Nicki Minaj’s bombastic lyricism and scatter-shock rhyme flow took hip-hop by storm, while her Barbie doll mannerisms and Gaga-esque fashion sense captivated pop enthusiasts. By playing both sides of the fence, she’s achieved success unprecedented by a female rapper, and became notoriously polarizing in the process.
Writer Isoul Harris, Uptown magazine editor-in-chief, is an authority on Black ambition in entertainment, prompting him to take the challenge of telling the story of the woman who “has skyrocketed from hip-hop nobody to American Idol judge making a reported $12 million,” in his first book, Nicki Minaj: Hip Pop Moments 4 Life. EBONY.com speaks to Harris about the rapper's mystique.
EBONY: What made you decide to write a book about Nicki Minaj?
ISOUL HARRIS: I decided to write about Nicki Minaj back in 2010. She became the only artist in history to have seven singles in the Top 100 at one time. Like others, I had my doubts about her and thought she was a gimmick, but then I interviewed her. I quickly gathered that this young woman was not only intelligent, but also focused and had a clear vision of where she wanted to go and accomplish.
EBONY: Given all the press about her, all her TV exposure and her public persona, what did you find the most surprising about Nicki when writing this book?
IS: While writing the book, my view of Nicki was constantly evolving. I knew all along that she wanted to be more than a celebrated rap artist. But as I dug deeper, I saw that this Trinidadian-born and New York-raised phenom is a product of a diverse cross-section of both urban and mainstream pop culture. People have been so concerned with her obvious influence by Lil’ Kim. But if you look closer and dig in, you’ll see that Nicki is a musical and anesthetic byproduct of several artists from the zeitgeist: from Cyndi Lauper to Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Boy George to Grace Jones. She has never believed that hip-hop was large enough to contain her solely.
EBONY: Why do you think that she’s been able to penetrate pop culture, considering she’s a rap artist?
IS: Nicki is smart in the sense that she not only learns from the successes of those who have come before her, but maybe even more importantly, I believe she learns more from the mistakes of her own idols. Remember, Lil’ Kim was once on the mainstream fast track to superstardom, access and wealth. She had endorsement deals, high-paying features on songs and was in demand. But, Kim made bad choices and kept the same people around her that clearly failed to have her best interests at heart. Nicki not only kept her circle small and well-edited, she made sure that although the fashion world was loving her and she quickly became their favorite obsession of the moment, she refused to succumb to their tastes and demands that most people would easily embrace for that acceptance. She has done things on her own terms without apology.
EBONY: Why do you think hip-hop purists denounce her authenticity?
IS: No hip-hop head can denounce the fact that Nicki Minaj is hip-hop. She can go toe-to-toe with any rapper with her delivery and wordplay. Those that deny her place in the hip-hop world don’t understand the nature of hip-hop at its core. The music and life has always been about starting from the bottom and then rocking it at the top. Whether you were Run-DMC going from hardcore hits to “My Adidas” and scoring endorsement deals and then making pop music with rock/pop legends Aerosmith in “Walk This Way.” Or the Fat Boys, debuting with one of the funkiest albums ever and then making comedic films and music with the Beach Boys, who were kings of pop music. Nicki has done the same thing, but she has been vilified for her ambition, determination and drive. You may not like her music, but her work ethic is undeniable.
EBONY: With her sexual on-stage performances and profane lyrics, should she still be considered a role model for young women?
IS: Nicki Minaj has undergone several incarnations during her short career. Yes, she was overly sexual in the beginning. [But] if you listen to her recent music, it’s barely about sex and more about fun. Nicki has worked her way from waitressing at Red Lobster to living in a Malibu mansion and being one of a very select few Black women on major television shows each week. She is a reminder that hard work pays off. I think that all young girls, and boys, should take note.
EBONY: What do you want people to think after reading your book?
IS: I hope readers enjoy Nicki’s rollercoaster ride of a story. It’s entertaining, heartbreaking and very curious. Plus, her story is the American Dream.
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based broadcast professional and music journalist whose work can be found in The Village Voice, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. Follow Allen on Twitter @headphoneaddict, and visit his music blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict.