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The Method to the Madness of Nicki Minaj

Posted in MusicWorld on July 11, 2011 by
Photo: Howard Huang

Autobiography plays a huge role in hip-hop music. MCs rap about their abilities, their street cred and their rags-to-riches stories. They name-drop friends. They stoke feuds with enemies. They take their share of liberties with the literal truth. But they remain, without question, the central characters in the dramas.

When Trinidad-born, Southside Jamaica, Queens-raised Nicki Minaj began popping up a handful of years ago on Lil Wayne-assisted mix tapes — some his and some hers — it quickly became clear that she played by different rules, trying on a different persona from one track, or even one verse, to the next. This was one-woman theatre; she seemed driven to play an entire cast of outsized characters all by herself, instead of settling on just one.

Minaj’s shape-shifting brought her as much attention as her technical chops, and it didn’t take long for her to become a guest rapper in demand on tracks by some of the biggest names in hip-hop and r&b, including Trey Songz, Drake, Lil Wayne (on whose upcoming album, Tha Carter IV, she’s also scheduled to appear), Rihanna, Ludacris, Usher, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Yo Gotti and Robin Thicke. During the remix of Gyptian’s “Hold Yuh,” she threw in a line that bragged, to paraphrase, everything she touched turned into Billboard chart gold. And there’s something to that. She certainly had her share of chart entries on Billboard’s Hot 100 last year.

By far the most famous of her features to date is a minute-plus verse toward the tail end of Kanye West’s “Monster.” The track would be pretty out-there even without her performance. But when she takes her turn — after Jay-Z’s, no less — first her Jamaican accent, then her livewire vibrato, coy Harajuku Barbie voice and animalistic growls leap from the speakers and take the song to a whole new, irresistibly eccentric level.

In truth, there is some method to the madness. Minaj studied theatre at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (for the record, that’s the school that the movie Fame is based on). “I am an actress first,” she emphasized during My Time Now, a documentary MTV made about her last year. “And I don’t want to be a rapper-turned-actress. That’s not who I am.”

Pink Friday, Minaj’s official full-length debut, was released in November on Lil Wayne’s Young Money/Cash Money imprint. Her acting makes it boldest appearance on the album during “Roman’s Revenge,” a track also featuring Eminem. She packs a punch rapping from the perspective of her volatile male alter ego Roman Zolanksi and Roman’s fretting, British-sounding mother Martha.

But there are other tracks that come off as pieces of Nicki Minaj autobiography, like the album opener “I’m the Best.” She not only boasts about the success she’s had and the fact that she can now buy her mother a house when, growing up, she couldn’t even afford a couch. She also raises the banner for every woman in the male-dominated world of hip-hop: “I’m fighting for the girls that never thought they could win/’Cause before they could begin you told ’em it was the end/But I am here to reverse the curse that they live in.”

During My Time Now, Minaj described double standards she’s confronted. She was criticized, she said, for putting her foot down on a photo shoot when the people she was supposed to be working with weren’t as prepared as she expected them to be. But anytime her male counterparts get similarly assertive, she pointed out, they earn greater respect.

If there’s anything that unites the many sides of Minaj—protean as she is—it’s her ambition. She’s savvy, self-possessed and intent on going where no female MC has gone before. During the MTV documentary, she asked, “Why isn’t there a female rapper-turned-mogul? I mean, mogul — having an empire that lives on beyond your rap career.” Then, rather than let the question just hang in the air, she settled the matter. “I don’t know why women haven’t done it. I just know I want to be the first woman to do it. And I will be.”