Sat, Nov 20, 2010 at 9:38 PM
Nicki Minaj: The BillBoard Cover Story
On the surface, Nicki Minaj is a cartoon: a vivacious, va-va-va-voom 26-year-old girly girl with a fondness for silly voices, hip-hugging Barbie-doll costumes, anime facial expressions and day-glo accessories.
But three years ago, Minaj, born Onika Maraj and raised in Jamaica, Queens, was just another tough, street-wise, potty-mouthed chick who couldn't keep a job.
"The last job I had was as an office manager in a little, tiny room where I literally wanted to strangle this guy because he was so loud and obnoxious," Minaj recalls. "I would go home with stress pains in my neck and my back. That's when I went to my mother and said, 'Look, I'm not going back to work.' I'd been fired like 15 times because I had a horrible attitude. I worked at Red Lobster before that and I chased a customer out of the restaurant once so I could stick my middle finger up at her and demand that she give me my pen back. I swear to God I was bad."
Thankfully, Minaj has found a much more productive way to channel her fury. After being discovered by rapper Lil Wayne a couple of years ago off the strength of a street DVD appearance and becoming the first lady of his Young Money crew, Minaj has become one of rap's most attention-grabbing MCs and this decade's Queen Bee.
Now, three mixtapes -- including 2009's highly touted "Beam Me Up, Scotty" -- and a slew of guest appearances later, Minaj is set to release her solo debut album, "Pink Friday," on Nov. 23 through Young Money/Cash Money/Universal Motown.
The album straddles the lines between boisterous hip-hop ("Roman's Revenge," "Did It on 'Em"), glossy pop ("Check It Out," "Your Love") and vulnerable R&B ("Right Thru Me," "Here I Am"). The set boasts an eclectic roster that includes Will.i.am, Drake, Rihanna, Kanye West and Natasha Bedingfield and features production from West, Swizz Beatz, Bangladesh, Drew Money and Oak.
"When I started rapping, people were trying to make me like the typical New York rapper, but I'm not that," Minaj says. "No disrespect to New York rappers, but I don't want people to hear me and know exactly where I'm from. I wanted the album to be universal and versatile. It really feels like it speaks for every one of my personalities."
Her multiple characters are indeed present on the set. In a matter of bars, Minaj switches effortlessly from the toned-down Onika to the energetic Nicki and then to her tempestuous alter ego, Roman Zolanski. She tosses off British and Jamaican accents, animal-like growls, breathy vocals and rapid-fire rhymes with the blink-and-you'll-miss-it speed of a 14-year-old girl thumbing a text message in homeroom.
Minaj first displayed her playful, animated side when she appeared in Gucci Mane's 2009 video "Five Star Chick" -- her first time on a video set. "My hands just went on my hips and I became like a doll. I had never done that before or planned to do it -- it just happened," she says. "After that I would go to shows and girls in the audience would do the whole 'Five Star Chick' dance. Afterward I thought, 'Maybe I'm on to something.' "
And she was. Minaj began dubbing herself the Harajuku Barbie and, borrowing a page from pop star Lady Gaga, created a unique virtual club for her fans by naming them "Barbz."
Nicki Minaj and Will.i.am Drop 'Check It Out' Video
Producer/collaborator Will.i.am says Minaj's eccentricity helped her stand out among the masses. "There are a lot of artists in the world. The Internet is flooded with every single thing in the world. But she is different. She's unique, and she's busted through all the noise," he says.
Indeed, no rapper has stretched the boundaries of hip-hop quite like Minaj has in the last two years. Aside from her sex appeal and fashion sense, she's become one of music's most in-demand collaborators, recording with Rihanna, Usher, Ludacris, Mariah Carey, Robin Thicke, Sean Kingston, Trey Songz, Christina Aguilera and labelmates Drake and Lil Wayne, among many others.
Chart Beat: Nicki Minaj Earns Her First No. 1 Rap Song
During the week ending June 26, she had more songs on the Billboard Hot 100 (four) than any other artist, becoming the first female rapper to accomplish the feat. And Minaj's "Your Love" was the first single by a female rapper to reach No. 1 on Billboard's Rap chart in seven years. Ironically, Minaj dethroned current nemesis Lil Kim -- more on that later -- who was the last female rapper to hit the top, in June 2003, with her cameo on 50 Cent's "Magic Stick." In a generally grave year for artist development, Minaj is one of few new acts -- alongside B.o.B and Mumford & Sons -- who can claim legitimate breakthrough status in 2010.