How real is Nicki Minaj? Is she a doll pulling her own strings to satisfy the appetities of her Barbie brigade and alpha male following? To a point. Is she the evloution of the female MC—quirky, fashionable, talented? Arguably. Here’s what’s certain: she’s a work in progress. And the final product might not be what you’re expecting.
WORDS: Siobhan O’Connor PHOTOGRAPHY: Jill Greenberg
ILLUSTRATIONS: Mari Inukai and Khia! Jackson
IF NICKI MINAJ had her way, she’d be at home watching reruns of Judge Judy right now. Instead, she’s a few miles west of her new Los Angeles apartment, at the W hotel in Westwood. It’s a stunning hilltop property, but on the L.A. cool matrix, this W rates pretty low. The other one is on the Strip, and it’s a hot spot. Which means it’s not a good place for Nicki these days.
She’s not sure when exactly it happened, but going out has become a drag. Used to be she’d slip on a pair of jeans, hop in her white BMW and go to house parties to flirt with older guys. Now it’s Lamborghinis, industry dudes and paparazzi. She might buy popcorn for someone at the movies and the next thing you know, people think she’s dating him. Or she might walk out of a nightclub holding hands with Diddy and have people think she’s dating him.
“People don’t get when you’re off, or you’re having a bad day,” she says, obliquely referring to the photograph that bounced around the blogs of her hand-in-hand with Diddy, looking especially miserable. The speculation was inevitable: Had she been crying? Was she just tired? Are they doing it?
None of the above, it turns out. Nicki just doesn’t like going out anymore. Today we’ll try, though. “It’s good for the story,” her publicist tells her. “Is it good for the story?” she asks me with a wry smile.
This part of being a rapper— the part where you’re on the brink of superstardom, where everyone wants to know what you ate for breakfast, where requests for verses come in daily from the world’s biggest pop icons and where journalists want to do novel things with you to create good scenes for their articles— is new to Nicki.
Until last year, she was a not-so-regular girl from Queens, New York working the mixtape circuit. Lil Wayne had already decided he wanted to sign her, and they’d worked together on her third mixtape, Beam Me Up Scotty, but outside of in-the-know rap circles, it’s not like her phone was ringing off the hook. Last August, Nicki signed to Universal Motown Records through Wayne’s Young Money imprint and within a few months she had recorded and shot videos for “Lil Freak,” “Shakin’ It 4 Daddy” and “My Chick Bad” with Usher, Robin Thicke and Ludacris respectively. She even recorded “Up Out My Face” and she shot a video, a white-and-red explosion of a thing, with Mariah Carey.
In just 10 months, she has been catapulted from the culty fringes to the majors, nailing a provocative public persona as popular with rap’s tough guys as it is with teenage girls— all before her first album is even close to completion. She’s also garnered the support of the three biggest names in rap: Kanye West told her he was blown away by her style; Jay-Z is the reason Thicke chose her for “Shakin’ It 4 Daddy”; and Lil Wayne is her “sensei,” as she likes to say. As if that wasn’t enough, she is no longer with her longtime manager Debra Antney and, if the rumors are true, has acquired a considerable upgrade, at least in a marquee-name kind of way. According to reports in April, Nicki started working with Diddy and former Violator Management heayweight James Cruz, who helped market 50 Cent, Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes to mainstream America.
The backup is important to Nicki, who finds herself at a crossroads. Some parts of the music business she loves. She adores her fans, especially the girls. She sends them tweets, signs their boobs at shows she even shares her Harajuku Barbie nickname with them. In Nicki’s world, anyone who loves her can be a Barbie, a clique of silly, hot girls who amuse themselves by putting on weird outfits and airs and voices.
There’s a lot she hates, too. The trappings of fame— neighbors calling her mom for gossip, wearing uncomfortable shoes every day, going to overheated clubs and having cigarette smoke blown in her face—she could do without. And then there’s that vocal army of detractors, many of them other women, taking shots at her in the press. “She reminds me of Lil’ Kim,” Pepa from storied rap duo Salt’N’Pepa told VIBE.com. “Bold and you know . . . but to me she hasn’t learned the message yet.”
“She has a lot of doubters,” says Ludacris. “But the people who say negative things or fear her don’t understand her.”
“I see this as a great opportunity for every female rapper,” says Nicki, pressing her back into the couch. She’s said that in almost every interview she’s done, only this time there’s a “but.” “But I don’t feel like they’re appreciative, so I’m done. I used to do it for everybody and now I don’t. It’s sad, though, because people take the fun out of it.”