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.
The rhymes brought attention, then rumors, then a denial in the July issue of Black Men magazine that reads remarkably like Bill Clinton's infamous 'I did not have sexual relations with that woman' statement: 'I don't date women and I don't have sex with women.' Nicki Lewinsky laughs at the resemblance and adds almost tauntingly, 'But I don't date men either.' Her bottom line: No labels. 'People who like me -- they'll listen to my music, and they'll know who I am. I just don't like that people want you to say what you are, who you are. I just am. I do what the fuck I want to do.' She likes to beckon ladies to the stage at her shows, brandishing a marker for sweaty boob-signing sessions, but 95% of her racy lyrics are about encounters with men. Adding that she'll grab her best friend's breasts for fun far from paparazzi cameras, she says, 'The point is, everyone is not black and white. There are so many shades in the middle, and you've got to let people feel comfortable with saying what they want to say when they want to say it. I don't want to feel like I've got the gun pointed at my head and you're about to pull the trigger if I don't say what you want to hear. I just want to be me and do me.'
Minaj definitely has a lot to say about the politics of being a woman in the 21st-century music biz. 'Everybody knows I can go out and pick a dude and date him,' she says. 'But I want to do what people think I can't do, which is have the number 1 album in the country and be the first female rapper to sell records like dudes in this day and age.' After taking some heat for identifying with one of the best-selling, and most disproportioned, toys in history'she ends phone calls with a screeched 'It's Barbie, bitch!' -- she was accused of being plastic. 'It's interesting that people have more negative things to say about me saying 'I'm Barbie' than me saying 'I'm a bad bitch,' ' she says, getting a bit heated. 'So you can call yourself a female dog because that's cool in our community. But if you call yourself a Barbie, that's fake.' The criticism didn't just irk her; it inspired her. 'Once I figure something is irritating people, I'm going to do it more,' she says, smiling, 'because I like to get on your nerves until you realize how fucking stupid you are.'
If girls are attracted to Minaj's unapologetic feminism and appreciation for the female body (not to mention her own 'berhot photo shoots), gay guys can't get enough of her over-the-top wardrobe, neck-snapping put-downs, and theatrical play-acting. Hip-hop has always had a flair for the dramatic, from Flavor Flav's oversize clock to the comedic skits tucked between tracks on Wu-Tang Clan and Snoop Dogg albums. But Minaj has taken the art to the next level with her drag-queen-like outfits (she's rocked Wonder Woman spandex and Freddy Krueger nails), wild-eyed rapping, and split personalities. 'Roman is so flamboyant, so outspoken, so open, and, you know, creative,' she says of her inner gay boy Zolanski, which she pronounces 'Zo-lan-sky' with a touch of an East End accent. The name is, of course, a play on director Roman Polanski, but she can't explain why she opted to identify with a white man known for being a deviant. Screwing with sexual conventions has become a Minaj trademark, though: In her guest spot on Mariah Carey's 'Up Out My Face' she calls out a cheating boyfriend who wasn't just two-timing her with another girl -- he was 'sneakin' with the deacon.'
As for her increasingly elaborate looks, Minaj insists, 'No one would even have had the balls before to suggest things like my hair.' She appears in Ludacris's 'My Chick Bad' video with a pin stuck in her pink do, jet-black lipstick, and spikes on her shoulders. She sports a half-pink, half-blonde wig in the clip for Young Money's 'Roger That' because her stylist 'hadn't dyed one half of the wig yet, and I really wanted to wear it.' Though she didn't realize it, these bold choices paired with her frank sex talk were making Minaj an underground gay heroine. She first learned of her gay male following when she spied fans' spot-on renditions of her verses on the Web. She was blown away by the replications of her voices and mannerisms. 'If a gay guy impersonates you, you are a bad bitch. Period,' she says, waving her bright-orange nails in the air. 'There are no ifs, ands, or buts, because they only impersonate the best.'
Hip-hop, however, has never been a hospitable place for gays, especially gay men. Female rappers including Lady Sovereign and Yo! Majesty's Shunda K have revealed they're queer to little fanfare, but the biggest names in the game wouldn't dare broach the subject. 'I think there have been many gay rappers, they just haven't come out of the closet,' Minaj says slyly. 'Yup, lots of them. They're lurking around the industry now.' While she believes we'll see a blockbuster gay rapper fess up soon, Minaj acknowledges it won't be an easy road. 'Obviously, the majority of the men in hip-hop don't want you to think they're gay. That's just the reality of it,' Minaj says. 'I'm a woman, so I have a lot more flexibility. And I don't lose credibility in any way if I say I think girls are dope and sexy.'
Saying girls are sexy and actually having sex with them are very different things, though, putting Minaj at risk of being labeled a 'fauxmosexual' -- someone who uses gay titillation to score pop culture points, like girl-kissing Katy Perry or muffin-bluffing Lady Gaga. While it's clear Minaj enjoys the attention she gets from both men and women for flirting with ladies -- she licked her lips suggestively and batted her eyelashes when a female fan announced she wanted to kiss her on a recent Ustream webcast -- because she's a hip-hop artist, she's gambling with her career, and the stakes are high.
'I still don't think hip-hop has any place for gay people,' says New York City gay rapper Cazwell. Shunda K adds, 'There are a lot of people in the industry fakin' it to make it. When you're not keeping it real, you can be any damn thing people want you to be.' But Cazwell thinks Minaj could go to number 1 even if she had a sudden public revelation about her sexuality. 'If she was butch and dressed like a guy, people would be turned off, but people like a pretty girl no matter who she sleeps with,' he says. 'It may even turn them on more!'
There may be no out MCs selling platinum records at the moment, but as rap has aged, it has moved further from the homophobic battleground where pink F bombs once reigned supreme. Nowadays, comments that could be perceived as gay in hip-hop songs are appended with the somewhat lighthearted phrase 'no homo.' Minaj used to say it, too, but traded it in for the less prejudicial 'pause' after a gay male fan complained to her via Twitter.
''Pause' means 'no sexual connotation intended,'' she explains, inadvertently demonstrating the proper usage when at one point she responds to a question about planning her upcoming tour with 'I'm so freaking, like, anal about every single thing, pause. So it's going to be freaking crazy.'
Minaj's craziness is a big part of her appeal, but as she makes the leap from street records to the mainstream, she risks losing some of the sharp edges that have become her hallmarks. She's toned down her most pornographic lyrics ('I feel like I've been there, done that'), and her chart-topping single 'Your Love' is a gooey R&B ballad in which she sings, 'You got spark, you, you got spunk, you / You got something all the girls want.' Says Jayson Rodriguez, a hip-hop writer for MTV News, ' 'Your Love' is tame and muted, and she's anything but. Nicki Minaj is saucy, lyrical, animated, flirtatious, beautiful, smart -- but she doesn't have a signature song that matches up to that yet. It feels like she'll explode once she gets that massive song that people identify with her on a mainstream level, but sometimes I fear she can't capture her persona on record.'
But Minaj is already prepared to bring her gay fans with her to the next level. Musing about hitting the road with her mentor, Lil Wayne, once he's out of jail, she says, 'Normally, Wayne probably wouldn't have gay guys coming to see his shows much, but they're definitely a big part of my movement, and I hope they'd still come out and see me.' She reveals that Wayne loves discussing how much ladies love her, and that the crew jokes with him, 'Nicki's gonna steal all your girls on tour this year!' She laughs and flashes one of her mischievous smiles that make the boys -- and girls -- swoon. 'I think that will be really, really interesting, just to start bridging that gap. We'll see.'
To view a slide show of photos from our Nicki Minaj cover shoot, as well as an exclusive behind-the-scene video, click here.