The crazy-eyed 25-year-old Lil Wayne protégée (signed to his label, Young Money-Cash Money Records) has a star-studded résumé: Nicki Minaj has made more than 30 scene-stealing guest appearances on tracks and videos by artists like Ludacris, Mariah Carey, and labelmate Drake. So far, she’s only made mix tapes, but a debut album (with help from Swizz Beatz) is on the way; a single, “Your Love,” is already climbing the R&B charts.
Roots: Minaj was born Onika Tanya Maraj in a rough section of Jamaica, Queens. Her dad was an addict who sold the family’s furniture to buy drugs; her mother, a nurse’s aide, struggled to keep a stable home. “To get away from all their fighting, I would imagine being a new person,” Minaj says. “ ‘Cookie’ was my first identity—that stayed with me for a while. I went on to Harajuku Barbie, then Nicki Minaj. Fantasy was my reality. I must have been such a fucking annoying little girl,” she adds with a self-mocking eye roll. “Everywhere we went I was up singing or acting, like, ‘Hey look at me!’ ” She sang in the choir, wrote her first rap at 12, and studied acting at La Guardia high school (she was turned down for singing), where she developed her ongoing obsession with Meryl Streep (she says the only other celeb who would leave her speechless is Judge Judy).
The look: Fluctuates between ghetto-fabulous rap moll, pinup, Japanese anime character, and robot.
The sound: A syncopated growl of off-kilter cultural references and genre-bending zaniness in a dizzying array of accents (Valley Girl, posh Brit, Queens street drawl). Making good use of her childhood role-playing, Minaj raps as Harajuku Barbie, black Miley Cyrus, Nicki the Ninja, and Nicki Lewinsky. In a hilarious TwitVid, Gossip Girl’s Michelle Trachtenberg raps over a Minaj verse from “Shakin’ It 4 Daddy.” Trachtenberg is in love with her style: “She should do an Eminem–8 Mile type of movie, and I’ll play the Mekhi Phifer role.”
Living the life: The potty-mouthed Minaj is a tabloid magnet; type her name into Google, and you’ll find pages of trash talk: She’s bisexual (false); has a beef with Lil’ Kim (false—though Kim certainly has one with her); has a sex tape (false); is addicted to Louis Vuitton (true); is being sued for damages on a rented Lamborghini (true).
Why hip-hop needs her: In the nineties, male rappers recruited female M.C.’s as part of their crew (Jay-Z had Foxy Brown, Notorious B.I.G. had Lil’ Kim, etc.). Missy Elliott’s loose, innovative, and madcap style changed all that; she wasn’t tethered to a male brand. Minaj is the first to offer the decadent swagger of Foxy and the lyric-for-lyric spitting skills of Missy. “She reminds me of myself the way she says whatever she wants however she wants on record, like riddles or funny shit,” says Elliott. “Nicki makes rapping fun again.” She’s certainly got the requisite rap swagger: “I’m the best,” says Minaj. “I chase perfection every day. Why would you want to be second place? That just means you’re the first loser.”