She's Got the Power
Hip-hop queen Nicki Minaj is a force of nature.
Every once in a while, Fate taps someone on the shoulder and says, "Tag, you're It." Right now, that person is Nicki Minaj, the Queens rapper whose outrageous style mixes iconic Barbie-doll fashion, street smarts and bizarre theatrics; in September, she accessorized a pink tutu dress and hot pink bra with a fried-chicken-wing necklace, making her the most playfully provocative It girl in the history of hip-hop.
Minaj exploded onto the scene in 2010 with her debut album, Pink Friday, and she's still smoldering. Recently named Billboard's Rising Star of the Year, she's not only in line to win a 2012 People's Choice Award for Favorite Hip-Hop Artist (Jan. 11), but also four Grammy Awards (Feb. 12)—Best New Artist, Album of the Year, Best Rap Album and Best Rap Performance. This month, she launches a line of six bold, bright, glittery nail polish colors named after her hit songs, in collaboration with OPI Nail Lacquer, and teams up with Latin star Ricky Martin in new advertisements, shot by photographer David LaChapelle, for MAC Cosmetics' Viva Glam 2012 campaign. But wait, there's more. On Valentine's Day (Feb. 14), she releases her second album, Pink Friday: ROMAN RELOADED, followed by a solo tour that promises to send fans over the moon.
Crediting her anything-goes attitude to her New York City background, she declares, "I'm New York all day, every day ... I studied theater, and I always apply acting to everything I do. I think that it's important to give people a show."
The bright lights, even brighter wigs, bizarre costumes and superstar status contradict Minaj's humble beginnings. Born Onika Tanya Maraj in Saint James, Trinidad, on Dec. 8, 1982, she lived with her grandmother until age 5, when her parents brought her to live with them in Queens. But times were hard. "My father drank a lot and did drugs and would get violent," she confides. "He set fire to the house to kill my mother, but she got out. I've always had this female empowerment thing in the back of my mind, because I wanted my mother to be stronger ... I thought, 'If I'm successful, I can change her life.'"
Thus motivated, Nicki started playing clarinet in middle school and attended LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, where she excelled in the drama program. She began releasing mix tapes of her raps in 2007 and won Female Artist of the Year at the Underground Music Awards. Setting Minaj apart from the competition was her outlandish, often cartoonish sexy image, as well as her rapid-fire wordplay and a penchant for adding a wide range of funny voices and foreign dialects to her raps. "To get away from my parents' fighting, I would imagine being a new person," she explains. "'Cookie' was my first identity. I went on to 'Harajuku Barbie,' then 'Nicki Minaj.' Fantasy was my reality."
It soon turned into a career as well. Rap superstar Lil Wayne signed Minaj to his Young Money Entertainment and she became the go-to guest star on records by the likes of Robin Thicke, Usher, Drake, Kanye West and Jay-Z.Before long, the buzz around her was fierce. Hit singles on Pink Friday—"Fly," "Right Thru Me," "Moment 4 Life"—helped sell over a million copies of the album in its first month and an army of fans—called Barbs—follow her every move. All of which has inspired Minaj to ponder the bigger picture. "Why isn't there a female rapper-turned-mogul?" she asks. "I don't know why. I just want to be the first woman to have an empire beyond my rap career. And I will!" Who's to doubt her? After all, those kinds of things happen when you're It.