Nicki Minaj / The Real Her   0%

It’s 2 a.m. and Nicki Minaj is curled up on a black leather couch in the green room of Hollywood’s Siren Studios, exhausted from last night’s recording session, which ended at 4 a.m., and today’s 11-hour magazine shoot. The 31-year-old rapper and singer is de-glammed in a black turtleneck crop top, matching leggings, and fluffy duck slippers, her makeup wiped off and her natural hair pulled out from beneath the black bob wig she wore for the shoot.

Five years after signing with Lil Wayne on the strength of her street DVD freestyles; four years after becoming an international superstar off the bubblegum pop of “Super Bass”; two years after offending rap purists with “Starships,” Minaj is dropping her third studio album, The Pinkprint, this fall. She’s calling it her “most personal” album yet. Judging by her output over the past year, The Pinkprint will have a little of everything, meaning it’ll be quintessential Nicki.

Last December, Minaj threw a couple of frenzied verses on “Boss Ass Bitch,” a viral YouTube hit by L.A. crunk girl group PTAF. While in “album mode,” she spent 2014 killing remixes to Young Thug’s “Danny Glover,” Rae Sremmurd’s “No Flex Zone,” and, most notably, Beyoncé’s “Flawless.” That’s on top of her own tracks “Yasss Bish,” “Chi-Raq,” and the cutthroat “Lookin’ Ass.” Her most recent singles—the soft and reflective relationship song “Pills N Potions” and the comically sexual “Anaconda”—display a versatility that, by now, feels like signature Nicki.

In August, after the MTV VMAs, when Nicki graced the red carpet without a wig or multicolored makeup or costume, the media dissected her aesthetic transition ad nauseum. Many said that her more natural look signaled the return of “Mixtape Nicki.” Even Lil Wayne has specific expectations in the wake of what’s been called “the makeunder”: “I’m looking forward to her going back to her roots—bar for bar straight lyrical content,” he says. “The last album showed her versatility, how she can make a straight hood/club banger and at the same time still be dominant in the pop industry. Now that she has tested the waters, she’s going back to [what] she enjoyed best.”

But it’s more complicated than that. In 2012, Minaj canceled her appearance at Hot 97’s Summer Jam after its host, Peter Rosenberg, threw shade at “Starships,” calling it “bullshit” that isn’t “real hip-hop.” Nearly a year later, she appeared on Rosenberg’s radio show, and offered perhaps the most succinct explanation of her MO as an artist. “I wanted to experiment,” she said in the reconciliatory radio interview. “My whole career has been a playing field for me to try new things. I never put a limit on myself. And I don’t like when—especially black­—women put a limit on what they can do.”

A lot of people think they know Nicki Minaj. In fact, they think they know a few Nicki Minajs: “Mixtape Nicki,” “Pop Nicki,” “Diva Nicki,” “Theatrical Nicki,” “Fashion Nicki,” “Alter Ego Nicki a.k.a. Roman.” But “Dead-Ass-Tired-Lying-on-a-Couch Nicki” shows no sign of multiple personalities. She’s just one woman, albeit an incredibly busy one as she starts the promo campaign for her new album, and sees her sleep, personal, and family time vanish. Call her just Nicki.

As the night goes on, we talk about the misconceptions surrounding The Pinkprint, Nicki’s plans for making babies, and the guilt that comes with fame, but the interview doesn’t start well. She can barely keep her eyes open; her voice is soft and exasperated as she answers questions with her head tilted back, eyes half closed. But as soon as “Mixtape Nicki” is mentioned, she perks up—because no one is going to tell you what Nicki Minaj is doing except Nicki Minaj.

What’s behind your more natural look and your street singles reminiscent of earlier “Mixtape Nicki”?

I didn’t go back to “Mixtape Nicki.” That’s how [members of the media] feel, but that’s not what I’ve done. I’ve never stopped rapping; I’ve never stopped doing freestyles; I’ve never stopped doing remixes and features; I’ve never stopped raising the bar lyrically. I understand and respect people’s opinions when they hear me do certain things and say she’s “going back,” but I haven’t gone back, I’ve moved forward. I’ve always been evolving.

You’ve said The Pinkprint will be your most personal album yet. What are you addressing about your past and present that you haven’t before?

My family, loss, death, guilt…. I’ve struggled with a lot of guilt.

Guilt over what?

When you’re working and you’re busy and you’re successful, no matter what, something suffers, whether it’s your relationship with your mother, your relationship with your whole family, not being able to go to your brother’s graduation…. Certain things suffer and take the back burner, not because they’re on the back burner in your heart but because the world just moves so quickly. A lot of people, when they’re chasing their dreams, they have to leave people they love. A lot of artists feel that guilt but they don’t express it.

Your family is still in New York City?

Right, and I live in L.A., so when I wake up in the morning, I can’t just run across the street and hug my mother, hug my little brother, kiss my little brother or older brother. I have to get on a six-hour flight to see them, and then, even when I go to New York, I’m lucky if I can see them for a couple hours. I go to New York all the time and I’m so ashamed to say that I could be out there for a few days and not even be able to see my family because of my schedule. I don’t even get lunch penciled in my schedule. Sleep is out of the question—everything seems to become more important.

Has your relationship with your family suffered?

Yes, because I feel like I’m the voice of reason in my family and I’ve always taken control and tried to lead and tried to be the one to help my family stay on the right path. When I’m not there, and something doesn’t work out, I always think to myself, “If I was there, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Despite your stardom, there are rarely paparazzi photos of you. You seem to have control over your image and personal life. Do you worry about losing privacy?

I worry to an extent. It doesn’t keep me up at night but I would be lying if I said that privacy isn’t important to me. I’ve always been like that. I give so much; I don’t curb myself in my music and I try my best to be straightforward when I do interviews. So, I do worry. What if I didn’t have something sacred? What if I wasn’t able to keep my secrets? How would that make me feel? I’ve always prided myself on not talking about certain things, holding certain things dear to my heart and leaving them just for me.

Jay Z’s The Blueprint inspired the title The Pinkprint and the idea of laying the blueprint for female rappers to come. What similarities do you see between you right now and Jay circa The Blueprint?

I can’t. I have no idea what he was doing before The Blueprint dropped. It’s not that literal. People keep asking me about Jay’s The Blueprint and they think I’m doing something like that. I made reference to The Blueprint because Jay is the biggest rapper of our time. The name of the album was inspired by Jay but not the body of work. I do think that it’s going to create new rules, though, in [the way] that [The Blueprint did].

What are your new rules?

One rule is “no more self-judgment.” I’m not judging myself; I’m not dissing what I do. I’m proud of what I’ve done and I’m proud of what I’m working on. I’ve accomplished something and I’m not going to be ashamed to be happy about what I’ve done. I’m talking about things that I didn’t speak about on other albums. It’s a truthful body of work. The album is me doing a press conference, addressing things and not putting too much [emphasis] on “This has to be lyrical,” to the point where I lose focus of a message. It’s important as a woman to be vulnerable and be strong at the same time. The album is a dope balance of vulnerability and strength, of inspiration and of not being politically correct. It’s the best of both worlds. It’s tapping into both sides. There are times when all I want to do is be lyrical and create metaphors and experiment with my flow. Then there are times when I just want to tell a truthful story about love and have people identify with me.

All women can relate to that.

Every woman is multifaceted. Every woman has a switch, whether she’s going to be maternal, whether she’s going to be a man-eater, whether she has to kick ass, whether she has to be one of the boys, whether she has to show the guys that she’s just as smart or smarter, she’s just as talented or creative. Women suppress a lot of their sides.

“Pills N Potions” and “Anaconda” showed two completely different sides of you.

There’s never been such a huge gap between two singles. I purposely did that because that’s a representation of who I am. I’ve always been unpredictable. It keeps my fans guessing, and I love that.

Anyone who’s been in an unhealthy relationship can relate to “Pills N Potions.”

“Pills N Potions” isn’t just about relationships. A couple of my girlfriends I hadn’t spoken to in a while reached out to me after they heard “Pills N Potions.” That struck such a chord with people. The message—we still love [each other] but we’re angry—we feel that way all the time, we just don’t say it. And a lot of times you don’t even get over that, you just have to keep it moving.

What did you want to accomplish with “Anaconda”?

I wanted to create a song that embraced curvy women. I wanted to be sexual but be playful with it. And I wanted it to be so melodic that even if you don’t understand English you could still go along with the melody and you would have no idea about all the raunchy shit I’m saying—I get a kick out of that. It was simple to write. I just created the melody and then I let the words happen. I started laughing when I said, “Boy toy named Troy.” [Laughs.] That whole song, I was just being dumb. It was a joke. My biggest thing was seeing how my girlfriends Sherika and Thembi were going to react. If they don’t like a song, they’ll be like, “No.” As soon as they walked in the studio, we were laughing and having fun. I thought, if we’re doing this, then everybody is going to have fun with it.

What did you want to do with the backshot artwork that caused such a frenzy?

The artwork was not premeditated. I was shooting the “Anaconda” video and I had my photographer there taking pictures. When I was about to shoot my next scene, I asked to see the pictures he’d taken. He went through five or six and that one came up, and I was like, “[Gasps.] Oh my God. Yo, that picture is crazy!” What made me excited about it was that people hadn’t seen me do a picture like that in years. The reason why I stopped taking pictures like that was because I needed to prove myself. I needed for people to take me seriously. I needed for people to respect my craft. I’ve proven that I’m an MC. I’m a writer; I’m the real deal, so if I want to take sexy pictures, I can. I’m at the level in my career and in my life now where I can do whatever the hell I want to.

The video was equally jaw-dropping. You’re twerking and a lot of dudes were probably watching, getting excited—and then you have the banana-chopping scene. Pull them in, entice them, then….

[Laughs.] Absolutely. Abso-freaking-lutely. Then at the end, when Drake is trying to touch me and I’m slapping his hands away…. It was random and impromptu.

Drake—in the friend zone forever.

[Laughs.] Oh, no.

But the last scene with him sitting in the chair, his sad face in his hands….

It’s so cute. He’s such a dope actor. After he did that we just busted out laughing and we all were cracking up. He’s such a good sport. I love that he makes fun of himself and doesn’t take himself too seriously. That’s why my friendship with him works so well. That’s why I love him to death.

You faced a lot of backlash for the sexuality of the “Anaconda” video and artwork. A dad even wrote an open letter to you about it. What’s your response?

“Shut your stupid ass up. Bye, dad.” I laughed at it. But I also didn’t even know that that was happening.

You’re on Twitter all the time. Do you read what blogs write about you?

I’m not on blogs, so I didn’t know. People see me retweet stuff and they think I’m some Internet person but I’m not. A lot of times, with the controversy surrounding “Lookin’ Ass,” for example, I didn’t know anything about it until it was so late it would’ve been crazy for me to address it. Every now and then, people in my circle will say, “Did you know blah blah blah?” People on my team know I don’t want to hear any drama. I don’t want any negativity. I don’t want to hear what’s on the blog. I don’t care.

Do you not care? Or are you pretending not to care?

I don’t care. I used to care, now I don’t care.

What made you stop caring?

The only thing I ever cared about was people questioning [my rapping], because I know that I’m as authentic as they come when it comes to being a freaking MC. My first year in the game, I actually lost sleep over rumors, and then I realized, “What? This is entertainment.” These people will write anything about you to get attention and when you’re successful and famous, they know that when they say your name, people are going to click on the story. Now, to be completely honest, I don’t care. Sometimes if I hear something completely outrageous I’ll laugh, but no, the only thing I care about is my peace of mind, my well-being, my home, my family, the people I love, and the fact that I’m continuing to be successful in my industry. Everything else comes with the territory. You just have to get in on the joke, that’s what I realized.

Did Drake teach you that?

[Laughs.] That’s what I’m saying. You’ve got to be in on it. It takes so much pressure off your life. I realize that a lot of times, people critique the people they love the most and feel the most attached to. Regular people don’t even realize how much artists mean to them. Artists represent a lot to the average person. People listen to music all day on their iPods, so as artists, we become a real fixture in people’s lives. As an artist, you can’t take it personal. It’s like your big brother teasing you. As long as it’s not malicious. I haven’t had any issues lately and things have been good for the most part. When I do see things, people are saying good things like, “She killed this verse.” I’m happy that people push me to work hard, to be honest. Sometimes you need to be pushed in the right direction. Sometimes you need to be reminded, “Hey! Look! [Snaps.] You’re here for a reason. You got here by busting your ass. Don’t fail.”

In 2012, when you spoke with Miss Info for your last COMPLEX cover, you said, “In five years, ideally, I’d like to be married and have kids.” This year, you said that the end goal is to make $500 million and do five albums. Would you retire after five albums and just have a family?

Yeah. I won’t use the word “retire” but I would use the word “vacation”—because I don’t believe in vacations, I don’t believe in holidays. I have to put out all six of my albums, contractually. After the fifth, I’ll probably have my baby. I wonder if I’m going to be one of those women who balances my child with a career. I always said, “When I have my baby, it’s going to be all about my baby.” I don’t want the child feeling like they don’t have all of my attention, so I always said, “I’m going to take a little break.” But we’ll see.

What’s your biggest fear?

That I’ll become so consumed with work that I’ll forget to live my personal life to the fullest. If I’m done with my fifth album and I don’t have a child by then, no matter how much money I have, I would be disappointed, as a woman, because I feel like I was put here to be a mother. I have definitely put off the wife thing because I don’t want people in my business. I’d rather not do anything that’s going to be on paper but I definitely will be married before I have my baby. I want to make sure I do it in that order. I’ve always felt like that since I was young; my mother always put that in my head. By the fifth album, I will have walked down the aisle and I will at least be on baby number one, possibly baby number two. [Laughs.] And have $500 million.

Behind the Scenes at Nicki Minaj's Cover Shoot