Pop Culture

Nicki Minaj: The new queen of hip-hop

For the umpteenth time today, Nicki Minaj is applying a thick layer of bright-pink gloss to her pouty lips, regarding herself regally in a plastic-backed hand mirror. "I'm not used to wearing my makeup for hours and hours," the rapper says. "It makes my face feel like bleh." She had been sweetly perky all day, but now she's turned sullen, hiding under a cute straw hat. As her chauffeured SUV crawls toward Santa Monica, Minaj is revving up for a diva temper tantrum. "You've got to be paying attention," she snarls at her assistant, who just gave the driver questionable directions to a strip-mall Chinese restaurant.

The driver thinks she's talking to him, and turns around to protest. Under the shadow cast by her hat, Minaj rolls her big, dark, green-rimmed eyes. "I'm not talking to you, sir," she says (it comes out "tawking" — she moved to Jamaica, Queens, from her birthplace of Trinidad circa age five). "Would you please just leave me alone? I'm talking to him!" She's still staring in the mirror, still working on the lips.

It's 4 p.m., and Minaj, 25, hasn't eaten since breakfast. She slept four hours last night, which is more than she's used to. Minaj is on an endless promotional tour behind "Pink Friday," her debut album — which should cement her status as hip-hop's leading female artist, and the hottest new rapper this side of her friend Drake.

In August, she capped off two years of song-stealing guest appearances (collaborating with everyone from Mariah Carey to Gucci Mane) with an astonishing verse on Kanye West's "Monster": She leaps between styles, voices and personas from bar to bar, rapping with a crazed fury that's like Ol' Dirty Bastard multiplied by Busta Rhymes. It's become her signature trick — as if she's determined to make up for the lack of female voices in hip-hop by providing five or six of them herself.

West was impressed. "The scariest artist in the game right now is Nicki Minaj," he said. "She has the most potential out of everyone to be the number-two rapper of all time, 'cause nobody's gonna be bigger than Eminem." Eminem offered his own endorsement of Minaj, guesting on the unhinged "Friday" single "Roman's Revenge."

But Minaj's key patron was Lil Wayne, who signed her to his label, Young Money, in 2009, serving as her mentor. The label took its time releasing a Minaj album, letting her build her reputation through mixtapes and guest appearances — the same strategy that made Wayne a superstar before the release of 2008's "Tha Carter III." By this October, Minaj was on seven singles in the Hot 100 at once.

On one level, Minaj's multiple personalities, her ability to shift midsentence from girly sweetness to a guttural growl, reflect her drama training: She graduated from LaGuardia Arts high school, a.k.a. the "Fame" school. In an unguarded moment earlier in the day, she talked about how hard she practices her verses: "I hate to do a cold read in the booth," she said, sounding distinctly show-bizzy. She's proud that she and Drake — a former star of the Canadian teen show "Degrassi: The Next Generation" — are offering a different face for hip-hop. "At one time, you had to sell a few kilos to be considered a credible rapper," she says. "But now it's like Drake and I are embracing the fact that we went to school, we love acting, we love theater, and that's OK — and it's especially good for the black community to know that's OK, that's embraced."

Minaj's actual personality can be hard to nail down. "One minute I'm the innocent kid sister, and the next minute I'm screaming with 18 heads," she says later. "I definitely think life imitates art, or art imitates life. People used to tell me, 'What is wrong with you? You'll just sit there and think and get yourself depressed.' I've always been a thinker."

As the driver pulls into the strip mall to finally get her some food, she's already cooling down. She giggles when a fellow passenger warns the driver to watch a small child walking in the lot: "That's all we need right now." Minaj has lived in L.A. for months, but she hasn't seen much of the city besides her apartment and the recording studio where she worked on "Pink Friday." She doesn't allow herself time to do anything but work: Her five-year plan includes a film career, a perfume line, a clothing line and maybe records that feature her singing as much as rapping. "There's this fear of not being perfect," she says. "There's some songs I just won't write because I'm afraid of it not meeting my expectation of what I know that song could be. I don't compete with other people, I compete with myself."

She has little trouble locating the source of her ambition. "When I first came to America," she says, "I would go in my room and kneel down at the foot of my bed and pray that God would make me rich so that I could take care of my mother. Because I always felt like if I took care of my mother, my mother wouldn't have to stay with my father, and he was the one, at that time, that was bringing us pain. We didn't want him around at all, and so I always felt like being rich would cure everything, and that was always what drove me."

Minaj's father, she says, had problems with drugs and alcohol, sold the family's possessions for drugs, abused her mother, and once set their house on fire while her mom was inside. "I remember there being a lot of arguing, lots of screaming — there were holes punched into the walls in anger," she says, "and cops being called to the house all the time. I was disappointed in my father, I just wanted him to be Daddy and be the happy person that I remembered, and I was afraid, very afraid, that something would happen to my mother. I had nightmares about it." Her parents still live together, and her father isn't happy about her airing his past — she rapped vividly about it on the early track "Autobiography." "It's the price you pay when you abuse drugs and alcohol," she says. "Maybe one day your daughter will be famous and talk to every magazine about it, so think about that, dads out there who want to be crazy."

Minaj sends her assistant, a stylish young dude known as S.B., to get her shrimp with garlic sauce. "The food is straight garbage in L.A.," S.B. says. "Like garbage from the garbage." The ever-present S.B. has been rumored to be her boyfriend — in one of the popular urban-gossip site MediaTakeOut's constant posts about her, it even suggested they were married (the site is also suspicious of Minaj's bounteous curves, recently running a photo that's purportedly from "before she got any of her implants"). "He's not my boyfriend," Minaj says. "I can't believe you came out and asked me that! He's one of my best friends from home. I'm gonna fire him, though." She laughs. Maybe she's kidding.

"You shouldn't hire your friends," she continues, pensively. "But it's good to have someone around who knows you for you." Does she know herself anymore? She looks down at her nails, painted dark purple for West's "Monster" video. On her wrist is a watch with a round face — tiny diamonds float inside, snow-globe-style. "It's all a blur sometimes," she says.

Hours earlier, Minaj walks into a small studio at the Los Angeles pop station KIIS FM, and the teenage girls sitting cross-legged on the floor immediately lose their minds, shrieking with an intensity seldom heard since "TRL" went off the air. This is Minaj's core fan base, her "Barbs" — short for Barbie, one of her own self-applied nicknames. As a DJ interviews Minaj, one girl screams spontaneously every couple of minutes. "I just love her so much," she yelps. A girl in the front row, a brunette in a glittery top, stares unblinkingly at her, as if willing herself to change places with her.

At the same time, Minaj is also staring at herself: S.B. handed her a fan's copy of a magazine that seems to be devoted entirely to sexy Nicki Minaj pictures, and she's captivated. It's hard to blame her, or the fans: Though she's only five feet one, there's an outsize, cartoonish quality to Minaj's good looks, even without the pink and blond wigs and dangerously tight outfits she wears onstage ("Nicki Minaj" was already a popular Halloween costume this year). Today she's dressed down, and her outfit has a vaguely Stevie Nicks flavor: distressed jeans, Pocahontas boots, a suede jacket cut to expose skin at the sleeves. On the floor beside her is her large pink leather backpack, which matches her lip gloss.

At the beginning of her career, Minaj resorted to a common female-rapper tactic, presenting herself as a polymorphously perverse superfreak ("Got that Supersoaker pussy," she rapped on Gucci Mane's 2008 song "Slumber Party"). She claimed to be bisexual, but now says, "I think girls are sexy, but I'm not gonna lie and say I date girls." But then she began to realize that she especially appeals to young girls. "I don't want to say she had an identity crisis," says Young Money president Mack Maine. "But she didn't know if she should stop cursing."

Says Minaj, "Once I got into the arenas, I felt uncomfortable saying, 'Where my bad bitches at?' because people were bringing their eight-year-old daughter. Is the eight-year-old going to say, 'Yeah, Nicki Minaj, I'm a bad bitch'? So now when I go up there I say, 'Where's my Barbies at?'?" On "Pink Friday," she keeps the sex talk to a minimum. "Sex is the last thing on my mind right now anyway," she says — although her photo shoots are still steamy. "Pictures are different. You can be a whore in your pics."

Minaj used to present herself as "Nicki Lewinsky" to Wayne's "President Carter," but her agenda is now unapologetically feminist. "I am not Jasmine, I am Aladdin," she proclaims on "Roman's Revenge." "I have the same power as these boys," she says. "I have the same magic carpet. There's nothing different between me and them except they have a twig and berries, and I don't. I no longer feel lesser than; I don't want my girls to feel that way. I want them to feel that, even if you have a nine-to-five, if you grow up to be vice president of the company, you should earn the same thing the male vice president earned. You should demand the same thing."

Some of Minaj's predecessors aren't feeling especially sisterly, however: Lil' Kim, in particular, has lashed out repeatedly at the younger woman. In turn, Minaj, without using her name, eviscerates her on "Roman's Revenge": "Shoulda sent a thank-you note, you lil' ho — now I'm a wrap your coffin with a bow." "Every great rapper has a great sense of humor," Minaj says. "I think that I obviously pull from Lil Wayne and people like Jay; they're great. I also pull from comedians like Larry David — he has a lot of sarcasm."

That weekend, Minaj is flying to Miami to celebrate Lil Wayne's release from prison, and then on across the country to visit more radio stations. There's no end in sight. "What does 'Enjoy your success' mean? People always tell me that, and it's like they want me to go on an island and go swimming in a Jacuzzi, but that's not what I enjoy," she says, looking irritated. "I enjoy being able to provide for my mother, being able to put my nieces through college. This is stressful, but I wouldn't trade it for the world. Sometimes you want to get a couple of extra hours of sleep, but this is just the beginning. We're just getting started."

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