Far from Wayne's ingenue, the Young Money Princess has created a persona second to none—and fashioned herself quite a little movement in the process.
This feature originally appeared in Complex's October/November 2010 issue.
Discovered by Lil Wayne on a street DVD, Nicki Minaj enjoyed an early buzz that, while strong, hinged on a common archetype: a female rapper who wasn't hard to look at. But after a year in which the 26-year-old Queens native, born Onika Tanya Maraj, contributed sexually explicit and surprisingly self-aware verses for a slew of Young Money bangers ("Bedrock," "Up All Night," and "Roger That") and became the go-to gal for Usher ("Lil Freak"), Robin Thicke ("Shakin' It 4 Daddy"), Ludacris ("My Chick Bad"), and Mariah Carey ("Up Out My Face"), she transcended hood-ornament status to be one of the hottest rappers in the game, period.
Her penchant for animated accents and a Harajuku-influenced love for colorful getups begat a cult of personality so strong that even a big-budget disaster like her poorly received first single, "Massive Attack," couldn't hold her down. Nicki simply licked her wounds (if only we had been there to help) and came back with the sweet and sultry "Your Love," which became the first female single to top the Billboard rap charts in eight years. With her debut, Pink Friday, due in November, we'll soon have a clearer view of which Nicki will be remembered. But whether mold-shattering superstar or Young Money footnote, one thing is clear: She'll be the one calling the shots.
I run my empire. No one can make a decision for you if you're the boss.
Everyone has this image of you as a cartoon character with outlandish wigs, but at our shoot today you were much more low-key.
[Laughs.] Every woman is a character—but people need to see I'm a regular human. It's like you wear a pink wig and you're no longer human all of sudden. You're a thing. Like today [the photographer] was like, "Where is that Nicki Minaj smile?" But this shoot doesn't call for the Nicki Minaj smile. You guys wanted me subdued, so I'm gonna give you a different side. I'm not gonna pull a string and be like, "It's Barbie, bitch!"
Is it intimidating to know that, besides The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, there are very few indisputable classic female rap albums?
I want to do well, but I don't think I'm intimidated. People's expectations of what I'm capable of doing are very low. People have been used to hearing little one-liners and me play around.
You think people still underestimate you, even with the success you've been having?
Absolutely. A lot of people don't know I wrote all the hooks on the album. I arranged the music, did the transitions. [Other female rappers] are told what to do, but I run my entire empire; I don't think people would expect that.
Was it hard for you to get that latitude from the label?
My generation is creative; all we need is a Baby or a Slim to back us. We don't need you to tell us what to do, but we need you to nurture our decisions, and I think Cash Money understands that. I didn't have Wayne obviously, since he's been in jail, so there wasn't anyone I could have called and asked for help. Actually, when I've relied on people in the past is when I've made the biggest mistakes. When I trust my gut, I win.
What are some of your biggest mistakes?
I won't say.
Were they recent mistakes?
Recent as in "Massive Attack"?
[Laughs.] Next question.
What has Wayne's involvement been on the album?
He really hasn't had any involvement on it. But to be honest, the album doesn't sound like Wayne. I mean, he's my biggest influence, but it doesn't sound like Wayne's stuff. It sounds like Nicki.
You have the smash single "Your Love" out right now. When did you record it?
Two years ago, before I dropped Beam Me Up Scotty. I loved the beat and the hook, but I didn't like my delivery on it; that's why I re-recorded it when it leaked. [Before it leaked] I was like, "This is going in the trash."