She prowled on to the scene on a will.i.am track and now Nicki Minaj has worked with everyone from Mariah to Kanye. Ailbhe Malone finds out what makes the rapper get her claws out, and what makes her purr
Sat on a sofa in an upmarket London hotel, Nicki Minaj looks like a real life Powerpuff girl. Clad in a onesie, with Louis Vuitton boots and a white leather jacket, a squished candyfloss blonde afro wig sits on top of her head.
As I reach across to touch it, she squeals "careful, it might fall!" eyes huge beneath false lashes. Across the room, sits her security -- a huge man in a T-shirt that says (hopefully ironically) "Invisible Bully".
The location for our interview has moved, due to the diligence of Minaj's fans. Her previous hotel has politely asked her to stay elsewhere, because of crowd-control issues. She's over it though, she explains. "I'm loving the new hotel. It's so much better, it's like a billion times better. The last one, it was a little bit scary, because I had on shades, and I had to walk down the stairs, and the hotel security made it sound like it was World War III outside, so they put the scare on me about it!"
The team have kept her new location schtum, and so far there are only a few fans outside the front door, hoping to catch a glimpse of the star.
We begin with a caveat. If any of the following topics are discussed, the interview will immediately be terminated: Lil Kim (they have a beef), Puff Daddy (are they dating?), and Nicki's arse (it is formidable). Also taboo are the singles Your Love (leaked early, she wasn't impressed) and Massive Attack (first single, bit of a flop). So far, so starry. But for an artist whose only charting single in Ireland was a will.i.am collaboration, what's the big deal? Well, if you have to ask, you shouldn't know.
Along with her Young Money counterpart-Drake, 26-year-old Minaj is indicative of a new breed of performer. She's a Triple Threat. A skilled actor (she attended LaGuardia High School -- where Fame was set, and upon graduating was inundated with agents' cards), she can also sing, and oh, yeah, rap. Combine that with artistic vision, and business savvy (she managed to swing a 360 deal with Young Money Entertainment, meaning that she retains and owns the rights to all her publishing, merchandising, touring and sponsorships), and you've got something very special indeed.
Over the past year, it feels like Minaj's trademark psycho-cutesie rhymes have dropped over every track in the top 40 -- from Mariah to Kanye, she's been an overnight success. Except there's nothing 'overnight' about it. Spotted and mentored by Lil Wayne, she went from fiery Lil-Kim-alike (complete with sultry photoshoots) to the futuristic self-styled Harajuku Barbie of today.
Her decision to tone down her image was a conscious one. In an interview with Interview magazine, she noted that: "I want people -- especially young girls -- to know that in life, nothing is going to be based on sex appeal. You've got to have something else to go with that."
In person, she's warm and charming -- her Fran Drescher Queens accent worming its way around her vowels. Sipping from a bottle of water, leaving a neon pink stain on the glass rim, she muses that: "It's been about eight years that I've been really, really working at this. And Lil Wayne is still one of my greatest mentors and influences. Wayne has always made himself available to talk if I needed to ask him something. And he's also such an influence in the studio. He's the hardest worker I've ever met. He's a hard-ass. He's a perfectionist -- just like I am, just like every artist should be. Not only does he push us, he pushes himself."
'Perfectionist' is certainly the opportune word. One of the reasons that talk of Your Love is verboten is the fact that it was never supposed to be released. The unmastered demo was leaked to radio, and all of a sudden it became a single. Despite the track being received well, Minaj was furious.
Circling around the issue, I ask her when she feels ready to sign off on her records. "Everything I do," she begins, "I want it to be insane and amazing. Some things are insane and amazing in different ways. Some songs are going to be a Top 40 song, but some songs might just be so authentic and so real that I think I have a different way of looking at how something might be a perfect record." She changes tack: "But as long as you're trying to perfect something, I think you're on the right track. Usually, I listen to my stuff and cringe. So if I can listen to it, and play it all the way through, I think, 'okay, this is a good one'."
There's a game plan in place, for sure. Her debut album Pink Friday went platinum in the US in a manner of months. But after such a bombastic entrance, how does she want her career to play out? Scrunching up her face, she responds: "I always felt like five albums is a great goal to have -- for artists to come full circle. And even people that I'm a fan of, I like knowing that they're going to surprise. I've done a lot of thinking about the future of my career -- do I want to be a 50-year-old rapper?"
There's a long pause. I'm not sure if this is a rhetorical question or not. She continues: "I mean, you know what I would like to do? I would like to do music, but I think, eventually, I'd like to do other things, become more like a mogul. I don't necessarily want to be 50 years old and be a rapper, but sometimes you just never know in life. Maybe my life will call for that! Maybe my fans will be so dedicated and determined that we'll all be in an arena somewhere singing my Monster verse!"
Of course, that verse. For those that haven't heard it, Minaj's guest spot on Kanye West's Monster was the moment that her star shone the brightest. Minaj spat a 32-bar blinder, eclipsing all the other artists on the track -- including Jay-Z, Rick Ross and Kanye. It was a startling moment -- of pure, unbridled talent.
As we wrap up the interview, I mention to her how the track almost gave me a fright. And, laughing, she counters with the most shocking revelation and musical reference of our conversation so far: "That happens to me too -- but to be honest, I get such a visceral reaction to beautiful ballads, which is so ironic, I know! I remember hearing Leona Lewis' Bleeding Love, and I had that reaction where I was like, 'This is too good to be true! Who is this?' I'm so used to hearing rap all the time, so it was something different!"
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