed her to his underground label Dirty Money. On a DVD called The Come Up, which featured Lil Wayne on the cover, she rapped over The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Warning.” The ballsiness of the choice made people talk. It created buzz. And most important, it got the attention of Lil Wayne.
IT HASN’T BEEN a cakewalk. It may look like a lot of fun given all the curious wigs, affected accents and boob signing. But when she isn’t busy putting on airs, Nicki is very serious and hardworking. “Focused, man,” says Ludacris of her on-set work ethic. “She has high expectations, so there’s no time for games.”
Like anyone, though, she makes mistakes— like that time she skipped town while Young Money was recording in Miami to do a solo show she’d forgotten about. To be fair, Nicki had her own career to worry about, and a prior engagement is a prior engagement. But it’s not every day Lil Wayne asks you to hang around and record a top 10 hit in the making. It was an early blunder, and when she got back to town, she got the bad news: Wayne had kicked her off the song “Bedrock.”
When Nicki was a little kid and her mother told her she couldn’t do something, she’d go to her room and makes lists of all the reasons she could. She’d then present it to her mother until she got her way— which is exactly what Nicki did with Wayne. Holed up in her hotel, Nicki wrote three new verses, thinking that if she presented Wayne with all four, he’d have to like one of them.