Nicki Minaj: Billboard's Rising Star

Nicki Minaj: Billboard's Rising Star

Nicki Minaj: Billboard's Rising Star

She's an MC, a Fashion Icon, a Pop Star... and She's Just Getting Warmed Up

For Cortez Bryant, the scene was a revelation. It was in early November when the Bryant Management principal/Young Money Entertainment chief visionary officer was invited to dinner by 28-year-old "it" girl Onika Tanya Maraj, aka

DJ Guetta even envisions Minaj's surging fame extending across the pond. The influential French producer says that the success of "Where Them Girls At" has opened up the feisty rapper to even riskier material, such as the duo's Lady Gaga-esque collaboration "Turn Me On."

"I wanted to try something different with her because obviously people know her as a rapper, but I could see that she could also sing," he says of the electro-synth cut. "Not enough people know that about Nicki. This 'Turn Me On' record is going to kill it. She's going to grow even bigger, especially in Europe. We shouldn't underestimate what she can do as an artist."

For Minaj's part, she says her drive comes from her need to prove her supporters -- including Lil Wayne -- correct. He makes it his business to tell Minaj that he expects even bigger and better things from her. "That's what he should say," Minaj says of her hard-to-impress label boss. "Should he say he expects less? Should he say I've done it all and now I should retire?"

Indeed, Team Minaj isn't wasting any time capitalizing on her quest for world domination. "We are working to establish Nicki Minaj as a huge touring artist," Bryant says. "She's been out with Wayne, been out with Britney, which were both huge looks. But now we are looking to set her up to become her own touring entity. We believe she's an artist with no boundaries."

Sure, when you're tapped as a rising style icon by Donatella Versace, and getting a shout-out from Prince after gracing the same stage as him at a Versace-H&M fashion show, life is good. But nearly three years ago, in a bantam recording studio in Atlanta, a hungry Minaj was wearing her game face. "[There was a lot of] scrutiny," she says of her initial introduction to the cutthroat hip-hop landscape where being a female MC was more of a hindrance than a plus. "People definitely gave me a hard time... ridiculed, laughed at me, expected and wanted me to fail. It only made me better."

It was make-or-break time for the aspiring rapper. Young Minaj saw how hard her mother struggled to raise her without the support of her father. She worked uninspiring jobs after attending LaGuardia Arts, the legendary "Fame" performing arts school in Manhattan. Minaj had always possessed a dexterity for flipping words. It's a skill that gained the attention of Lil Wayne after he witnessed her feature on the "Come Up" DVD, where she expertly ripped a version of the Notorious B.I.G.'s menacing "Warning."

"Back then, I tended to shy away from female rappers because you don't know what they're going to be about, but in the studio Nicki was totally confident," says DJ Holiday, who worked the turntables for her now classic 2009 mixtape, Beam Me Up Scotty. "She was writing to beats right in front of me, and there were a million things going on, but Nicki was totally focused. I would look at her with headphones on and think, 'Damn, that girl is super focused.' Her musical ideas for Beam Me Up blew me away. I knew that with a lot of focus and a push she would become something special."

As for the talk among some critics and music fans that Minaj has forsaken her ferocious flow for more pop-friendly rewards, one pioneering observer views it differently. "She is doing what feels natural to her," says hip-hop icon and DuBose Music Group executive VP Lana "MC Lyte" Moorer. "None of this feels contrived. It all feels like a part of her. I'd imagine in the beginning, Nicki had to build up the courage to come out with a 'Super Bass,' which is something that is so obviously different... There has to be somebody that's going to take the bull by the horns to be that next female rapper. And that's Nicki Minaj."

But Minaj isn't much for looking back. She has already announced plans to release her follow-up, "Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded," due on Valentine's Day. "All Nicki has to do is stay true," Cash Money co-founder/CEO Ronald "Slim" Williams says. "A lot of people put pressure on themselves... that's what happens when you make a sophomore record. You put so much pressure on yourself and lose that focus. But it's just music. All she has to do is remember that, and just be Nicki."

That won't be too hard for Minaj. "The [new] album is starting to remind me of my mixtapes. I'm having so much fun I can't even put it into words," she says. "Roman has come back for his flock."

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