THROUGHOUT HER CAREER, Minaj has demonstrated a discipline and intelligence that is rare among other pop stars of her generation. She has what she describes to me as “the X-factor, which is just the thing you can’t put into words.” Onika Tanya Maraj was born in Saint James, Trinidad and Tobago, in 1982, and immigrated to Queens, N.Y., with her family at the age of 5. She began her music career singing with various rappers and working odd jobs. When she waitressed, she wrote lyrics constantly on the notepad she used to take orders. There is genuine pleasure in her voice as she reminisces about this. “I would take people’s order and then a rap might come to me just by what they’re wearing or what they said or did, and I would go in the kitchen and write it down, put it in the back of my little thing or my apron, and by the time I was done I would have all of these sheets of paper thrown around everywhere with raps.”
Since then, her career has been a checklist of milestones. In 2009, she was the first woman artist signed to Young Money, the label founded by Lil Wayne. Three mixtapes and three studio albums — “Pink Friday” in 2010, “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded” in 2012 and “The Pink Print” in 2014 — followed, and in March 2017, Minaj surpassed Aretha Franklin for the most appearances (76) by a woman on the Billboard Hot 100, a record Franklin had held for almost 40 years. She is the rare hip-hop artist who has successfully and sustainably crossed over into pop music. Minaj, M.I.A. and Madonna performed their single, “Give Me All Your Luvin,” at the 2012 Super Bowl. Days later she performed solo at the Grammy Awards. Her dance song “Starships” went platinum six times over. She even collaborated with Ariana Grande on 2016’s song “Side to Side,” and while the pairing was unexpected given Grande’s previously wholesome image, the song went triple platinum. Minaj does not temper her swagger or sexuality. Sometimes, when I am daydreaming, I marvel at the phrases “dick bicycle” and “If you wanna ménage I got a tricycle” from “Side to Side,” which are so damn clever and funny and vulgar but also accurate as hell for a song Grande once described as being “about riding leading to soreness.”
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Minaj’s music is characterized by urgent lyrics, spitting in a range of voices and accents. Her rhymes range from bold and aggressive, to coquettish, to wanton and sultry, with a soupçon of women’s empowerment. The pace of her rapping is often breathless but her diction is impeccable. There is wit and sly humor in her work. Take the 2014 single “Only” where Minaj raps, “My man full, he just ate, I don’t duck nobody but tape/ Yeah, that was a setup for a punch line on duct tape.” She quite simply broadened the definition of hip-hop, making it more joyful, energetic and robust.
Nicki Minaj is also coming down with a cold. Yes, I know what I did there, but it also happens to be true. When we meet, she has just missed a rehearsal for an upcoming performance at Philipp Plein’s runway show because of the encroaching sickness, and is medicating herself with Theraflu, NyQuil and rest. Having to fly to New York did not help. Minaj was in Miami (where she now spends most of her time) working on her fourth studio album, the title of which is, for now, a well-kept secret but is “super, super iconic.”
That studio time begot the beginnings of her cold — the air-conditioning always blasting, shutting off, blasting again — a vicious cycle of climate control. Minaj ended up spending two nights in the studio because it was one of those sessions where she was able to “write and record and listen back and have excitement in all three of those stages.”
It took a long time to get to that place, Minaj tells me, and now, “sonically, I know what the album’s about to sound like. I know what this album is gonna mean to my fans. This album is everything in my life coming full circle and me being truly, genuinely happy. It feels almost like a celebration. The last album, ‘The Pink Print,’ was almost like my diary, closing the chapter on certain things and not knowing if I was happy or sad about beginning new chapters. I was really writing about feeling unsure. Now, I can tell you guys what happened for the last two years of my life. I know who I am. I am getting Nicki Minaj figured out with this album and I’m loving her.”
MINAJ’S PUBLIC IMAGE and personas are carefully curated. The tabloids have assiduously tracked her professional and personal lives and I restrain myself from asking about her ex Safaree Samuels, who appears on “Love & Hip Hop,” a reality television series about the music industry, and if she would ever give Drake a shot. (I restrain myself greatly.) I don’t know that anyone but her inner circle knows who Nicki Minaj really is.
This elusiveness is compounded by her fascinating catalog of performative alter egos, including Harajuku Barbie (a fashionista obsessed with pink and Minaj’s longest-running persona), Nicki Teresa (known as “The Healer”) and the sexually explicit Nicki Lewinsky — there is even a male persona, Roman Zolanski, a slightly exaggerated version of Minaj herself. She has a vocal range that can go from a high-pitched twittering to a growl in a few bars. In both music and regular conversation, she enjoys playing with accents, offering up valley girl-speak or island patois. During our time together, she switched to a British accent a couple of times and then effortlessly returned to her normal voice, a slightly affectless cadence that recalls her Queens upbringing. In public, she often wears dramatic makeup, dramatic outfits and a rainbow of dramatic wigs, which is to say she performs both on- and offstage. There is no point during our conversation where Minaj demonstrates anything but absolute self-awareness. She pauses briefly before she answers my questions, as if calculating every possible outcome to everything she says. By the end of the interview, I am impressed by her fierce intelligence.
But she’s at her most animated and unguarded when she’s talking about music, and she thinks about music in deep and complex ways. She has strong opinions on what’s necessary to make a great rapper: “Do you sound intelligent? Does your flow switch up? Are you in command of the beat? I listen for things like that.” Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Foxy Brown — “Those are the three I keep in my head when I’m writing because they’ve influenced me so much,” she says. “I feel like I’m a part of all of them.”
I’m curious about whom Minaj thinks she’s influenced herself. She tells me that around two years ago, Kanye West said to her, “ ‘Every girl I hear rap, I can hear Nicki in her rap.’ I didn’t ask him who, but that was such a great compliment. Because sometimes you think you’re the only one that can hear those types of things.”
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It feels like Minaj is on the verge of another big moment in her career, and she knows it. “This is definitely the most inspired and free and excited I’ve been since I started releasing albums through a label,” she says. She is also deeply reflective about her evolution as an artist. I ask if the transition from making mixtapes to studio albums compromises the joy of creation and she answers, “Yeah, because ... artists do it to themselves. I’m not going to blame a label. You just overthink. When you’re doing your own little thing, you feel like, I can be myself, I can be crazy. When you start working with a record company, you start thinking you need a bigger sound. I wanted to get back to the place where I wasn’t second-guessing things so much. Sometimes simple is O.K.”
I ask her what it has taken to get to this place of newfound confidence and trusting her instincts. “I believe in my gift wholeheartedly,” she says. But this self-assurance was not easy to come by. “Sometimes I wake up and say, ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore,’ you know? I’ve had those times. I’ve had those years where I’m just like, ‘Am I good enough?’ ” But she believes in her “ability to withstand what would break the normal girl,” she says.
At this point in her career, Minaj is able to reconcile, somewhat, her struggles. “I kind of love that I’ve had to go through so many hurdles to get where I am because I feel like I deserve it.” She is frank about what she has been up against. “I had so much going against me in the beginning: being black, being a woman, being a female rapper. No matter how many times I get on a track with everyone’s favorite M.C. and hold my own, the culture never seems to want to give me my props as an M.C., as a lyricist, as a writer. I got to prove myself a hundred times, whereas the guys that came in around the same time as I did, they were given the titles so much quicker without anybody second-guessing.”
I am struck by these words because I’ve heard similar sentiments from other successful women in male-dominated industries — this sense that their endurance and perseverance contribute to their greatness. But, above all, Minaj has persevered because she is always in control of her craft. Neither her work nor her success are accidental. When we finish talking and I make my exit, there are more people in the hallway, waiting for their time with her. She remains in command of the beat.