This feature appears in Complex’s 10th Anniversary Issue (April/May 2012).
Here’s a drinking game that gets the job done: Take a sip of Nicki’s drink of choice, a margarita, for every one of her recent accomplishments. Solo set at the Grammys. Super Bowl halftime show with Madonna and M.I.A. M·A·C campaign. OPI’s Nicki Minaj nail polish collection. Mattel’s Nicki Minaj Barbie Doll. Pink Friday certified double-platinum. You’ll be under the table before you get past the last six months.
Nicki’s growth from mixtapes to main stage is unheard of for a female rapper. The 29-year-old Queens MC has stats that match up more with 50 Cent than Salt-N-Pepa. The speed of her rise from Young Money rookie to Fortune 500 trophy has been so fast, it can only be measured in clicks, retweets, and YouTube views.
Actresses perform “Super Bass” karaoke and fashion editors fawn over Nicki’s theatrics. Legend has it that after hearing Nicki’s verse on “Monster,” one of the song’s other MCs called it the best female rap verse ever. But in the eye of the storm, who has time to smell the flowers and check their hashtags? Refusing to lie back and bask in her success, Nicki keeps her steamroller moving full speed ahead, fueled by hard lumps of coal. While we all debate and discuss her, Nicki will launch her sophomore album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded… and her fashion line… and her fragrance line… and her world tour—all moving forward with a firm grip on the steering wheel.
Is there only one direction for her to go? “She’s done everything and she’s everywhere in a time frame that breaks every record,” says Pharrell Williams, a man who’s seen many star trajectories, of Nicki’s explosion. “The only thing left is… inner. We know when she flexes there’s nobody who can stand next to her. But talking to yourself is the next challenge.”
Who has time for self-analysis when there’s a world to conquer, competition to best, audiences to satisfy, and a future family to plan? It’s enough to keep a Barbie and her alter egos very busy.
What wows you these days? Everything that comes your way keeps becoming bigger, bigger, bigger.
If I wasn’t doing it, I wouldn’t believe it’s possible. I remember when I was working with Jay-Z. It was like, “Oh my God. Did I really just do a song with Jay?” I worked with Mariah and it wasn’t commercially successful. But I had fun and I made a real friendship with her. It was, obviously, a life-changing moment for me. It does feel like every moment is getting bigger and bigger. Not only did I get a call to do a song with Madonna, but then I got a call to do a video with Madonna, and then—oh, by the way—you’re going to do the Super Bowl with Madonna. This is not really happening.
Do you have to put the excitement off to the side to keep yourself from freezing up?
I happen to be a pessimist, and maybe that’s a good thing because I don’t stop to smell the roses—which is not a good personal thing. I don’t stop and enjoy those moments. I’m just [snaps fingers] on to the next. Always on to the next and never in the moment.
When you’re constantly exceeding your own expectations, how do you set new goals?
Doing the Super Bowl with Madonna doesn’t really change Nicki Minaj’s personal goals. My goal right now is still to put out Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, sell five million copies eventually, and tour every country in the world. That’s what I’ve been working toward. So while the world is talking about, “Oh my God, I can’t believe Nicki Minaj was at the Super Bowl!” I’m mixing and mastering my music. In my scheme of things it’s way bigger.
“I came out with Young Money, the biggest hip-hop label in the world at the time. And then it was, ‘How do I branch away from Lil Wayne?’ I’ve just been constantly on this quest to stand alone.”
Because those surprises can’t replace the things you want to achieve by yourself?
Because my goal the whole time has been for people to see me as a stand-alone artist. I came out with Young Money, the biggest hip-hop label in the world at that time. And then it was, “How do I branch away from Lil Wayne?” One of my biggest records was with Drake, “Moment 4 Life.” Even with the Super Bowl, it’s Madonna’s moment. I’m just sharing in that moment. It’s not Nicki Minaj’s moment. Nicki Minaj at the Grammys—that’s my moment. I’ve just been constantly on this quest to stand alone.
When I look at the Nicki Minaj franchise—the fashion, the success of songs like “Super Bass,” the media thirst—I don’t see you in any kind of supporting role.
When you’re told something for a long time, even when it changes, your mind frame doesn’t change and you’re subconsciously trying to prove everyone wrong. Even though I know what I’m capable of, I still haven’t had a performance where I would say, “I want this to go down in the Nicki Minaj history book.” I am my own worst critic. For instance, the American Music Awards was set to be an amazing performance, but then I had a horrible malfunction with the clothes and the hair ten minutes before I opened. So I was backstage having a fucking nervous breakdown.
My hair was supposed to light up, my choker was too small. So while I was in the box, waiting for the show to open, I had to rip the shit off, throw it to the side, and act like nothing happened. When I got off stage I freaked out because it was just so emotional. I really, really, really wanted that to be a dope show.
But I was watching and didn’t notice anything wrong.
Does that ease the frustration at all?
No, because I’m not doing it for everyone else. I’m doing it to prove to myself that I can do it. To prove to myself that I don’t have to settle for less because I’m a female rapper or because I’m Black. And until I prove it to myself, it’s not gonna matter. No one’s opinion is going to matter. I really just have to perfect something.
Perfection is a never-ending mission for us women, because so much depends on…
Yup. And so many things can go wrong that guys never worry about.
Men walk on stage and they have their band behind them and they have their hat on and that’s it. I don’t want a pity party, but people don’t understand.
You’re on track to hit all your marks in 2012. Grammy solo set? Check. New album and tour? Check, check. Five million in sales? Possibly. What else?
I’m working on my fragrance and my apparel line. They took stuff that I’ve worn, focused on what I like, and then they started doing sketches. They’re pretty amazing. I was like “Oh my God, the kids are going to love this.” It’s not gonna get done overnight, but I know that it’s something they’re going to love.
“The camera’s my worst enemy and my best friend. It’s the way I convey my emotions to the world without saying a word, so I use it.”
What’s your off-stage persona?
I’m the biggest homebody. But I’ve been like this. Nothing about me has changed since I got fame. I never liked to go to clubs. I never liked to go out. I don’t know where that public craziness came from. I was always like a comedian to my friends and family, but in a lot of ways I’m shy. I think people read my shyness as being mean. They misinterpret it. The first and only person who ever called me out for being shy was Wayne.
Did he recognize it in you because he could relate to that shyness?
Actually, no. Wayne is the least shy person in the world. He loves to be the center of attention. He eats it for dinner. And that’s why I was so drawn to him. I wanted that confidence. Wayne wants to put on a show for everybody. He enjoys people looking at him.
He would make up raps in front of people. Meanwhile, it took me so long to allow people in the studio because writing was such a personal thing to me. It was revealing everything about myself. How could I let people see that before I fine-tune every word, the delivery, the flow? But with Wayne, he just trusts his first gut.
Like so many women, it sounds like you’re hyper-aware of both your action and the world’s reaction. With all the hundreds of photos you have to take, do you feel more confident with cameras?
I hate cameras. I hate cameras and I hate camera phones. The camera’s my worst enemy and my best friend. It’s the way I convey my emotions to the world without saying a word, so I use it. People always say, “You come alive as soon as the camera’s on!”
Do you rehearse those over-the-top face and body animations?
No, I hate rehearsing. I never rehearse what I’m gonna do in a video. It’s just that I have this love-hate relationship with the camera. I wanna please the camera so bad. The perfectionist in my brain is like, “You have to be on.” I always want to feel like I gave everything my all and never, never, never exhibit laziness.
Yikes. That’s a level of personal drive that nobody can ask for. At this point in your career, I’m sure you can call certain shots that you couldn’t before.
In the beginning people thought they knew who I was but they didn’t. They tried to create something. Whenever I’m being me, the people love it. They connect with it. But whenever I find myself in a situation—prime example, during a photo shoot, if a photographer is telling me every little thing to do, I shut down. And you might as well kiss the photo shoot goodbye. I’m an artist in every motherfucking sense of the word. I work well with people who trust my instinct and understand that I am the marketer and promoter of the Nicki Minaj brand. This did not come overnight. This did not happen from a record company. No manager created this.
I always got a kick out of the endless debates over who was managing you. I’ve known you through three sets of managers [Deb Antney, Puffy and James Cruz, and Hip Hop Since 1978] and in every case, it was always clear that…
Little do they know, I manage myself.
Yes. You were always the first and last word.
Right. People assume that I am not the brains behind this operation, and they don’t give me my credit. I could give two fucks about credit. I just want you to leave me the fuck alone. Let me do me. Don’t tell me how to pose; I know how to pose. When I’m recording, I just have to go in and do it, you know? Even my engineer thinks I’m crazy because I’ll hear something different on a track, and he’ll insist, “No, no, nothing was moved.” [But I tell him] “Tony, something was moved.” And later, sure enough, “You were right, there was a two-second delay here.”
Do you always feel like the smartest person in the room?
I meet people that are smart every day. I love collaborating with creative people. I’m not walking around saying I know everything. Hell fucking no. I want to build something. I just don’t allow anyone around me who drops the ball constantly. I’ve never been happier with my current management, because Gee Roberson is such an intelligent man. I learn from him every day, and I’m very, very turned on by people that I learn from. Not sexually—I just love being enlightened. All artists should want to learn the business as they go along. If you’re in this shit, talking about how you just want to be an artist, you’re fucking stupid. It makes me cringe.
Some artists feel more comfortable being puppets.
Right! Because if you’re telling me you just want to be an artist, you’re telling me that you do not want control over a brand you’re creating. You don’t want any say in a brand that you’re creating? I can’t. I can’t rock with that theory.
“I never came into what I’m doing dissing anyone. I gave everyone their props and it’s unfortunate that people felt intimidated and attacked me.”
This being Complex’s 10th Anniversary issue, it seems fitting to look forward to the next 10 years… Where do you think you’ll be in 2022?
In 2022, I’ll definitely be married and I’ll definitely have my two children.
Why just two?
OK, I might have three, but I do want at least one boy.
Maybe if you get a full set early, you can stop there.
No, no, no. I don’t think I even need a girl. I need a boy though.
Wait, you don’t feel like you need a girl?
Yeah, ‘cause you think I’m going to dress her up in wigs. No. [Laughs.] I really need a boy in my life. A baby boy. Because… I’m so attached to my little brother and I felt like that was my real son. And boys, they’re just so, I don’t know… My heart just melts when I see them.
OK, so in the next 10 years, married…
Oh, I will definitely be married.
And two children.
Will you still be working?
I always said there’s no way I could still be doing rap, ‘cause what will I still be talking about? But now that the public has given me this opportunity to do all types of music, I might have more longevity. As long as I can continue to experiment, then I might be doing music in 10 years. I know that I don’t feel like I need to be doing music in 10 years to feel fulfilled. And I don’t want to be one of those people who doesn’t know when to call it quits. Let’s just say that.
How do you measure that? By sales, by hits, popularity?
It’s just about you and your heart. When you’re still relevant to the culture. But who am I to know? I’m only on my second album. Maybe you never get that memo in your brain that tells you, quit it. I would enjoy a career like Jay-Z’s, where he raps because he wants to, not ‘cause he has to. I think that’s the scary part when, after 10 years in the game, people can’t pay their bills and now you’re desperate. And so that’s why I always say, business first.
In some ways hunger is very attractive, but desperation…
Is not. Yes. I love that.
Did you always know what you wanted your brand to be?
I didn’t know who I was as an artist. I knew who I was as a person. My morals and everything, they’re still the same. And then I took it upon myself to create this artist, Nicki Minaj. I wanted to do what a label cannot do. Now, labels are going to think they can re-create this. [Laughs.] But they can’t.
They’re definitely trying. It’s the Nicki Effect. Since the success of Pink Friday you must see that the industry has changed. Corporations see a female rapper who has more visibility and more income streams than her male counterparts. So new female artists are viable, and that creates a more competitive atmosphere.
When I first got in, doing freestyles and mixtapes, I did a song called “Still I Rise.” I was talking about how so many women were pulling me down and ripping me apart. I said, “Every time a door opens for me/That means you just got a better opportunity to do you/Better understand these labels look at numbers and statistics/If I win, you win, it’s just logistics.”
So in order for my theory to be proven right, I have to open doors for women. The up-and-coming females who wanted to get in—when you guys are coming out and dissing me, and all that negativity… They saw me as a threat instead of seeing me as “she’s going to open the door for us.” I never came into what I’m doing dissing anyone. I gave everyone their props and it’s unfortunate that people felt intimidated and attacked me. Then it became a ripple effect. But now it’s all love. My music is a way for me to have fun. Sometimes I’ll say things and I’ll laugh. But it’s all love. I’m in a great place and I just wish everybody the best.
ADDITIONAL CREDITS: (STYLING) Rose Garcia. (SET DESIGN) Phillipp Haemmerle. (HAIR) Terrance Duquette. (MAKEUP) Joyce Bonelli. (CLOTHING) IMAGES ONE, FIVE & SIX: Dress by Obesity and Speed / Shoes by Christian Louboutin / Hat and bracelets by Patricia Field. IMAGES TWO, THREE, FOUR & COVERS: Top by Ralph Lauren Purple Label / Leggings by American Apparel / Shoes by Giuseppe Zanotti / Sunglasses by a-morir by Kerin Rose.