The Curious Case of Nicki Minaj
By Caryn Ganz
Nicki Minaj is a 25-year-old rapper from Queens, New York, with a wickedly clever flow and never-ending supply of pop culture punch lines. Except when she's Roman Zolanski, her gay male alter ego, who spits saucy verses at warp speed. Or the character Nicki Lewinsky, who cozies up to President Carter -- better known as superstar rapper Lil Wayne -- on a handful of salacious mix tape tracks. She raps about signing her fans' boobs in a bugged-out Valley girl accent. She's the first female hip-hop artist to hit number 1 on Billboard's top rap singles chart since 2003. She's stolen the spotlight on songs with pop heavyweights Mariah Carey and Usher. And she's done it all while playing hip-hop's most dangerous game: sexuality roulette.
Minaj may or may not be attracted to women (more on that later), but she draws a fierce gay following with her brazen lyrics and outsize persona. Beneath her blunt-cut bangs lies a cunning mind capable of weaving sports metaphors and references to '80s sitcoms into complex rhymes about scoring with girls and blowing guys' minds. Lady Gaga's audience was primed to accept her as a sexually adventurous nonconformist by artists like Madonna and David Bowie, but in hip-hop, Nicki Minaj is a real space oddity. Rap has never seen a mainstream rising star this eccentric and brave, yet for all Minaj's curious artistic choices (two-tone wigs, spontaneous British dialects, shout-outs to Harry Potter) she's also incredibly popular. She has nearly 1.1 million Twitter followers and a cadre of famous fans like Kanye West, who recently proclaimed she could be the second-biggest rapper of all time, behind Eminem. When her first official album, Pink Friday, arrives in November, Minaj won't just be the 'baddest bitch,' as she calls herself -- she'll be a bona fide phenomenon.
Three years ago, Minaj was an unknown from 50 Cent's neighborhood trying to get noticed on MySpace. Her mom had filled her childhood home with music ('I knew the whole Diana Ross collection before I was 8,' she says), but her father introduced her to violence. On the 2008 track 'Autobiography,' she raps about how her drug-addicted dad tried to burn down the family's house with her mom still inside. Despite the turmoil -- or perhaps because of it -- young Nicki was passionately creative. She wrote her first rhyme before she turned 12 ('Cookie's the name, chocolate chip is the flavor / Suck up my style like a cherry Life Saver') and attended LaGuardia High School, the arts academy immortalized in Fame, where she studied drama and generated plenty of it.
'I was definitely one of those girls where you heard me before you saw me,' Minaj recalls, kicking off a pair of velvety platform heels in a tidy Los Angeles hotel suite and stretching out her calves, which are tightly wrapped in black leather leggings. She pondered careers as a bus driver or lawyer and worked a day job at Red Lobster saving up money for studio time. When she started to get serious about music, her then-manager recommended she change her name to Minaj (she was born Onika Maraj). Though she now admits she hated it, she obliged, tarting up her image for her first mix tape, 2007's Playtime Is Over, which opens with a sex line call to 1-900-MS-MINAJ. After she skillfully remade the Notorious B.I.G.'s 'Warning' for the DVD documentary The Come Up, she got a call from Lil Wayne. Over the course of two more mix tapes under his supervision, 2008's Sucka Free and 2009's Beam Me Up Scotty, she developed ferocious new identities, penned jaw-dropping explicit raps, and emerged as the first lady of Wayne's Young Money crew. She also started to fend off pervy guys stalking her online by playing to her female fans.
'I started making it my business to say things that would empower women, like, 'Where my bad bitches at?' to let them know, 'I'm here for you,' ' she says. 'Then, when I started going to the shows and it was nothing but girls, it was like, Did I go too far with embracing my girls? Because now they want to kiss and hug me.
Minaj may have encouraged all the lady love with lyrics that imply she's sexually flexible -- or at least curious. None of the famous female rappers rumored to be queer have dared utter the L word, but Minaj has used it repeatedly: 'I only stop for pedestrians or a real, real bad lesbian,' she raps on 'Go Hard.' On Usher's 'Lil Freak' she trolls the club for a chick with 'a real big ol' ghetto booty' for a m'nage ' trois, and in the song's video, which has been viewed more than four million times on YouTube, she spends more time rubbing up on a female conquest than she does with its star.