Meet the Top New Artist Finalists: Billboard Music Awards 2011
Meet the Top New Artist Finalists: Billboard Music Awards 2011

All the richness of Minaj's experience shines on "Pink Friday," which is extraordinary not only because of hits like "Fly" and "Moment 4 Life," but for its emotional range. Her background is part Indian, and like Kali, the Hindu goddess of birth, destruction and death, she plays ferocious with Eminem, inspirational with Rihanna, and tender with the dashing Drake (their nuptial kiss in the "Moment 4 Life" video has become a global replay moment). "I'm really happy I finally made my first official album," the breakout star says, speaking from Fort Lauderdale, where she's playing a sold-out date. "People who know me now, and find out about me in years to come, will know about Onika, not just Nicki Minaj."

Onika Tanya Maraj is the name of a bewildered 5-year-old girl who, 21 years ago, landed in Queens, New York, from her family's home in Trinidad, to start a new life. At a young age, she realized that she didn't want to look like the other kids, and would dye her own hair. Fast-forward two decades, and Minaj is "universal," as she sings on "I'm The Best." Caustic, raw, surreal or romantic, her raps always bear her unique stamp, prompting stars like Christina Aguilera, Kanye West, Usher, will.i.am and Mariah Carey to come knocking for a flash of her lyrical glitter. "People call me The Collaboration Queen," she says. "It's part of my identity." For Minaj, the acclaim is a vindication-and a relief.

"All year, I worried about creating the first album," she admits. "I didn't know if my underground popularity would translate to mainstream success. Having sold 1.5 million copies of "Pink Friday" worldwide, now I know I've accomplished something."

What alchemy has positioned Minaj so neatly at the heart of the zeitgeist? Her prodigious musical and performance skills are crucial, of course, as is her imaginative glamour. "Acting was my first love," Minaj says, and the former drama student inhabits her characters, from alter egos Roman Zolanski and his mother, Martha, to her turn as a creepy schoolgirl on Saturday Night Live. Whether she's a vampire, a jungle guerilla fighter, or a sultry Cleopatra in her videos, Minaj sends a message: women don't need to be sold by tired sexual cliches.

Crucially, though, in Minaj we sense an unconventional survivor who is still laughing, an adventurer who relishes life and can handle danger. Most significantly, she grew up witnessing her father's crack addiction, which made him try to burn down the house while her mother was still inside. An affectionate album dedication to him shows that they've moved toward a family healing. "These things are festering -- they need to be spoken about," Minaj reflects. "The record's not all about my childhood, but I've never been one of those artists not to talk about it, starting on my first mixtapes."

Warmly, she recalls the African street vendors on Jamaica Avenue in Queens who sold her tapes. "They're the heart and soul of rap, and I still release mixtapes because of them. No matter what I say, do, or wear, I still feel I'm a rapper from Queens. It shaped my character; you always have this hunger and this drive."

Text by Vivien Goldman

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