Judging by her first street single, “Massive Attack,” the Sean Garrett-produced track that left a lot of people scratching their heads, it seems as though she is still figuring that out. It’s the kind of song that makes you feel old— like you’re missing something that the kids on designer drugs might understand. Or maybe it’s just not a very good song. Either way, the response has been lukewarm at best.
“‘Massive Attack’ was the record she wanted to go with,” says Garrett, sounding a little defensive. “I think it’s a different sound. She wanted to make a statement. She definitely has a different direction for her album and her career than where most people think she wants to go.”
Ask Nicki how she feels about the response and she looks away before answering. “It was important for me to do something not everyone thought I was gonna do . . .People close to me have their preferences,” says Nicki, lowering her voice, “their favorite Nicki thing, and I have to stand up sometimes and block out the noise.”
Nicki is getting a little restless. We’re supposed to go to the spa later for manicures, but that’s hours from now and it turns out they don’t do acrylics.
“You wanna go see the Koreans and get a fill?” asks her publicist. “Just down the street.”
“I did an interview once like that and it was really loud,” says Nicki.
“You wanna get a Jamba Juice? Get a healthy drink?” asks the publicist again. Nicki doesn’t like pulp in her orange juice and besides, she brought her own Tropicana. We’re not going anywhere.
LONG BEFORE ALL this, Nicki was a little girl in Trinidad who missed her mom. Born in 1984, Onika Tanya Maraj spent her first five years in a clown-car of a house, full of cousins and friends and animals. Her grandmother ruled the roost and, between the ages of 3 and 5, was Nicki’s stand-in mom. Nicki’s parents would send for her later— once they were set up in Queens.
Like lots of people awaiting entry to the United States, Nicki idealized what her life would be like once she got to New York. Whenever her mother would visit, she would sneak into the bedroom, dress herself and pack up all her belongings. “I would sit there and wait for her to leave, knowing that if she sees that I’m dressed, she’ll take me with her.”
“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.”
By junior high, Nicki was the kind of scrappy, pretty, determined teenager who could drive a mother crazy. She went to Elizabeth Blackwell Middle School 210 in the Ozone Park area of Queens— a school that was known for “being big and being bad.” There, Nicki got in fights a lot. If her friend was having a problem with another girl, she’d get in the middle. “What’s the problem?” Nicki would say, and the next thing she knew, her nails were tearing into the other girl’s neck and chest, her shirt ripped off, boobs out. “She was Puerto Rican, too,” says Nicki, shaking her head about one incident. “So you could see every scratch.”
Nicki has never had a hard time getting attention. At LaGuardia Arts, the performing arts magnet school in Manhattan immortalized in Fame, Nicki was hard to miss. She was loud and friendly and a little intimidating. The boys wanted to be her friend because she was pretty and funny, and the girls wanted to be her friend because it was no fun being her enemy.
“Her friends were kind of like the mean girls,” says a former classmate. “You got the sense when you walked past her that she was talking about you or had some kind of joke going on. But I wouldn’t say she was mean. . . . You could tell at LaGuardia what someone’s major was based on their behavior, and Nicki was definitely a drama major.”