The Rise and Rise of Nicki Minaj

The Rise and Rise of Nicki Minaj


The Tough-Talking, One-Upping, Bodacious, Curvaceous Nicki Minaj Is Taking Music To Places Cooler and More Colorful Than Ever. And In the Boy's Club Of 21st-Century Hip Hop, She's Stolen Every Scene to Become the Genre's Barbie-Pink Princess. Secretly, Though, She's Gunning For the Queen


The Tough-Talking, One-Upping, Bodacious, Curvaceous Nicki Minaj Is Taking Music To Places Cooler and More Colorful Than Ever. And In the Boy's Club Of 21st-Century Hip Hop, She's Stolen Every Scene to Become the Genre's Barbie-Pink Princess. Secretly, Though, She's Gunning For the Queen

Photography: Inez & Vinoodh

Styling: George Cortina

Text: Knox Robinson

During a radio interview last summer in support of Kanye West’s new single, “Monster”—a psych-rap posse track featuring Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, and indie-folk singer Bon Iver—West declared Minaj to be “the scariest artist in the game right now—she has the most potential to be the number two rapper of all time.” (Number one, in Kanye’s mind, being Eminem.) It was the kind of outré pronouncement we’ve come to expect from West, but nevertheless the sound bite set off serious reverberations in the rap community. Nicki Minaj…the funny face with the Day-Glo wigs, bounteous curves, and multiple personalities? Number two rapper of all time? In old-school hip hop circles the idea could be considered profane.

But halfway through 2010, Minaj was enjoying heavy buzz following a series of underground mixtapes and a record for the most simultaneous entries in the Billboard Hot 100 by a female MC, with six of those seven singles featuring her as the guest on records by men. “$50K for a verse, no album out!” she rapped on “Monster,” with the rest of her lacerating lyrics besting all the dudes assembled on the track. She was in demand and she knew it. And by the time she did have an album out—her debut, Pink Friday, was released on Universal Motown at the end of November—the mainstream music press had already anointed her the new queen of hip hop.

And yet, the coronation was somewhat beside the point; Minaj was already moving swiftly beyond the confines of the genre. “I don’t look at myself as a female rapper anymore,” she says. “Nothing I’m doing right now is expected if you look at the last five years of female rap.” Minaj tore into the rap game with tight rhymes that earned her respect from the scene’s top dogs (Kanye, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Drake) and she has come very far very fast, shrugging off accepted rap themes and archetypes to arrive, it would seem, fully formed: a quick-witted, technically flawless MC with a delirious supply of wild hairpieces, a sexy swagger, and fiery lyrics delivered via multiple personae and phony put-on accents. Her occasional missteps are applauded as signs of authenticity, and her only beef of note—a one-sided hate parade courtesy of Lil’ Kim—merely served to underscore the brittle, faded glamour of her antagonist. Minaj remains a daily staple of the urban music and gossip sites because as a confection she is endlessly consumable. We can’t get enough of her.

Born Onika Tanya Maraj in Trinidad and raised in Queens, Minaj emerged on the NYC mixtape-–street DVD scene as a tough-talking rapper stylistically tied to the late ’90s era of Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim. Just a few years ago, her look was more outer borough than high fashion; nail salons, stuntastical street bikes, and oversize gold bamboo earrings served as the visual tableaux of her DIY videos. “All I wanna do is party/rock some Ed Hardy,” she rapped on one track. She sounded like she was trying hard not to be bored.

“In the beginning I felt very controlled,“ Minaj says. “When you’re a new artist—especially when you’re female—everyone thinks they know everything. Everybody wants to be Daddy and feel some empowerment or joy when they can tell a female what to do. All girls are multifaceted, but women artists stifle themselves, or are stifled by others who tell them that you can only be one thing and you can’t change from that thing—that’s all you are. Starting out I can’t remember what it was that I had to look like per se, but I felt boxed in.”

Things began to change for Minaj in 2009, when signing to Lil Wayne’s Cash Money label lifted her away from the scraps of the underground rap scene. Presumably the influence of the perpetually drug- and sex-addled Wayne helped Minaj chart her own weird trajectory, and she began to pull in disparate references to inform her sound and vision. She built a hot-pink adolescent dreamworld of Barbie dolls and dress-up games, then fused it with her own rubbery brand of good girl–bad girl sexuality. It was all accessorized with neon wigs and futuristic footwear. (“I love Giuseppe [Zanotti],” she admits. “Giuseppe always has my size.”) She called herself—her brand—Harajuku Barbie. It was, in street parlance, all the way turned out. And young fans flocked to her with intensity and allegiance.

Minaj refers to her rabid fan base as Barbs and Ken Barbs. They’re out at all her promo appearances and rigorously maintain sites that dissect her every look. You can see them on YouTube falling out and hyperventilating during first listens to Pink Friday (in matching M.A.C lipstick of the same name) and fighting over the last copies of CDs in the mall. Her Twitter @replies are a Greek chorus that sings mainly in Nickinese—words from the Nicktionary.

“We’ve become a little family now,” she says of the Barb and Ken Barb masses. “My hard-core fans know that everything I do has been approved by me personally. That’s very important to me—and to them. Even though my team is mostly made up of guys, none of them would ever think about telling me what to wear or what to do with my hair. I ask for my team’s opinion, but they know that ultimately I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do.” “I’ve definitely had hits and misses,” she admits. “But that’s the beauty of fashion.” She still shudders at the thought of her first appearance on BET’s video countdown show 106 & Park. “All of it, the hair, the corset, the Barbie accessories was too-fucking-much-dot-com,” she says dryly. “I looked like I was blind for the day and just walked onstage.”

Now, just in the wake of her debut album, Minaj is deadly serious about not taking it all too seriously. “I’m an entertainer—I like to make people laugh,” she says. “Some will hate it and some will love it, but all will remember it. And that’s what I want: to be remembered. Even if I’m saying something hard-core or controversial, there’s always a touch of humor, and if you don’t like it, it means I’m stirring things up inside of you.” At the same time, there’s a lot going on inside the artist’s own head. “I just always want to do ‘me,’ but ‘me’ changes every day. I would crumple up and die if I had to wake up and be the same person every day. I don’t silence those voices anymore. I just let them speak.”

Nicki Minaj in New York, October 2010

Credits: Makeup Peter Philips for Chanel  Hair Christiaan using Kiehl’s  Manicure Deborah Lippmann for (The Magnet Agency)  Lighting technician Jodokus Driessen  Digital technician Brian Anderson  Studio manager Marc Kroop  Photo assistants Shoji Van Kuzumi and Joe Hume  Stylist assistants Jamie Waxman, Gabriela Langone, Grace Koo  Makeup assistant Emiko Ayabe  Hair assistant Taku Sugawara  Location Pier 59 Studios, New York  Special thanks Tony Jay  Printing Box


Runway: Chanel