In September 2011, the fashion world was invaded. During New York’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, a photo of Nicki Minaj sitting front row—the equivalent of courtside—at a Carolina Herrera runway show made the Web rounds. Nicki sported a blonde updo wig and a top adorned with brightly colored pom-poms, a human version of the balloon-powered house in Up. Seated next to the former street DVD queen who once re-created Lil’ Kim’s notorious squat pose, an image of a very different kind: Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, sporting her own stock uniform—frigid grill, bobbed cut and dark shades—arms folded in per- petual disapproval. The juxtaposition of hip-hop’s reigning queen and fashion’s most feared Svengali in discourse had music and fashion blogs babbling. And it happened again days later at the Oscar de la Renta show. It was a big deal to all, but mostly to Nicki Minaj, who held up her prize in a tweet to her then roughly 6 million followers. “Oscar De La Renta w/my date Anna Wintour again” she tweeted. “Oscar is a very handsome man. So is Valentino. Tell ya all about the collection in a bit!”
Four months later, an aggravated Nicki is holed up in a Los Angeles studio, on the phone, roaring against any mention of the word “pop” in association with her art, addressing herself in third person (“Nicki Minaj has been singing since her first mixtape,” she says). It’s an ongoing debate that stemmed from her 2010 crossover debut, Pink Friday. While she tried to put the glittery Barbie persona and the ’hood chick in equilibrium, the album had some thirsting for more of the hardcore “put this pussy on your sideburns” Nicki Minaj of mixtapes like 2006’s The Come Up: The Carter Edition (the DVD led to her inking with Lil Wayne’s Young Money/Cash Money camp) and 2009’s Beam Me Up Scotty. All featured hot bars and, yes, an occasional singsongy lilt. To foresee her potential at that time to hawk M.A.C lipstick lines, break records and morph into a sparkly real-life anime drawing, you’d have to be an A&R Nostradamus or some otherworldly Martian.
But now Nicki’s star status is indisputable. She’s the first female rapper to have seven records on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart (including “Your Love”). She’s murdered multiple guest verses (from Kanye West’s “Monster” to Trey Songz’s “Bottoms Up”) and toured with Britney Spears. Goody-good- ies like Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez have rapped her girly summer banger “Super Bass” in concert. And by the time you read this, Nicki may have won the Grammy for Best New Artist.
Either way, she faces a new world of expecta- tions for her sophomore effort, Pink Friday: Ro- man Reloaded. Which may explain why trying to interview Nicki post-Pink involves excessive stalking and careening around roadblocks. (When her label mate Drake’s name is brought up, a rep listening incognito interjects, “Maybe that’s a ques- tion for Drake. Nicki, do you want to answer that?”) Her newly minted superstar status—and the scrutiny it brings—may also explain why Nicki herself is extra vigilant with her words. With a promise to return to “Mixtape Nicki” for this set, she refuses to acknowledge any deliberate pop ambi- tions. And you can feel Minaj rolling her eyes on the other line when asked just how much of Roman Reloaded features the playful rap-sung tunes of her platinum debut, which made her both a crossover rap phenom and fashion’s urban it girl. “When I say ‘Mixtape Nicki,’ it means not censoring myself and not caring what anyone thinks,” she tells VIBE via phone. “That has nothing to do with pop. You can do a pop song that doesn’t censor yourself.”
So far, on the road to Roman Reloaded, she’s dropped two singles—“Stupid Hoe” and “Roman in Moscow”—that showcase her rappity-rap alter ego Roman Zolanski and reawaken her game-of-thrones match with Lil’ Kim. But the 27-year-old MC will tell you quite forcefully, in a way that makes you feel like a queen’s minion, that neither pop nor rap defines her, and that her artistic direction is no longer up for debate. “I refuse to define what I do,” she says. “You’ll feel it. It’s more of an experience than a genre. They’ll have to create a new genre for this. You can’t put it into a genre that’s out now. You absolutely can’t.”
VIBE: It’s got to be hard to be a perfectionist this time around when you’re trying to meet a deadline.
Nicki Minaj: Actually, I’m writing 10 times quicker than I wrote on the first album because I’m a lot more confident in who I am. We’ve just been trying to pace things so that the album comes out at the right time. The music is pretty much done, but we may hold the album back a bit so that things are done perfectly as opposed to being rushed, in terms of promotion.
What made you more confident?
I don’t know, probably a collection of different things. I couldn’t really sum it up into one thing. I just know that I’m having a lot more fun this time.
You’ve said before that you didn’t really have fun recording Pink Friday.
I felt like I had something to prove to everyone who said a female rapper could not make an album unless she was talking about her pussy. And so I went above and beyond to prove that I could not talk about sex and not talk about my genitalia and still have a successful album. And I proved that. And now my time for proving things to my critics is over. I don’t really need to prove anything to anyone else anymore.
But the major criticism was that the album was too pop, more singing than rapping.
I’m very happy I made that choice.
Has the success of Pink Friday validated that you know what you’re doing?
I think I had the most growth outside of Pink Friday. My features really gave me the most confidence, because I used the features to play around a lot. Once I’m having fun, the lyrics are the simplest thing to come up with.
Drake has had a war of words with common. Does Drake have more of a target on his back now?
All I know is that Drake is extremely talented and he’s very smart. I don’t think people realize how intelligent he is, so some things are… It’s fun. Some things are hip-hop, and that’s what it is. If he does have a target on his back it’s because he’s extremely successful and he makes music people can relate to.
How has he changed with Take Care? Do you feel like he’s gotten more confident, become more of a tough guy?
I really don’t think Drake has changed musically. Take Care is a continuation of Thank Me Later. I don’t really feel that it’s a leap. His core fans are getting what they love from Drake.
Do you guys talk about how you’re handling fame?
We speak about it all the time, yeah.
What’s the greatest advice that you’ve given him and that he’s given you?
[Laughs] I told him recently to go back to his clean-cut look. I always tell him what I think girls are going to like. We have a couple laughs about it and keep it moving. In terms of image, whenever I wear my black hair, he’s so happy. He’s like, “Yo, that’s how I want you to look.” We have more indepth conversations about the business, but those are confidential.
Is it still hard to get your way as a woman in this industry?
It’s not hard to get your way when it’s your way or the highway. People either follow suit or they’re not around. I don’t really like the sound of that, ‘cause that sounds like a temper tantrum. I’m just very black and white when it comes to my business. There’s really no gray area. I really don’t have a lot of small talk with people I work with. It’s pretty much let’s get the job done. In the beginning, if people didn’t know me they’d probably assume I wasn’t smart or wasn’t business savvy. But once you sit and talk to me, it’s a different story.
You seem kind of intimidating.
I would say that people are cautious of the way they come at me. I’m just about my business. So when I meet people, it doesn’t mat- ter how big of a celebrity they are, I maintain who I am. I maintain respect for myself. So I very rarely come across anyone who disrespects me, because I respect myself. I don’t go around acting in a way that people would ever get it twisted with me. If that means they’re intimidated by me, then so be it. I’d rather people be intimidated than be too comfortable.