It’s a chilly Los Angeles evening and the rapper Nicki Minaj, having just finished her photo shoot, has traded in her impossibly-high heels for lavender fuzzy slippers as she settles into the studio’s couch in a Bushwick-y stretch of L.A. just south of downtown. She cracks a Coke and a smile, her warm pink lips curling back to reveal her Cheshire Cat grin beneath her white wig, vaguely-Asian eyes and gorgeously chiseled nose. It’s this mix of round-the-way girl and exotic future-vamp that’s made her pop so powerful against the saggy backdrop of hip-hop. “I just know that I’ve always been visual,” she says.
The 25-year-old, born Onika Maraj in Trinidad and raised in Queens, is leaving an impressive lip-blot on the tissue of hip-hop, one ear-popping featured performance at a time.
Minaj rose up through the hip-hop ranks by appearing on over 30 tracks, alongside heavyweights like Ludacris, Drake, Lil’ Wayne and Usher. But her 2009 mixtape, Beam Me Up Scotty, is Minaj 101. On “Still I Rise,” she waxes Eminem-like on a more Elton John-like subject: “And I only stop for pedestrians, or real real bad lesbians.” It’s lines like these that have made her hip-hop’s gayest MC — a Jay-Z for the drag queens, as it were. “I see videos on YouTube where they impersonate me, and they do an amazing freaking job of dressing up as me,” she says. In past interviews she’s mentioned her own bi-curious leanings and has predicted hip-hop will one day embrace its first openly gay artist. But as far as being a gay-positive presence in hip-hop, Minaj insists, “I didn’t set out to do that. I just like to put a spotlight on the people who support me, and it just so happens, you know, that the gay community has supported me — more than I ever could have imagined.”
Credit: Paper Magazine
Follow me @donbleek88
NEXT PAGE: ANOTHER PICTURE AND FULL INTERVIEW/SPREAD
Likewise, she claims it’s a happy accident that her rapping style is as Sybil-ic as it is syllabic, with accents, voices, characters (“Nicki Lewinsky” and Harijiku Barbie” are two favorites), drops in pitch — as though she’s speaking in tongues. “It happened like a lot of things I do — as a mistake,” Minaj explains. “Like the freegin’ clip in my hair in the ‘My Chick Bad’ video with Ludacris. My hairdresser was curling one side and using a clip to hold my hair. I was like, ‘Leave it.’ They all looked at me like I was insane — but that’s something I do. It’s the same thing with my cadences: I’m probably running out of breath or something crazy, and it’s like, ‘This is not going to work.’ But then I’m like, ‘Let me listen,’ and it winds up being magical and I just keep it and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I love it.'”
Minaj can turn heads — as well as a phrase. Her fashion sense has a similarly, um, elliptical quality. This is the woman, after all, whom the New York Times called “the Cindy Sherman of rap.” Minaj says it’s more than a pose, though — it’s fashion as a pillar of hip-hop. Her style, she says, is “hip-hop meets couture meets crazed lunatic…. um, yeah.” When she was younger, she remembers “listening to Biggie talking about Versace. Fashion has just always been a part of hip-hop. We wanna hear what jeans Jay-Z will tell us to wear this year–that’s hot.”
Being an acting student at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (the “Fame school”) really opened her mind. “I saw gay kids, I saw white kids, I saw grunge and pink hair and piercings,” she recalls. “I think because of that, I didn’t put limits on myself or what I was going to put in my raps. I really just wanted to be diverse.”
School also taught her the power of language. She recalls a particularly revelatory assignment reading Othello. “The line was, ‘Tis monstrous’–period. And the second line was, ‘Iago, who done it’ — question mark. Then we read it without punctuation. ‘Tis monstrous Iago who done it,” which basically gives the story away. The fact that punctuation can change what you’re saying, I guess that’s why I love hip-hop — being able to say the same thing but it meaning a different thing,” she says.
Even as a young girl, Minaj recalls, “I remember having my older cousin keep repeating Slick Rick’s ‘Children’s Story’ so I could learn it. I wanted to know Left Eye’s rap on ‘Waterfalls.’ When Jay-Z rapped about ‘calling an audible,’ I knew what he meant. That’s what excited me about rapping. We’re talking about our hood, but you can be intelligent and witty with it, you can do whatever. I just like when people show their intelligence within hip-hop.”
Her non-street smarts were perceived as a liability when she started recording around the New York hip-hop scene. “My first manager told me, ‘Stop playing around with your words, stop being funny, nobody’s going to take you seriously. You shouldn’t sound smart,'” she says, shifting in her seat. “I don’t know. I just started saying things.”
Appearances on the hip-hop DVD series The Come Up four years ago led to a Lil’ Wayne-like flurry of mixtapes and featured appearances, leading, not surprisingly, to Lil’ Wayne signing her to his label, Young Money. Now with her debut album, Pink Friday, ready to drop in November, her next act, she says, is to connect emotionally with listeners in a way her scenery-chewing appearances never could. “This album is my heart and soul. This is me explaining every single relationship that I’ve ever been in and explaining it in a way that every woman in this world can understand it.” It’s hard to imagine this hip-hop Lady Gaga getting emo, and let’s face it, the singles so far, “Massive Attack” and “Your Love,” haven’t quite nailed what she claims next-level Nicki Minaj will sound like. But she’s been pretty good at predicting the future so far.
“Three years ago, all my underground hip-hop heads thought I was crazy when I said this would happen but… it will happen,” she says perfunctorily. Then in a voice that starts Grace Jones, slips into Bette Davis and winds up Nicki from Queens, she makes her final announcement: “I’m going to be in Tokyo, Paris–I’m going to go everywhere you can imagine. I’m going to own London. I mean, the sky’s the limit and you watch what I say. I refuse to lose. I don’t know how to lose.” ★
Top photo: Jacket by Rami Kashou and pants by Andy & Debb. Bottom photo: Top by Rami Kashou, pants by Andy & Debb, gloves by Gasper and ring by Stephen Webster.
Styled by: Niki Schwan
Hair: Terrence Davidson
Makeup: Day with Buddafly Inc.
Stylist’s assistants: Maeve Reilly and Quentin
Photographer’s assistant: Stephanie Segura