Nicki Minaj appears to be in full relaxation mode: The Los Angeles-based rapper, 31, sits cross-legged on a leather sofa inside the closet-sized green room at Hollywood’s Siren Studios, having just wrapped a photo shoot that stretched past 3:30 a.m. She’s wearing lavender sweatpants and a matching hoodie, with her sandals kicked off and an open bag of Cheetos at hand. But while she was feeling laid-back a few moments ago, she certainly doesn’t appear that way now, as an innocent question about Iggy Azalea — Minaj’s foremost rival ever since “Fancy” made Azalea the summer’s most -ubiquitous female rapper — hangs in the air. Minaj’s answer? A withering, wordless stare.
Just this past August, backstage at the MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs), Azalea complimented Minaj on her performance — an effort, perhaps, at making nice after Minaj seemed to take a jab at her at the BET Awards in June, when, during her acceptance speech for best female hip-hop artist, Minaj made a pointed reference to how she writes her own records. Still, when an Azalea song comes over the studio’s stereo, a member of Minaj’s team quickly shuts it off. (During the shoot, Minaj is picky about more than just music, bunkering in her dressing room for hours while multiple deliveries of food, from yogurt to pizza to steak, are brought in.)
It’s understandable why Minaj wouldn’t want to cede attention to Azalea, who this year arrived virtually out of nowhere to become one of hip-hop’s hottest acts, hawking her own blend of sex, controversy and chutzpah as effectively as Minaj ever has. “Nicki’s body of work is miles ahead of Iggy, and Iggy knows this,” says Ebro Darden, assistant program director of R&B/hip-hop WQHT (Hot 97) New York and co-host of the station’s morning show. “Iggy has had success, but only one album and two hits.”
Minaj’s third album, The Pinkprint, has been a long time coming. It was recently delayed from a late-November release to Dec. 15. And Azalea’s not the only one crowding in on her turf. While “Anaconda” rates as Minaj’s biggest hit to date, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, the year’s towering booty-themed smash belongs to Meghan Trainor, whose “All About That Bass” held the No. 1 spot for eight weeks, blocking “Anaconda” from the top. Minaj’s other high-profile appearance this year: “Bang Bang,” a No. 3 hit co-billed with Ariana Grande and Jessie J.
Minaj sees herself as different from other stars. “People don’t know how heavily involved I am in my own career,” she says in a no-nonsense tone. “I’m on 15 to 25 conference calls every few days strategizing with my team. I think a lot of artists sit back and have it done for them. Sometimes as women in the industry — if you’re sexy or like doing sexy things — some people subconsciously negate your brain. They think you’re stupid.”
One way to look at Minaj’s career — and aggressive, unapologetic attitude — is as a furious corrective to judgments of her gender, body and artistic choices. She can now claim the most Hot 100 hits of any female hip-hop artist and clocks in at No. 5 overall among women in any genre (behind Aretha Franklin, Taylor Swift, Dionne Warwick and Madonna). But when she released her platinum-selling No. 1 debut album, Pink Friday, in 2010, she was the first female rapper to top the Billboard 200 since Eve in 1999. Still, she has been dismissed or criticized over everything from rumors about hooking up with her Cash Money label mates Drake and Lil Wayne to crossing over with 2012’s No. 5 hit “Starships” to flaunting her famous figure.
Of course, “Starships” was an unashamed pop move. And she does give Drake a lap dance in the video for “Anaconda.” Minaj not only doesn’t care what people think, she turns attacks to her advantage. Her new single suggests that she’s battle-ready. “Only” pointedly dismisses two rumors in particular: “I never f—ed Wayne/I never f—ed Drake/All my life, man, f—‘s sake.”
“She’s no puppet,” says Ester Dean, a writer-producer who worked with Minaj on previous hits “Super Bass,” “Pills N Potions” and portions of the new album. “She’s super-friendly, but in this evil business you become hard and strong because you’ve got to be, not because you want to.”
It’s easy to see the seeds of Minaj’s defiant nature in her tumultuous upbringing. Born Onika Tanya Maraj in the Saint James district of Port of Spain, in the small Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, she is the second of three siblings. Her maternal grandmother raised her and her older brother for a time after their parents — Carol, an accounting clerk, and Robert, who worked for American Express — moved to New York seeking better opportunities. When Minaj was 5, she and her brother rejoined their parents in the Queens neighborhood of Jamaica. There, she witnessed her father, who was an alcoholic and drug addict, beat her mother. At one point, he tried to kill Carol by setting fire to the family’s home. “My mother always had this attitude that she didn’t take no for an answer,” reflects Minaj. “So I guess that carried on to me.”
A clarinet player in her early teens, Minaj attended LaGuardia High School of Music and Art, a well-regarded magnet school where she studied singing and acting. When she entered the workforce after graduation, though, she quickly grew tired of the nine-to-five. (“I’d been fired like 15 times [from various jobs] because I had a horrible attitude,” she told Billboard in 2010.) When an acting career didn’t pan out, Minaj turned to music, singing background vocals and hooks. She first rapped in a group called The Hoodstars, but struck out on her own in 2004, posting tracks to Myspace and releasing mixtapes. Eventually she won a deal with Lil Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment.
In fall 2010, Minaj made her reputation both as a rapper’s rapper and a sensational force in pop. Her explosive guest verse on Kanye West‘s “Monster,” which also featured Jay Z, cemented the former. Her appearance during the VMAs preshow, in which she wore a form-fitting spacesuit and neon pink wig, established the latter. Endorsement deals with MAC Cosmetics, OPI nail polish, Pepsi and Adidas Originals followed. As did two back-to-back, high-profile performances in 2012: as part of Madonna‘s Super Bowl XLVI halftime show and as the first female rapper to perform solo at the Grammy Awards.
And then there was American Idol, which Minaj joined in 2013 for one ill-fated season. “Once I did Idol, a lot of people would come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re smarter than I thought,’ ” she recalls. “What does that mean? Was I making weird faces [that made you think] I was stupid?” Viewers also saw Minaj’s combative side, in a leaked video that showed her arguing with Mariah Carey, another new judge at the time, during the show’s auditions segment. Both women eventually exited. Still, says Minaj, “Thank God I did that show. At least I was able to show my true self, speak and have a mind.”
For Minaj, Idol provided not only an opportunity for exposure, but a chance to prove her worth. Likewise, she views her business ventures not merely as cash–generating sidelines, but dreams come true: “I was just a little kid in Southside Jamaica, Queens, hoping one day I would have my own perfume,” she says. “And now I have three.” In addition to the fragrances, she maintains stakes in a line of clothing and housewares, the Nicki Minaj Collection for Kmart, and a widely distributed moscato beverage line, Myx Fusions. “I’ve seen Nicki grow from mixtape favorite into a walking, talking, breathing corporation,” says Gee Roberson, her manager and co-CEO of The Blueprint Group.
Minaj is also further diversifying in the entertainment world. Earlier this year, she took her first live-action movie role, playing the sassy assistant to Cameron Diaz’s lawyer in The Other Woman. Acting opposite Diaz made her “nervous,” but Diaz encouraged her: “She kept speaking to me,” recalls Minaj, “telling me that I was making the right choices as the character.” (She won’t discuss her next possible acting role, but singles out Quentin Tarantino as a favorite director.) The as-yet-unnamed record label she announced in 2012 is readying projects by writer–producer-vocalist Parker Ighile (Rihanna, Rita Ora) and rapper Brinx. Finally, she plans to produce a TV show, which may air in 2015. She declines to provide any details, but says it won’t be a reality series: “Hell no!”
It’s now nearly 4:30 a.m., and Minaj’s eyelids are drooping. She has draped a fluffy white towel across her legs to protect against the air-conditioning. Asked about the challenges of maintaining one’s privacy, she offers an easy solution in a slightly hoarse voice: “Just by not talking about it. It’s that simple. I mean, people know how to be private but they don’t want to be private.”
In fact, for such a flamboyant figure, not much is known of Minaj’s private life. According to TMZ, she recently split with Safaree Samuels, her rumored boyfriend going back to their days in The Hoodstars. (It also reports that she smashed the windows of a car she had given him.) Minaj drew attention from the tabloids in March when she vacationed with Samuels in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico — “It was beautiful, I loved it,” she says — and posted assorted bikini photos to social media. When asked what she would most want to do with any miraculously found downtime, her answer is simple: “Have sex.” Minaj — who has lived in Los Angeles for five years, but plans to return to the East Coast soon — also enjoys watching Captain Phillips (“I’m just obsessed with the main black actor,” Barkhad Abdi) and is a fan of Larry David (“I love improv and comedy. I wish I could have done something like [Curb Your Enthusiasm]”).
As for her own work, she’s quick to address criticisms of the “Anaconda” video, including that it objectifies women with big butts and puts down women with small ones. “Everything we see that’s labeled as beautiful is very skinny,” she says. “In the song I kind of say, ‘F— them skinny girls.’ But it’s all love. I consider myself a skinny girl.” She adds, “I went overboard with the video to show that I’m not going to hide. And those big-booty dancers I have, they’re not going to hide. Black girls should feel sexy, powerful and important too.” Famed fashion designer Roberto Cavalli calls her an “ambassador” for the growing acceptance of a shapelier female silhouette: “She inspires women to embrace their curves, and to be more confident.”
As combative as she can be, Minaj gives credit where she thinks it is due. Beyoncé, who called on Minaj for a guest turn on the toughened-up remix of “Flawless,” wins points for her perseverance: “There’s something about her work ethic that always made me feel like no matter how hard stuff gets, I’m not allowed to complain,” says Minaj. “Some women give me the feeling that where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Minaj doesn’t only measure herself against, or take inspiration from, other women. She’s a leading voice in male-dominated hip-hop. And The Pinkprint — the title of which nods to Jay Z’s The Blueprint — will likely have an outsized impact as hip-hop fans search for releases to rally around in a fallow year for the genre. “I’m not mad at where hip-hop’s at,” she says. “It’s in a more playful place.” Still, she continues, “it’s corny when rappers feel like they’ve made it and they don’t have to prove themselves anymore. You should always be competing. You should always be trying to show that you’re the best. My album is going to be important to hip-hop.”