She may be diminutive, but Nicki Minaj packs a lot of talent into her 5-foot 2-inch frame. Born in the Caribbean, she moved to New York as a five-year-old and has overcome a difficult childhood to become one of the most successful rap artists of this or any other generation. Minaj has also branched out into television and film, in demand for her colorful bubblegum persona and image. She’s active on social media and in fashion and has launched several fragrances. Her label-mate Lil Wayne calls her “an icon” who has “reached far beyond anything I would have imagined. Nicki will go down as one of the best to do it in the history of music.”
Tough Childhood in Queens, NY
The rapper and singer Nicki Minaj was born Onika Tanya Maraj on December 8, 1982, in Saint James, Trinidad and Tobago, and moved with her family to Queens, New York, when she was five years old. Minaj's father was a severe drug addict with a long history of violence. At one point, he set fire to the family's home in a failed attempt to kill Minaj's mother. Those early struggles, Minaj has said, helped fuel her drive to rise above the life her parents knew. "I've always had this female-empowerment thing in the back of my mind," she told Details magazine, "because I wanted my mother to be stronger, and she couldn't be. I thought, 'If I'm successful, I can change her life.'"
To reach that point, the young Minaj developed personas for herself that would allow her to reinvent herself. An early incarnation was "Cookie," then came "Harajuku Barbie" before finally settling on Nicki Minaj. "Fantasy was my reality," she has said. Minaj clearly had a knack for performance. At the age of 12, she authored her first rap, then went on to delve into acting at LaGuardia High School of Music and Art, the school that inspired the movie Fame. But her acting career didn’t take off, and she took up a range of steady jobs, including waitressing at Red Lobster, where she was fired for being rude to customers.
Mixtapes Make Way for Young Money Deal
Determined to make it in the music business, Minaj took on backup singing roles for local New York City rappers, including Full Force. Soon, she began writing her own material. She was eventually discovered by the Dirty Money CEO Fendi, who came across Minaj's MySpace page, loved what he heard, and signed her to his label.
That connection led Minaj to Lil Wayne, who collaborated with her on a series of mixtapes, the first of which, Playtime Is Over, was released in April 2007. This and subsequent mixtapes, including Sucka Free (2008) and Beam Me Up Scotty (2009), showcased Minaj's female swagger and out-front style. She signed to Lil Wayne’s Young Money label in August, 2009, becoming its first ever female artist. She solidified her growing rep with appearances on the We Are Young Money compilation album (2009), also collaborating with Mariah Carey and Robin Thicke.
By early 2010, anticipation had built up around Minaj's debut album, which was scheduled for release that fall. In April of that year, she released her first single, "Massive Attack," followed by "Your Love." Two months later she won Best Hip Hop Female at the annual BET Awards. She dedicated the award to Lil Wayne. The Pink Friday album dropped that November, with eight singles released to promote it. It went triple platinum, and received generally positive reviews. Entertainment Weekly’s Brad Wete was reminded of “her labelmate Drake — fully aware of how amazing she is, but also how fragile.” Minaj displayed a range of alter-egos on her releases, including Onika, Nicki Lewinsky and Roman Zolanski.
'American Idol' Feud With Mariah Carey
In March 2012, Minaj made a guest appearance on the popular television competition American Idol. She told singer Jennifer Lopez, then a judge on the show, to "scoot over a little bit" to make room for her at the judges' table. Rumors then flew of a feud between Minaj and Lopez, which Minaj later dismissed. Later that year, however, Minaj apparently got her wish when she was announced as a judge on American Idol. It didn't take long before the fireworks began between her and fellow judge Mariah Carey. The pair seemed to take an instant dislike to each other, and openly feuded during the show's early auditions.
Television viewers got to see the two square off once the show's 12th season began airing in early 2013. Minaj and Carey got into an argument during auditions in Charlotte, North Carolina, with Minaj storming off stage. Carey later claimed that Minaj threatened her with physical harm and decided to hire extra security as a result, according to the New York Daily News. Minaj has also been critical of the show, tweeting that American Idol "is NOT a singing competition."
Claiming the Crown, Other Projects
Minaj reached a national audience with her 2012 Super Bowl appearance. She performed alongside Madonna in the game's popular halftime show. A short time later, Minaj released the album Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded. The record proved to be a smash hit, reaching the top of the pop, R&B and rap charts. The infectious dance song "Starships" was the first breakout single. "Pound the Alarm" soon followed, and as did "Va Va Voom." She went on to perform "Roman Holiday" at the Grammy Awards the same year.
Eight more singles were released from her next album, The Pinkprint, which came out on December 12, 2014. The album’s star-studded guest list included Beyoncé, Chris Brown, Ariana Grande and Drake. It went double platinum, and in 2016, she won the Best Female Hip Hop Artist award at the BET Awards for the seventh consecutive time.
Minaj had also been branching out into other areas. She provided the voice of mammoth Steffie in 2012’s Ice Age: Continental Drift and made her movie debut in 2014’s The Other Woman, opposite Cameron Diaz. She later received a Teen Choice Awards 2016 nomination for her role in Barbershop: The Next Cut. She has fronted a number of endorsement deals and advertising campaigns, including MAC Cosmetics, Adidas Originals and Pepsi, and has her own fragrance line. She is a shareholder in the Tidal streaming service. Her relationship with the rapper Meek Mill ended in early 2017.
Despite all her other projects, Minaj hasn’t lost her musical focus — she’s already recording music for her next album, and is currently engaged in a war of words with the fellow female rapper Remy Ma. While the latter has just released a stinging diss track called "Shether," she has a long way to go to dethrone the current queen of hip hop.
(Profile photo of Nicki Minaj by Kevin Mazur/AMA2015/WireImage)
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