Nicki Minaj: The Billboard Cover Story
On the surface, Nicki Minaj is a cartoon: a vivacious, va-va-va-voom 26-year-old girly girl with a fondness for silly voices, hip-hugging Barbie-doll costumes, anime facial expressions and day-glo accessories.
But three years ago, Minaj, born Onika Maraj and raised in Jamaica, Queens, was just another tough, street-wise, potty-mouthed chick who couldn't keep a job.
"The last job I had was as an office manager in a little, tiny room where I literally wanted to strangle this guy because he was so loud and obnoxious," Minaj recalls. "I would go home with stress pains in my neck and my back. That's when I went to my mother and said, 'Look, I'm not going back to work.' I'd been fired like 15 times because I had a horrible attitude. I worked at Red Lobster before that and I chased a customer out of the restaurant once so I could stick my middle finger up at her and demand that she give me my pen back. I swear to God I was bad."
Thankfully, Minaj has found a much more productive way to channel her fury. After being discovered by rapper Lil Wayne a couple of years ago off the strength of a street DVD appearance and becoming the first lady of his Young Money crew, Minaj has become one of rap's most attention-grabbing MCs and this decade's Queen Bee.
Now, three mixtapes -- including 2009's highly touted "Beam Me Up, Scotty" -- and a slew of guest appearances later, Minaj is set to release her solo debut album, "Pink Friday," on Nov. 23 through Young Money/Cash Money/Universal Motown.
The album straddles the lines between boisterous hip-hop ("Roman's Revenge," "Did It on 'Em"), glossy pop ("Check It Out," "Your Love") and vulnerable R&B ("Right Thru Me," "Here I Am"). The set boasts an eclectic roster that includes Will.i.am, Drake, Rihanna, Kanye West and Natasha Bedingfield and features production from West, Swizz Beatz, Bangladesh, Drew Money and Oak.
"When I started rapping, people were trying to make me like the typical New York rapper, but I'm not that," Minaj says. "No disrespect to New York rappers, but I don't want people to hear me and know exactly where I'm from. I wanted the album to be universal and versatile. It really feels like it speaks for every one of my personalities."
Her multiple characters are indeed present on the set. In a matter of bars, Minaj switches effortlessly from the toned-down Onika to the energetic Nicki and then to her tempestuous alter ego, Roman Zolanski. She tosses off British and Jamaican accents, animal-like growls, breathy vocals and rapid-fire rhymes with the blink-and-you'll-miss-it speed of a 14-year-old girl thumbing a text message in homeroom.
Minaj first displayed her playful, animated side when she appeared in Gucci Mane's 2009 video "Five Star Chick" -- her first time on a video set. "My hands just went on my hips and I became like a doll. I had never done that before or planned to do it -- it just happened," she says. "After that I would go to shows and girls in the audience would do the whole 'Five Star Chick' dance. Afterward I thought, 'Maybe I'm on to something.' "
And she was. Minaj began dubbing herself the Harajuku Barbie and, borrowing a page from pop star Lady Gaga, created a unique virtual club for her fans by naming them "Barbz."
Currently, there's a flyaway radio contest and a $1,000 shopping spree competition going on across the country. A tour is also in the works for next year. And while details are scant about her future ventures, Minaj is working with MAC makeup to start her own line, hopes to get into acting and wants to start a children's charity. She also plans to further develop her live show, working with choreographer Laurie Ann Gibson and a voice coach.
But for now, Minaj is fine-tuning the final details of "Pink Friday" and continuing to cement her status as the baddest bitch in the building-even if it means summoning the angry girl from a couple of years ago.
"I push people around me but I don't push anyone more than I push myself," she says. "I tell people all the time, 'You want to work for me? You have to give 250,000%,' because when I'm in the booth, I don't half-ass it. I demand perfection from everyone around me and if you can't live up to that, then bye-bye."