In a year bookended by blockbusters from Taylor Swift and Adele, Nicki Minaj set her own standard for success, ticking off triumphs even as she fearlessly spoke her mind and openly challenged other superstars.
To be clear: Nicki Minaj is a better musician than she is a celebrity. But she’s an awfully good celebrity. For Minaj, 33, it’s a job that entails more than the routine duties of 21st century multimedia fame – spreading your stardust across dozens of platforms, from recording studio to concert stage to red carpet to Instagram feed. Minaj’s brand of megastardom means inhabiting the eye of a storm that sweeps up contentious issues of race and gender and sexuality, while tending to more quotidian controversies like rap beefs and diva rivalries.
During the past 12 months, Minaj has found herself playing the role of fearsome pop-culture provocateur – often, but not always, intentionally. She has scorned racialized beauty standards, one statement prompting a Twitter riposte, then a hasty apology, from Taylor Swift. She called out Miley Cyrus for cavalier appropriation of black culture. She stayed above the fray when a feud broke out between her new boyfriend, Meek Mill, and her longtime comrade and labelmate Drake; and she navigated the political thickets of the dispute that continues to roil that record label, Cash Money.
Oh, yeah – she also spent the year holding down her day job, barnstorming arenas in the United States and Europe in support of her third album, the vibrantly genre-defyingThe Pinkprint. In 2015, that album spent four weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Rap Albums chart and was just edged from the top spot on the Billboard 200 by Swift’s titanic 1989.The Pinkprint has sold 682,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen Music, and spawned multiple hit singles including a pair of witty, lewd rap tracks, “Truffle Butter” and “Only,” which reached No. 1 on the Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop and R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay charts. Both singles earned Grammy nominations, and The Pinkprint is up for best rap album. In short, it was a banner year in a career for which there is no precedent: that of a glamorous, politically engaged black female star who churns out extravagantly glitzy top 40 pop while maintaining as good a claim to the mantle of Greatest Rapper Alive as anyone, of any gender.
One could add another title to Minaj’s résumé: Most Forbidding Interviewee. Her reputation for bluntness – a tetchy truth-teller who brooks no nonsense and lets no slight go unanswered – was confirmed by the publication, in October, of a New York Times Magazine profile that ended with Minaj tossing the story’s author, journalist Vanessa Grigoriadis, out of her hotel room, punishment for a line of questioning that the star deemed sexist and belittling.
No one is ejected from the room during Billboard’s audience with Minaj (although just after our interview, she clashed with Billboard’s photo team over a series of issues, some of which could not be resolved to her satisfaction). The conversation is, as ever, forthright and provocative. Minaj weighs in on Hillary Clinton’s “struggles as a woman” and lambastes the war on drugs as a form of “slavery.” She drops hints about an imminent return to her mixtape-rap roots, and dishes on everything from her taste in decor to double dates with Beyoncé and Jay Z. The interview takes place at a studio in Los Angeles, where the Trinidad-born, Queens-reared star recently moved into a swank home with Meek Mill. Minaj wears a pink chiffon dress and fuzzy slippers, padding around the space chatting with friends and associates. At one point, an employee of Minaj’s asks her how she came up with one of the rhymes in “Only,” a zinger that spins a naughty punchline out of a reference to the L.A. Clippers’ small forward Lance Stephenson. “I had just finished cooking,” she said. “I always like to season stuff really good before I cook it – I let it soak. ‘Let it soak in, like seasonin’/And tell ’em, tell ’em blow me, Lance Stephenson.’ See? Let it soak in.”
What validation means the most to you? No. 1 records? The respect of fellow artists? The people’s reaction – when I’m on tour, how they scream when a song comes on. Obviously, I always want an album to debut at No. 1. But in terms of songs – for instance, “Super Bass” was so culturally effective. It never went No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, but that song still makes people happy. Six years old to 80 years old, when people hear it, they know it and they love it. And, in terms of rap, stuff like “Did It on ’Em.” Whether or not that song goes to No. 1, I’d still be proud of it. Because when it comes on, I could be in the middle of West Bubba and people still screw their faces up and do the head nod.
You’re a New Yorker, but people don’t think of you as a regional rapper, exactly. Maybe because you signed to [New Orleans-based] Cash Money. Do you consider yourself a New York rapper? Definitely. The way I focus on metaphors and punchlines – that’s a very New York, Philly, East Coast thing. When I started, we were very battle-driven, so every line mattered. We had to try to destroy your life, and we were ruthless and very smart with wordplay. To make anything with a double meaning, you’ve got to be smart.
Have you heard Missy Elliott’s new record, “WTF”? Yeah – I think it’s great. I think she’s great.
Are there current artists you’re especially into? Can I ask you about certain artists? I’d rather not. Because then I may not have heard of them, and I don’t want to be rude. So.
You’ve been working on a sitcom for ABC about your childhood. How’s that going? I am maybe too involved. Two days ago I was in casting. I’m going back tomorrow. I found one girl who I’m obsessed with who might play me, and someone who could rival her. So I’ve been coaching them both. I do a beat, let them rap. I do little dances with them. It has been magical. I didn’t even know I had it in me, but I love children so much.
Are there models for the show? Have you seen any of the new ones that depict people of color, like Fresh Off the Boat or Master of None? Well, I narrate this show, like Chris Rock narrates Everybody Hates Chris. It was little differences that made that show stand out. I want to have those nuances. My first day, I said to the casting director: “This will not be a clichéd black show.”
You began your career as an actress. You’re in the upcoming Barbershop sequel. Is acting something you want to do more of in coming years? Absolutely. I want to do something very serious. Meryl Streep is one of my favorite artists of all time. She blows me away in just about everything she does. I love how she can go from The Devil Wears Prada to The Iron Lady – she’s so incredible in that. My dream would be to have that type of acting career, where I can do both things believably.
Do you watch a lot of TV? I watch Investigation Discovery all day. All day. Like, I know everything about law and crime-solving. Everybody that comes to my house, they’re like: “Do you not take it off this channel?” Meek thinks that I’m planning on killing him. We live together now, and every time he wakes up, it’s on. Every time he goes to sleep, it’s on.
Do you watch Empire? I remember seeing the first episode and being like, “Oh, my God. I wasn’t expecting it to be this real and dope.” But I haven’t seen it in a while.
The end of the Obama era is approaching. Are there things about his presidency that have especially impressed you, or disappointed you? I do want to speak about something specific, which just melted my heart. I thought it was so important when he went to prisons and spoke to people who got 20 and 30 and 40 and 50 years for drugs. There are women who are raped, people who are killed and [offenders] don’t even serve 20 years. I was blown away, watching the footage of him speaking to the prisoners. They never felt like anyone in the White House cared about them. I loved that he made them people again. Because we all make mistakes. I think about how many men may have made a mistake to feed their families and then had to pay for it forever.
Many critics of the United States’ drug enforcement policies have pointed out that they disproportionately target people of color. What it has become is not a war on drugs. It has become slavery. Or something crazier. When I see how many people are in jail, I feel like, “Wait a minute. Our government is aware of these statistics and thinks it’s OK?” The sentences are inhumane. I love the president for trying to be a voice for people who no other person has ever tried to be a voice for.
What do you think of Hillary Clinton? I support her as a woman. Am I convinced that she should be the next president? I still want to be open-minded about everyone. Obviously, I identify with her struggles as a woman. I identify with the fact that when she’s in that room and there are nothing but men there – there’s sometimes something in her that must feel intimidated. But I think that she uses that and turns it into a strength. Because that’s what I’ve always done. And so I love her for sticking it out. She has gone through horrifying things, even within her marriage. She has been brave and weathered the storm. And continued being a boss. That’s something that every woman should feel inspired by, no matter if you’re voting for her or not.
You’re from New York, so you also must have an opinion on Donald Trump. (Laughs.) There are points he has made that may not have been so horrible if his approach wasn’t so childish. But in terms of entertainment – I think he’s hilarious. I wish they could just film him running for president. That’s the ultimate reality show. [The interview was conducted prior to Trump’s Dec. 7 comments about halting immigration by Muslims into the United States.]
The country is going through a period of heightened protest and conversation about racial justice. You’ve been vocal about Black Lives Matter, the Sandra Bland case, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin. I did research on the Sandra Bland case. That’s why it hit me so hard. I remember speaking to other women at the time. This could have been me. I’m a sassy woman. I may have given a little bit of attitude to a police officer. I could have never come home.
You recently appeared at “Shining a Light: A Concert for Progress on Race in America” and recited the Maya Angelou poem “Still I Rise.” What made you choose it? It was the most spot-on poem that Nicki Minaj could have ever read. And it’s funny; it ended up proving a point. Because I remember going online after and lots of people said such beautiful things. But there was one lady, an older black woman, who said, “She shouldn’t be reading that poem.” And she discussed how I dressed. I love that she said that, because she doesn’t even realize the poem is discussing sexiness, owning your sex appeal. “Does my sexiness upset you?/Does it come as a surprise/That I dance like I’ve got diamonds/At the meeting of my thighs?” And this woman, she was discussing her PhDs, all this education she had – but she couldn’t put two and two together about the theme of the poem. My entire career has been that poem in a nutshell.
You moved into a new house in Los Angeles just a couple of months ago. What is it like? What’s the Nicki Minaj aesthetic? I’m not, like, the vintage girl. I like it to look plush. There’s one room where I want everything to be in white leather. And the bedroom, I want a beautiful canopy with lots of drapery all over it. I want to feel like Princess Jasmine.
Do you miss New York? I love it [in Los Angeles]. I spoke to Beyoncé about it, because she came out here recently too. She said exactly what I used to say when I first moved here. We just feel happier. She was saying that simple things that would normally feel like a task, they don’t [feel that way] out here. She told me it’s not bothersome to get up super early and have to take Blue to school, because it looks so beautiful. I’m a New Yorker, but there are times in New York when you wake up and it’s, like, a dreary day. I know my London fans can identify with this.