In a manicured cul-de-sac in LA’s Baldwin Hills, Nicki Minaj’s matte black Maybach lurks in the shimmering heat – doors flung open to let the still air circulate and privacy curtains pulled back. The $500,000 car cuts an imposing silhouette against the mid-century home where its owner is posing for today’s shoot. In the driveway, her personal chauffeur, bodyguard and day-to-day manager keep watch, hovering patiently while Minaj acts the suburban housewife inside.
Ripping off yellow rubber gloves in order to slip into a Balmain two-piece, Minaj insists the scenario isn’t quite the American daydream that it seems. “I’m in a surreal world, but I’m so normal in it,” she says, striding across the yard in gold Giuseppe Zanotti heels. “Most people that I know in the industry have maids, housekeepers, ten bodyguards and a masseuse with them at all times. Everyone around me is like, ‘You’re so much more low-key than I thought!’ But I don’t like going out, I don’t like crowds, I don’t like clubs. If I do have downtime, I prefer to be in the house cooking West Indian food and watching my DVR.”
After a few hours of tense outfit changes, the 31-year-old heads back to her trailer to unwind after a day playing a hyperreal homemaker. In person, she has a presence that belies her tiny 5’2” frame, giving off a vibe of steely authority that hums louder than the trailer’s aircon. Curled up on a paisley couch, brushing out her demure Veronica Lake waves, Minaj says she has every intention to “stop what I’m doing and be a mother and wife. But not yet.” Before she can settle down to a life of quiet domesticity, Minaj wants to release five albums in total. “I have to make 500 million dollars first,” she says. “That figure has been in my brain for a long time. I want to be the female who earned the same amount of money that the Jay Zs and the Puffys were able to earn. I feel like when I reach my 500-million-dollar goal” – she pauses to cackle at the Monopoly-money sum, teeth bared – “then no other woman in rap will ever feel like they can’t do what these men have done.”
“I feel like when I reach my 500-million-dollar goal, then no other woman in rap will ever feel like they can’t do what these men have done” – Nicki Minaj
Minaj is gearing up for the release of her third studio album, The PinkPrint, and she says she’s feeling powerful. It’s been over two years since Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, and the hiatus has given her a new perspective on her career. “I realised that my voice is very important to pop culture. It’s very important to hip hop culture. It’s just…very important,” she says. “I can’t stop; I have to complete this mission. When I came into the game, I said I wanted to be a mogul, and a lot of my fans want to see that come to fruition.”
In the video for 2012’s “I Am Your Leader”, Minaj reclined in a bubble bath with an acid-green Marilyn Monroe bob and told the world: “I’m a brand, bitch, I’m a brand”. She wasn’t being hyperbolic. Today Nicki Minaj Inc encompasses 5 million global album sales, 63 award nominations, and one of the best-selling US singles of all time in “Super Bass”, which went 8x platinum. Minaj has put her name to a M.A.C cosmetics line, an OPI nail polish collection, a clothing line with American retail giant Kmart, a portfolio of fragrances, and a range of fruit-infused moscato wines – details of which can all be found in the gloriously titled online encyclopedia, Wiki Minaj. In 2013, her Minajesty – to borrow the title of one of her six perfumes – made an estimated $29m, placing her at number four on Forbes’s annual round-up of the highest paid hip hop acts in the world. She was the only female included on the tally.
She began to put her Hip Hop Cash Kings collaborators in the shade with several well-placed features in 2009 and 2010, and her dotty “salt all around that rim rim rim rim” schtick. On her dazzling landmark verse on Kanye West’s “Monster”, alongside Rick Ross and Jay Z, she switched from comic book prankster to menacing rap diva with the spectacle of a shape-shifting superhero. She winked at her wealth (“Tonka, colour of Willy Wonka”), rap dominance (“automobile gangsta”), and her homegirl M.I.A., the “bad bitch that came from Sri Lanka.” It was a career-defining verse, but does she rank it as her best? “‘Monster’ was great because two of the greatest MCs of all time were on the track,” Minaj smiles, “But ‘Roman’s Revenge’, bar for bar, is more of a massacre. It was witty, it was skilled, it was punchline after punchline after punchline! It featured Eminem. When I listen now, I can’t really believe it – that record took fucking balls.” On the track, she manically huffs and puffs like a dungeon dragon, roars against Slim Shady and declares herself not Jasmine but Aladdin. In case you were in any doubt, this princess doesn’t need rescuing.
Minaj’s versatility has enabled her to swoop between hard hip hop and syrupy pop since the early days of her career, never as geniusly calculated for radio domination as this summer’s belting “Bang Bang”, co-billing with Jessie J and Ariana Grande. But she’s counterbalanced this with 2014’s annihilating “Lookin Ass”, features on Beyoncé’s “***Flawless” and YG’s “My Nigga” remix, and self-leaked unofficial remixes of Young Thug’s “Danny Glover” and Rae Sremmurd’s viral “No Flex Zone”. As her projects have diversified, so too have the magpie-like references in her rhymes. The murderous opening of “Chi-Raq” (feat Lil Herb) – “Ain’t yelling cut when it’s shootin’ time” – is possibly the only time a line has referred to packing heat as well as a Cameron Diaz rom-com (The Other Woman, in which Minaj co-starred). She insists that she’s mainly listening to reggae these days while working, but her choices of beats and collaborators suggest she keeps one eye on WorldStarHipHop, and both ears to the streets.
Born Onika Tanya Maraj in Saint James, Trinidad, on December 8, 1982, Minaj can’t really recall a time when she couldn’t hold her own. “I’ve always been brave,” she says, admitting that her confidence was bolstered by having a mother who “made me feel like I could do anything.” When Minaj was five, the family emigrated to Jamaica, Queens, and she learned to stand her ground in the hostile terrain of an unfamiliar school playground. “I can always remember standing up to the baddest girls in my elementary school. Wherever I went, there was always a mean girl, and that girl would always hate me because I wouldn’t bow down."
“Wherever I went, there was always a mean girl, and that girl would always hate me because I wouldn’t bow down” – Nicki Minaj
As a teenager at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School (the performing arts school that inspired Fame) she spent her time writing, thinking, and studying the most prolific rappers of the era. “I remember listening to Jay Z and Foxy Brown and admiring their ability to remain intelligent on a record.” Later, she would fall in love with Lil Wayne’s music for the same reason. “He was always so witty. Punchlines were always in abundance. I listened to him and it made me think: This guy is a master of psychology. This guy has studied words. This guy is a poet.” Growing up in an unstable household with a crack-addict father, Minaj created her first imaginary character, Cookie, to mentally escape her home life. As she told New York Magazine in 2010, “Fantasy was my reality.”
After a period hawking her mixtape out of her BMW on Jamaica Avenue in Queens, Minaj was spotted by Lil Wayne on underground rap DVD, The Come Up. Recognising a gap for a sexy, savvy female rapper in the post-Lil’ Kim and Trina era, Wayne promptly signed Minaj to Young Money Entertainment. She was ferocious from day one, but her street credentials were swirling with qualities of two of her own heroines: the cartoonish invention of Missy Elliott and the personal introspection of Lauryn Hill. In her mixtape verses, Minaj spoke of her sexuality with the lip-smacking relish of Lil’ Kim but called herself the “Black Sarah Jessica”, and was just as likely to reference Monica Lewinsky, Fruity Loops cereal or The Hills as her bank balance or buxom figure. It’s this unabashed celebration of frothy pop culture that has made her one of the most relatable – and remunerated – rappers working today.
By the time Minaj was ready to roll out Pink Friday in 2010, the doorknocker earrings and Kangol caps had been swapped for embellished tutus and the first of many gravity-defying neon wigs. Her debut studio album featured a smattering of harder tracks – “Roman’s Revenge” among them – alongside shinier hits like “Super Bass”, which she performed live with Taylor Swift at the country-pop sweetheart’s LA arena show. Come 2011, she teamed up with Mr “Bad Romance”, super-producer RedOne, on the EDM/pop banger “Starships”, ensuring Top 40 radio domination. Her pop audience had never been bigger, but serious rap heads were divided. Looking back, does Minaj feel her radio hits offered an authentic representation of her abilities as an MC? “Absolutely,” she fires back, visibly annoyed at the question. Battle rapper Minaj flares up. “It was experimentation,” she says, speeding up her speech to a street-cypher cadence. “I experiment with fashion, with my look, with everything. I’m a multidimensional woman, like all women are. The difference is that I have the balls to take chances.”
“I experiment with fashion, with my look, with everything. I’m a multi-dimensional woman, like all women are. The difference is that I have the balls to take chances” – Nicki Minaj
Over the past five years, she has experimented endlessly with her trippy rap persona, going from fembot to Atelier Versace-clad nun. Doesn’t the fantasy lifestyle ever get a bit, well, tiresome? “It’s not my lifestyle. It’s my life,” she corrects, before conceding that ‘pinch-yourself’ moments do still arise. The last time she had one? “I got a call to do a song with Beyoncé. I’m getting out of my Maybach, about to get on a private plane, and my manager calls me, saying, ‘Beyoncé wants you to remix ‘***Flawless’.’ It was the one thing that I thought would never happen in my career, and I was like, ‘My life is fucking surreal’.”
Three days after our interview, the “***Flawless” remix premieres and the internet goes wild for the team-up from two “bad bitches on they grizzly,” as Minaj puts it, plus a delicious reference to that elevator scandal from Beyoncé herself. Even Girls creator Lena Dunham chimes in to tweet bars from Minaj’s mindboggling verse, adding, “If I’d written that, well, I wouldn’t have been shoved so much at camp.”
The endorsement is testament to Minaj’s multifaceted appeal: she’s a woman who elicits fangirldom in liberal Brooklyn intellectuals like Dunham and inspires solidarity from global pop icons like Bey. Minaj can pose in little more than a pink g-string – as she did on the cover for “Anaconda” – and be claimed by feminist bloggers as one of their own.
The “Anaconda” cover generated a torrent of memes, and Minaj reposted many of the more ludicrous ones to her seven million Instagram followers. Alongside them are images of similarly exposed – and exclusively white – Sports Illustrated models that Minaj uploaded herself with the ironic caption “acceptable”; a contrast to the apparently “unacceptable” nature of her own naked form. It’s Minaj’s way of suggesting a racial undertone to this summer’s slew of concerned thinkpieces about the cover art. “At this stage in my career, I want to use my voice to say: ‘I don’t care what people think about me’,” Minaj says. “I’ve spent my life living for people. Going forward, I just want to live for me. I want to make myself happy and not be held back by people’s opinions of me. That’s a big part of why I put (the “Anaconda” cover) out. I had pictures like that out in the beginning of my career. I’ve been a successful rapper and people wouldn’t expect me to do that at this stage, but I don’t want to be a predictable rapper. When I think of the female icons I love and look up to, I don’t think they were ever predictable. I just want to be unpredictable and fearless.”
Minaj is quick to claim the title of feminist, and feels “a responsibility to prove that women can do exactly what men do.” On the subject of her own personal idols, she exhibits a rare effusiveness: Beyoncé is described as “so sweet, so inspiring” and she also loves Madonna (with whom she performed at the 2012 Superbowl), as well as Oprah and Lauryn Hill. “We’re all different, but we all represent a fearless kind of woman.” When it comes to her fellow female rap artists, the praise dries up fast. She denies making a subliminal dig at Iggy Azalea at the BET Awards in June, but her ongoing feud with Lil’ Kim is the subject of endless rap blog hype. Minaj has described The PinkPrint as “The Blueprint for female rappers”, so what does she think of those who’ve come in through the doors she kicked down? She shoots me a withering look. “I have no thoughts about that.”
For all her prickliness, it’s hard not to warm to Minaj. “I get over things pretty quickly,” she says of her notorious temperament. True to her word, she’s soon sharing stories of growing up listening to “Diana Ross, Luther Vandross, and Anita Baker every day” with her Trinidadian mother, and laughing “at the most horrible things.” Moments after freezing at a question on who she sees as her competition – “absolutely no one” – she’s cracking up at a childhood memory of being sent to board a plane to Trinidad with her mother’s photo ID: “She expected the airline staff to believe that a 12-year-old girl was a 37-year-old nurse’s aide,” she gasps, erupting into full-body giggles at the thought.
Get her back on the subject of empowerment, and Minaj the Mogul snaps straight into role. “I just want women to always feel in control. Because, we’re capable – we’re so capable. It’s one of the reasons that I have these women that I look up to – because they did not allow being a woman to make them feel like they should settle for less, financially. No, money doesn’t mean everything. But it says a lot.” For Minaj, making fantasy figures is about much more than another Maybach to park in the driveway. “I don’t know how this mission is supposed to be completed,” she says, exhibiting a split second of vulnerability before the game face is back on. “But I’ve realised that I really need to finish what I’ve started.”
hair Oscar James for Ken Barboza Associates; make-up Mylah Morales at Tracey Mattingly for Koh Gen Do; nails Nettie Davis at The Wall Group using Chanel; photographic assistants Chris White, Joshua Elan; styling assistants Sara Paulsen, Elizabeth Carvalho, Lizy Curtis; production Dayna Carney at Management and Artists; production Bobby Kopp Projects