Nicki has graced the cover of the new upcoming issue of GQ Magazine. I’ve added 2 HQ photos from the shoot to our e4xdtensive photo archive. Make sure to check them and the interview out below!
Nicki Minaj’s eyeliner is a precision event, a marvel, as if drawn on by the kind of pre-programmed robot arm used for laparoscopic surgeries. It is a peacock navy color, dark and shiny and full, extending maybe a not-outrageous half centimeter up from the top lid, extending an additional still-not-crazy three centimeters outward past where her eyes end. Her eyelashes are even and delicate, like wisps from a dandelion, and I can’t recall if I’ve ever seen her without prosthetic versions. I have had plenty of time to search my memory, though, because here on this couch, in this room, during this interview, with me sitting next to her, Nicki Minaj has fallen asleep.
We are at Barclays Center in one of the dressing rooms, which are low, low beneath Brooklyn; most are named after streets and neighborhoods in the borough. During the rehearsals for Fashion Rocks, the New York Fashion Week concert fund-raiser, the halls were filled with publicists and escorts who had to pretend not to be dazzled by those they were escorting. Minaj had walked in a few minutes before, tiny next to her assistant and her muscle, wearing black sunglasses, a trucker hat cocked to the side, and a T-shirt with the periodic-table box for carbon. She had been led straight into the DeKalb dressing room, named for the street that bisects a couple of local neighborhoods now populated by yuppies but that still contain housing projects. Her smile is a warm sun. As is this room. The temperature in here has been set to about 300 degrees, at Nicki’s request. She says she gets cold a lot.
Next door to her is the Canarsie dressing room—I actually grew up in Canarsie; it’s still a dump—and inside is Usher, who at the MTV Video Music Awards last month slapped Nicki’s ass and continues to slap it endlessly in GIFs all over the Internet. Nicki was the star of the VMAs that night. Her hot, humpy performance of “Anaconda” was part of a medley, and it was followed by a quick costume change that didn’t quite reach completion: She had to pinch the two breast-covering flaps of her black dress closed, because her cue for the finale of the opener, “Bang Bang,” with Jessie J and Ariana Grande, came before she could zip. She power-walked in like a boss, joining the other two onstage, both of them so skinny and with such rough angles and straight edges and reaching so hard for some soul. Nicki destroyed them.
This is what she does. She takes a pretty good song, waits until you are popping along to it, then a little longer, until it feels repetitive and you start to see through to its flaws, and then boom, she comes in and makes it a completely different song—a better song. She is the best part even of great songs; her featured verse on Kanye West’s “Monster” is the best of several, including ones by Jay Z and Rick Ross. She did that song because she was asked and because “Kanye’s a genius.” She did “Bang Bang” because she “knew it would be big.”
In the dressing room on the other side of Nicki’s, the Empire, named after a boulevard in Brooklyn that sounds regal but is even rougher than Canarsie ever was, is J.Lo. I could write a dissertation about the two seconds during which MTV caught J.Lo watching Nicki do “Anaconda” at the VMAs. Perhaps J.Lo, in those seconds, stares at Nicki and considers her own youth, and also that this is what she has wrought, that back when she brought this whole butt thing into the mainstream all those years ago, she went out of her way to be discreet, to keep us wanting more, to never let us look her ass directly in its eye, that it was an ass of implication and innuendo—that, if she may, she made asses safe for the white folks at home in a way they never had been before. Who knew that just giving the people what they wanted would yield such success? In those two seconds, J.Lo’s look is a mixture of pride and despair.
It has been counterpointed to me that perhaps J.Lo was just thinking of how far we’d all come, that now we can all celebrate our asses. I don’t know; maybe if she didn’t have a new album out, I’d agree. Contact me to debate this; I will make myself available. I want to talk about asses so much. I want to know what it is we’re telling the world when we use our asses in the way that Nicki has been using her ass—when they are not the accent in a video but the point of it.
And most of all, of course, I want to know Nicki’s thoughts on this. I was awake there in the DeKalb, and I had questions. She was asleep, which was fine, I suppose, because she didn’t appear to have answers, anyway.
The Versus Versace party she’d attended the night before our interview had yielded a plastic case filled with M&M’s—an odd party favor, something I’ve received at bar mitzvahs. She pulled it out of her purse as we talked in the basement of Barclays, and this would be my only indication that she recognized she needed a boost. The case was taped closed, so I offered to open it for her; her nails, a pointy taupe manicure, were making it hard. We ate some together, and she noticed that they each had the Versus lion insignia on them. “Isn’t that crazy,” she said, impressed.
She’s into branding these days, particularly her own. In the “Anaconda” video, there are no fewer than five products placed prominently for advertising: her Beats by Dre speakers imprint and her Moscato but also a Victoria’s Secret bra, some Air Jordans, and a baffling “teatox” drink called MateFit (dialysis machine sold separately). It’s not exactly seamless integration, and at times it is so overt that it feels like a comment on the culture of branding, maybe some poignant thought about sex and consumerism?
Nope. “My management team has a division that has a guy that his main focus is to go out there and find new brands for me to do business with or to find brands that would like to be in our videos and contribute to our budget,” she says. It’s like a Kickstarter, but for a multi-millionaire.
She was not born wealthy. Nicki, 31, grew up in Queens and attended LaGuardia, the high school from Fame. She says her father once tried to burn down her house while her mother was inside. She did odd jobs after school: She was a customer-service rep for a while, but that didn’t go great. “I like dealing with people, but I don’t really like a lot of bullshit, so maybe customer service wasn’t the best job for me.” She was fired from a waitressing job at a Red Lobster after she followed a couple who had taken her pen into the parking lot and then flipped them the bird. I asked her if it was a special pen. “No,” she said. “It was the principle.”
She came to prominence in outsize, italic, caps-lock, Technicolor exaggeration—pink wigs, outrageous outfits, eyelashes that were a comment about eyelashes. She had different personas—alter egos, she called them—with names and backstories. She did funny accents and was willing to make herself beautiful, then grotesque, then absurd, then back again. And here she is now, demure by comparison, just plain old black extensions, just a T-shirt about carbon.
“I always thought that by the time I put out a third album, I would want to come back to natural hair and natural makeup,” she told me. “I thought, I will shock the world again and just be more toned down. I thought that would be more shocking than to keep on doing exactly what they had already seen.”
She no longer feels as if she needs to hide behind outrageousness. This next chapter is about success. Nicki Minaj is rap’s first and only female mogul, having parlayed all your ogling into a spot on Forbes’s Cash Kings list—the only person of our gender paid well enough to be so honored. She is the top-charting woman in rap, a top-charting rapper in general, and a crossover phenomenon who can go back and forth between hip-hop and pop the way Taylor Swift can no longer go back and forth between country and pop.
A few days earlier, she’d been in Los Angeles finishing up her third album, The Pinkprint, out this month, and she’s changed things “a billion times” because she’s a perfectionist. Her first two albums were big hits, platinum sellers. Already The Pinkprint has yielded a chart-topping single and an unstoppable meme—the “Anaconda” cover art features Nicki, pants nowhere in sight, squatting, photographed from behind—but also a quieter Nicki, and certainly a more tired one. She can’t be baited into talking shit about anyone anymore; she answers questions simply and succinctly.