You'd want to have spent the last two years down a NAMA-sized black pit not to find something suspiciously familiar about pop newcomer Nicki Minaj. The wacky, sci-fi dress sense, the pink wigs, the insatiable appetite for self-promotion -- yes, there's a distinct whiff of deja vu about this provocative New Yorker. Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to the new Lady Gaga.
The self-proclaimed 'Harajuku Barbie' certainly looks set to have a Gaga-riffic 2011. Hip-hop A-listers Kanye West, Flo Rida and Lil Wayne are among her most vocal cheerleaders (the last liked her so much he signed her to his label).
She recently launched her own brand of MAC lipstick. Between conquering the world and sending fashion magazine editors into a tizzy, she's even found time for a feud with fellow rapper (and Kanye protege) Kid Sister, dissing her in verse as a "mad bitch".
Not that Minaj is quite Gaga 2.0. Musically the two couldn't be less alike. Where the Poker Face singer's specialty is breathless pop, Minaj is an old-school rapper who learned her rhymes on the streets of Queens, followed by a stint at LaGuardia High, aka the school from Fame.
Moreover, unlike Gaga, Minaj has taken the slow route to the top. Whilst the artist otherwise known as Stefani Germano fairly exploded on to the music scene with a flurry of early hits, Minaj has played the waiting game.
Backed by Lil Wayne's Young Money Entertainment, she's worked at gaining credibility within the hip-hop community with short cameos on songs by better known artists. In one verse she boasts of being paid $50,000 for each appearance -- whether or not that's true, her guest turns have given her the sort of exposure of which most newcomers can only dream (it is widely agreed, for instance, she's the most interesting thing on Kanye West's comically overcooked new album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy).
And like Gaga, she inhabits a reality of her own making. For instance, she claims to have created her own language (further details available in her online 'Nictionary'). Essential Minaj-isms include 'Alfred Bitchcock', a term of endearment from one 'Harajuku Barbie' to another, and 'Strawberry Shortcake', someone "who loses sight of her goals and her CAKE by focusing on BEEF and negativity". Of course, you probably knew that already.
The biggest contrast with GaGa is her full-wattage sexuality. Gaga, for all her risque lyrics, can come off curiously asexual (remember those hermaphrodite rumours?).
Minaj, in contrast, hasn't been slow to waggle her feminine wares in the word's face. Squeezed into a variety of chain mail bustiers, nothing-to-the-imagination jump suits and sundry buxom costumes she appears to be reading straight from the Madonna A-Z of how to get your bum (and your face) all over television. If anything, she's actually had to tamp down the sexual side of her persona as the big time looms, for fear of scaring off a teenage fan-base.
"I made a conscious decision to try to tone down the sexiness," she told Interview magazine. "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."
Her pursuit of the Miley Cyrus demographic seems to be paying off. According to Nathalie Márquez Courtney, editor of teen magazine Kiss, interest in Minaj is soaring.
"We've got a few mentions of her in the next issue and are already getting poster requests for her," she says.
"So I have no doubt that she's going to be huge. "
And whilst the gravel-voiced rapper has yet to actually notch up a flesh-and-blood hit -- these days the only place you won't find her is on drive-time radio -- she is in little doubt but that pop greatness is within grasp. Indeed, the way she tells it, she's not just going to change the face of the charts. She's going to change the face of hip-hop itself.
"I realise that when this album does well there are doors that will be kicked open for female rappers immediately," she said last month.
"I always wanted to be someone who spearheaded a movement, not just did something that worked for me. I want to get girls excited about being female rappers again and knowing that they can be kooky, goofy, playful, serious, hardcore -- whatever it is, but you have the choice now."