The Amazing Ms Nicki Minaj

Nigel Telesford traces the rapper’s meteoric career from her beginnings in Trinidad and Tobago

Minaj greets her fans while performing in Trinidad. Photograph by Andrea De SilvaMinaj performs in Trinidad. Photograph by Andrea De SilvaNicki Minaj. Photograph by D Project Records/Young Money EntertainmentPhotograph by D PROJECT RECORDS/ YOUNG MONEY ENTERTAINMENT

Born in St James, Trinidad, in 1984, Onika Tanya Maraj is now the genre-defying, multiple-accented songwriter, recording artiste, and performer known as Nicki Minaj.

She’s been featured on MTV in a half-hour documentary, My Time Now, in which she shared her life story, her achievements, and scenes from a trip home that she made late last year. Millions of viewers saw her take charge of her career as a businesswoman and express her talent in the studio and onstage as a spotlight-stealing rapper. They also witnessed her emotional side as she broke down and cried on camera during an emotional conversation about her late grandmother.

It’s this combination of music, drama, sex appeal, and multiple personalities that has captivated millions of fans around the world and drawn them to this young MC and singer.

“From the time she was born,” her mother Carol said, “I knew she was talented, and by the time she turned 11, she was always performing and doing stuff. Her success at this level still really took me by surprise, but I’m enjoying it. I’m very proud of her.”

Minaj’s family migrated to the US when she was five. She dealt with a delinquent, alcoholic father while studying drama at La Guardia High School in Queens, New York. After leaving school, she did a few odd jobs before focusing on music and working the mix-tape circuit. But she was turned down by almost all the major recording labels before multi-platinum rapper Lil Wayne scooped her up to join his Young Money crew in 2009. In less than two years, she rose to the top of the Billboard charts and became a star. But that doesn’t mean it was easy.

“Hard work is key,” Minaj said during her visit to Trinidad. “You’ll be surprised how once you start working hard, the stars will align. I had been rejected so much that I didn’t want to go to a record company and hear that again. I just did my own thing and let them come to me, so now I have the power of what kind of contract I’m gonna sign. It doesn’t matter where you are in life, but when you do your own thing and you master you, they’re gonna come…but if you think it’s gonna happen overnight, you’re gonna fail. I always believed that God was gonna answer my prayers ‘cause I’d been praying for this forever. That’s my outlook on life.”

She also advised up-and-coming artistes, “The Internet is bridging so many gaps. Market yourself and use the Internet. That’s what we have at our disposal right now. You don’t need a record company, you can do it yourself.

“I’m a Trinidadian artiste and I got this far, so you can do anything you put your mind to. That’s how I live my life, that’s what I believe.”

Minaj is focusing on one aspect of her career at a time. So although she’s been receiving and reading various movie scripts, she isn’t going to get into that field right away.

“I studied acting for four years,” she said, “so yes, I want to explore that. But right now I’m just really focused on my album, Pink Friday, and that’s the only thing that my life has been about, so I kind of put acting to the side for now. Right now, it’s all about the music.”

Minaj also withdrew from performing on Rihanna’s “Last Girl on Earth” tour last year to focus on recording her debut album. She knew exactly how she wanted it to sound.

“When I started rapping,” she explained, “people were trying to make me like the typical New York rapper, but I’m not that. 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.”

Minaj says she’s proud of her Trinidad & Tobago heritage and was exposed to Caribbean culture during her formative years.

“One thing I always do, and I’m gonna do more, is just say I’m from Trinidad.”

She remembered her mother playing calypso at home.

“But I do remember them playing a lot of Bob Marley when I was little,” she added. “I heard the accent. And my aunts would play a lot of calypso in the house. We would also go to Labor Day in New York.”

She said she was interested in collaborating with soca performers Machel Montano and Destra Garcia.

“I actually wanted to do a track with Destra and Machel for my album, but we didn’t get it together in time. I didn’t want to put them on something with me and dilute their true essence. I want it to be an authentic-sounding song. I went on the computer and I googled Machel’s stuff, and I really liked the song ‘Congo Man’.

(“Congo Man”, of course, is actually a version of the Mighty Sparrow’s 1965 classic, which Sparrow remade with Montano in 2008.)

“I will definitely work with them sometime soon. With Destra, I’ve never even spoken to her, but I always hear her and I love her voice. I ‘rep’ Trinidad proudly and once my album comes out, I think I’ll be in a better space to bring Trinidad to the world. You know, the music, the culture – everything.”

Track records

In August 2010, Minaj became the first female rapper to top Billboard’s rap chart unaccompanied since Missy Elliot in 2002 with her smash hit “Your Love”.

In October, she set a new record as the first artiste to have seven singles on the Hot 100 chart simultaneously. Her collaborations included:

• “My Chick Bad” Ludacris
• “Knockout” Lil Wayne
• “Bottom’s Up” Trey Songz
• “Lil Freak” Usher”
• “Letting Go (Dutty Love)” Sean Kingston
• “2012 (It Ain’t the End)” Jay Sean

According to Soundscan, these songs amassed over US$4 million in sales and her own single, “Your Love,” earned over US$750,000 before she even released an accompanying video.

To round off her breakthrough year, Minaj also won several BET, MTV Video, Underground Music, and BET Hip Hop Awards, and was nominated for Best International Act at the UK’s MOBO Awards.

Pink Friday facts

Released on November 22, Pink Friday debuted at number 2 on the Billboard Hot 200 Chart, just behind one of her collaborators, Kanye West. The album straddles various genres as Minaj flows effortlessly from 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 eclectic list of collaborators includes Will.i.am, Drake, Rihanna, and Natasha Bedingfield, and the CD features production by West, Swizz Beatz, Bangladesh, Drew Money, and Oak, among others.

Praise from her peers

Last December, Rolling Stone magazine crowned Minaj the new “Queen of Hip-Hop”.

Jay-Z suggested her to Robin Thicke for their eventual collaboration, “Shakin’ It for Daddy”.

Kanye West called her “the scariest artist in the game right now”. He went on to say: “She has the most potential out of everyone to be the number-two rapper of all time (‘cause nobody’s gonna be bigger than Eminem).”