“You know what?” Nicki Minaj says, catching a laugh in the back of her throat. “This era will be a billion times more epic than anything ‘Anaconda’ could have delivered. I think this era will definitely be the most memorable and the most impactful of my career yet.”
Lately, the Trinidadian-born, Queens-raised, international hip hop superstar has been keeping vampirical hours. “I’ve been a little bit swamped,” she explains – a funny choice of words, considering her current residence in the sinking cosmopolis of Miami Beach. Minaj has been here for most of 2017 working on her new album – her first since 2014’s The Pinkprint. “This is my main stomping ground. Every day is different. Some days I’ll go into the studio at six in the morning, some days I won’t come out until six in the morning.”
When it comes to giving intel on any direction the new album might be taking, Minaj keeps all the juicy details firmly locked away, including when it may actually see the light of day. “I’ve made it my business with this album to not even put a date or a deadline on it,” she says. “I can’t say if I’m fifty-per-cent, eighty-per-cent or ten-per-cent done, because I don’t know. Tomorrow, I might walk into the studio and decide that I don’t like anything I’ve done in the last six months. Or, tomorrow I might walk in and feel like the whole album is done. There’s so much beauty in not knowing. I just want to go in the studio and create like I used to, before there were any expectations. You know? When I was just having fun, working on my mixtapes, going in and creating... writing my little life.”
Because of her recording schedule, Minaj often wakes up to sweeping night views of the Atlantic Ocean. She loves to gaze at it, she says. It makes her feel small. “I didn’t realise the water would have so much of an effect on me,” she reveals, “but it keeps me calm. It does something to me. Even when it’s raining I go out on my balcony and all I can see is water and the sky, and I feel so small in relation to the world that I have no choice but to feel super-grateful. It’s been making me centre into myself.”
One can imagine Minaj’s difficulty in escaping her own bigness. Since 2007, she has become not just globally famous, but one of music’s most iconic presences. She has, by any available metric, surpassed every other female hip hop artist to become the most successful in history. Minaj will be as important to this decade as The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac were to the 90s. It’s likely her career will span many decades, like Madonna’s or Cher’s. She is the embodiment of millennial pink. The New York Times called her the most influential female rapper of all time. And, at the time of our chat, Billboard reports that emerging star Cardi B has landed the first top-ten solo female rap song (“Bodak Yellow”) since Minaj, underscoring the Queens rapper’s stature as the standard-bearer for female emcees.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of Minaj’s first mixtape, Playtime Is Over. One by-product of this is that she has listened to her old music for the first time since she became a staple on the Forbes list. “It told me so much,” she reveals. “It taught me what drew people to me in the first place, and I needed to have that conversation with myself. Now, I have it figured out again.”
For Minaj, looking back at her first ten years in the business is like seeing from inside the eye of the storm: “If I had to describe (the past ten years) I would say ‘blessed’. Blessed and highly favoured, because the things that have happened to me have been once in a lifetime.”
In the mafia, you can only be fully initiated – or ‘made’ – by another made man. For Minaj, that man was Lil Wayne, but she describes it in terms that skew less Godfather and more fairy godmother. “I feel like it’s been a Cinderella story,” she enthuses. “Getting plucked out of Southside, Jamaica, Queens by the prince, Lil Wayne, and whisked away on a freaking magic pumpkin.” She lets out an irresistible cackle. “I’m still in the magic pumpkin! I have to say it’s been magical. It’s been tough. It’s been emotional. I’ve had to deal with it all, negative and positive. But I know there are so many girls who would kill to have (what) I’ve experienced, so I have to take the good with the bad and be grateful. No matter what’s gone on the past ten years, I’m still here. I’m still here!”
“I can be sent a pop song, a reggae song, a rap song or an R&B song, and people know that Nicki Minaj is gonna deliver something special every time” – Nicki Minaj
Her position and prestige have rendered her both an idol and a target. While male rappers are afforded the freedom to carve out their own niches within the genre, no female rapper can escape Nicki Minaj. Comparisons can cause feuds, from both up-and-comers jockeying for status and past icons searching for new relevance. In March, Minaj released three songs in response to a diss track by Bronx-based hip hop star Remy Ma. The universe itself weighed in: those tracks – “No Frauds,” “Regret in Your Tears” and “Changed It” – earned her the distinction of being the woman with the most Billboard Hot 100 hits of all time, her 76 entries beating out Aretha Franklin’s former record of 73.
“I don’t feel like I’ve fully wrapped my mind around that,” Minaj reflects. “With some of these things, I still feel like I’m in a dream. Before I ever put out an album I prayed that God would give me Lil Wayne’s work ethic. He was the person everyone went to for a feature. Now, one of the reasons I was able to break that record is because so many artists have trusted me with their singles and their videos – they’ve trusted me with their image. I have to thank those artists, because I learn so much when I feature. It’s forced me to have so much flexibility in my flow. I can be sent a pop song, a reggae song, a rap song or an R&B song, and people know that Nicki Minaj is gonna deliver something special every time. I don’t think people realise, but I don’t just call people and ask to get on their songs. It happens because over the years I’ve created this brand that people know. I’m gonna go above and beyond for them. I never get a chance to say that about the artists who’ve called me – I never get a chance to say thank you to everyone.”
That list of artists reads like a Grammy Awards hall of fame. Justin Bieber, Madonna, Drake, Beyoncé, Rihanna and Kanye West have all relied on Minaj’s verses to add fire to their songs. She’s even performed with Prince, at a Versace party in 2011. I ask if she has a dream collaborator, and she tells me it’s Enya, whose music inspires some of Minaj’s vocal productions. She also hopes to work with Sia. By my count, as of August, she has appeared on 16 songs so far this year, including tracks with Drake, Wayne, Calvin Harris, Katy Perry, Future, Jason Derulo, Gucci Mane, Yo Gotti and Major Lazer.
When she’s not busy shooting music videos with Blac Chyna, taking mirrored butt-selfies or posing in a variety of latex ensembles overlooking the sea, she is treating her fans to Instagrams from the recording studio, often involving cameos from a revolving door of past and potential collaborators like Lil Wayne, Trina, Quavo and her long-time producers Kane Beatz and JMIKE. For anyone searching for clues about who will be on her fourth studio album, rumoured for release at the end of this year, Minaj suggests you keep guessing. “I do a lot of features,” she admits. “You never know when it’s a feature for them, a song for my album, or when it’s something we’re both just thinking about. Not everybody that comes in leaves me with something I actually love or will rap on. I know people always think that. Trust me, you can’t take those pictures as hints all the time. I would never give it up like that.”
One place to find clues about what Minaj’s new era might look like is her personal style. When she last graced the cover of Dazed in 2014, it was in a shoot by Jeff Bark – mid-century domestic chic, Chanel tweed, and Minaj’s natural hair colour. It was in line with a more simple styling approach she had been taking at events and in her real life. In hindsight, that look foreshadowed the interiority of The Pinkprint, and Minaj’s back-to-basics mindset on that album. Lately, however, the pink wigs are back on her Instagram – albeit longer and more expensive than before – and Minaj seems to be channelling a glamazonian Versace showgirl, with Barbarella wraparound shades, bondage clasps and nude cutouts within a centimetre of indecent exposure. Does fashion prophesy a party record?
“You know what?” says Minaj, thoughtfully. “I’m channelling old Nicki with a new twist. Recently I’ve been doing half pink and half blonde, like I had in (the video for) ‘Super Bass,’ and half blonde and half aqua blue, like I did in the video for ‘Knockout’ with Lil Wayne. I’m enjoying seeing my fans gag about me having hair down to my ankles, or pink hair down to my knees. It’s interesting that I’m doing things I’ve done before, but in a different way so people feel like they’re seeing it for the first time. I love that people are feeling that excitement again, even just about a look.” I suggest that people could use a little more fun right now, given the political horrors that have been seizing the globe. “I absolutely agree,” Minaj says. “I can feel people really yearning for that. I think I owe it to myself and to my fans to have fun again. There’s nothing wrong with having fun in music.”
“I came into this industry and demanded more. I wanted more for female rappers. I wanted more for black women. I wanted to make more than what men were making. And I did it. I did it” – Nicki Minaj
2010’s Pink Friday was Nicki Minaj’s arrival and her coronation – grit, confidence and candy-coated hooks heralded the industry’s anointing of a new queen of rap. The follow-up, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded (2012) was an explosive, genre-bending assertion of Minaj’s outre stable of personas. The Pinkprint (2014) gave Minaj an opportunity to reflect and strip away the costumes and the crazy characters and give her fans a window into her soul. Might her fourth album – currently being referred to as NM4 by fansites and trade publications – resurrect Roman’s playful, perverse spirit?
“Oh my God!” Minaj screams. “That is the million-dollar question. I think there are things that need to be said and need to be discussed on every album, depending on what we’ve experienced. So I have to take what needs to be discussed and put it with the other organic things that no one can predict. Somebody could send a beat and it triggers something in you. Last night I had that experience. I got a few beats and it triggered something in me that I haven’t felt since Pink Friday. There was something that felt so magic and genuine about what was happening. Every time I think I know what this album is going to sound like, there’s a little magic that happens. It takes me down a different path and shows me something about myself and I just follow it.”
“Everyone has been asking me about Roman,” she continues, invoking the name of her murderous, British, gay, orange-haired twin brother/alter-ego she communed with in many of her early songs. “Will Roman come back? If Roman is needed, then Roman will be there. I’m not going to do anything that feels forced. I’m doing this for my core fans.”
It’s hard to believe that, prior to her success as a recording artist, Minaj was fired from almost every job she ever held. In many ways, the star still relates to the defiant young woman she used to be, fighting for her paychecks and her place in the world. I ask her how the attitude that was a liability in those days has been an asset in the music business, and her voice gets deadly serious. “Because I came into this industry and demanded more. I wanted more for female rappers. I wanted more for black women. I wanted to make more than what men were making. And I did it. I did it.” She pauses for effect, and then continues. “I knew my worth from very early on. Some may call it attitude, some might call it genius. Some might call a female rapper getting a million dollars for one show genius! Some may call being the only female rapper – still, right now – able to have worldwide arena tours fucking brilliant!”
“Look, I came into this industry saying I would never sleep with a man to get what I wanted and I would always write my own raps, because I’ve always been smart enough to do that,” Minaj continues. “I’ve done it. I’ve kept true to my main promises to myself. Everybody can’t say that. So, the same things that may have been looked at as bad at the beginning of my career, or at the beginning of my life – maybe my bosses thought I was a little bit much – those things made me able to open doors for female rappers, to get a lot of money, to have a major influence and to see that translated into our bank accounts. I know a lot of girls who are going to reap the benefits of that ‘attitude’. And I wasn’t fired for having a bad attitude, I think I was fired because I voiced my opinion. Even to this day, people are uncomfortable when women voice their opinions. Everybody wants you to just smile to the camera and be quiet and take what you get. I’m not that girl.”
In June, Minaj was honoured by Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, who bestowed her with a key to the city. “It brought tears to my eyes,” says Minaj. “If I’d known that back then, maybe I wouldn’t have cried myself to sleep so many nights. If I’d known all these things would pay off in such a major way, I probably would have had some happier days back when I was struggling and trying to get a record deal.”
When it comes to her own listening habits, Minaj has been drawing influence from the gospel singer Tasha Cobbs, as well as recent collaborators Quavo and Future. She lets slip that she and Young Thug have recorded a song together. “I was so blown away by his artistry,” she explains. “I can’t wait for people to hear that collaboration.”
It’s easy to look at Minaj and feel that, beneath her glossy surface, she contains multitudes – literally, in the case of her many alter-egos, but also in a broader, more spiritual sense. Her intellectual universe is vast and detailed. Just parsing through her output over the past year, her lyrics have covered topics ranging from the Real Housewives, Ellen DeGeneres, Bergdorf Goodman and Monica Lewinsky to famed cocaine dealers and smugglers like the Supreme Team, Griselda Blanco and Big Meech. She jokes about torture, murder, sex and witch doctors. When asked if the American political chaos surrounding Donald Trump will be getting the Minaj treatment, she plays coy. “Well... you know me,” Minaj says with a laugh. “Things have to be addressed, that’s all I’ll say. Things that have to be addressed have to be addressed, and I will figure out a way to address them – you know, without being disrespectful. I think there’s room to have a respectful conversation, politically. I do think so.”
“I have just been saying whatever the eff I want. That’s always a breath of fresh air... everyone is so filtered these days. I’m just back to being reckless and being a Southside, Jamaica, Queens, New York rapper” – Nicki Minaj
Coming off her string of features on other artists’ songs, Minaj is embracing a newfound freedom in her life. “I have just been saying whatever the eff I want. That’s always a breath of fresh air,” she says matter-of-factly. “Everyone is so filtered these days. I’m just back to being reckless and being a Southside, Jamaica, Queens, New York rapper. You know? I kind of feel like I’ve been having freedom with my look and my music. It doesn’t mean that I won’t go into depth about my experiences on this album.” Those may include the ongoing Remy Ma feud, her breakup with now-ex-boyfriend Meek Mill, the rekindling of her friendship with Drake, or a number of other personal, professional or political dramas. “I’m going to go even deeper than I went with The Pinkprint, because I have a lot to talk about. Why not? I feel like when your fans wait two years for you to put out another album, it has to be worth it. It has to be an honest exchange of dialogue.”
After ten years in the business, Minaj’s fans are as rabid and obsessive as ever. “I’ve seen my fans grow up for the last ten years, which is crazy,” she says. “I’ve been following some of them for eight years on Twitter. Imagine that. There are kids who have gone to college tweeting me their freaking degrees when they graduate, or tweeting me pictures of their babies and I remember when they had just come out of high school. I’m just like, ‘Yo.’ It’s a beautiful thing. I don’t take that for granted. That’s why I’m not rushing the album, because it means so much to me. I have to release a classic at this point.”
Hair Kendall Dorsey at Factory Downtown using Oribe Hair Care, make-up Sheika Daley at Six K using Elora Lane, set design Andrea Stanley at Streeters, first photographic assistant Mark Luckasavage, photographic assistants Timothy Shin, Dean Dodos, styling assistants Louise Ford, Victor Cordero, Kieran Fenney, Sharifa Morris, set design assistants Nick Thalhuber, Clark Hassler, Nathan Smith, digital operator Tadaaki Shibuya, production Caroline Stridfeldt at Lola Production, production assistants Devon Davey, Ana Zinn, Hayley Stephon, on-set retouching BJ Delorenzo, studio manager Adam Sherman, post-production Dtouch NYC, executive talent consultant Greg Krelenstein