Nicki Minaj is a force to be reckoned with. Her polarizing in-your-face brand of feminism and image moderation has made major waves in recent years. For me, Minaj’s strategic reinvention is the fastest and most successful in pop music history. Tuck in your gasps and allow me to explain.
When we think about iconic female artists who’ve reinvented themselves in the music industry, artists like Cher and Madonna come to the forefront of our collective music-loving minds. Cher went from hippie to variety show host, to reputable film actress, to sexy mid-40s pop star before coming back and snatching the number one spot as a 50-something dancehall diva with “Do You Believe?” in 1998. She accomplished these feats over the course of five decades. Arguably, she is the maven of reinvention and female autonomy in the entertainment world.
With Cher as a predecessor, Madonna took the ’80s by storm with her oversexed dance moves, shock value and ultra catchy tunes. We watched as she hopped seamlessly from music to movies and back again, trying on different styles and personas at every turn. There was the cone-bra vixen, sexy goth, alluring Kabbalist, the sexy fit mother. For a few years, she was a trans-British expatriate. Madonna took Cher’s recipe and did it in a shorter timeframe. Over the course of 30 years, Madonna crafted an historical, record-breaking noteworthy career.
Which brings us to Onika Tanya Maraj, better known as Nicki Minaj. When she first hit the scene, many mistook her for a Lil’ Kim/Foxy Brown knockoff, with the potential to drop a hit or two before falling into the cold, embarrassing arms of reality show hell. The predictions were dead wrong. In the five years since her Pink Friday debut, Minaj has proven herself to be more Madonna (who she’s collaborated with) than Lil’ Kim (who she’s publicly beefed with), as she slowly reveals new layers of herself to a curious public.
Artists like Madonna and Cher fought for the right to be able to own their public persona, to be as explicit as possible, and walk in spaces where women were not allowed. They said what was on their minds; they stormed out of interviews; they controlled their images. And because of this audacity, they were first vilified then later celebrated. Such is the case for Nicki, who’s no stranger to the hot seat. She is creating a brand new pop/rap mogul lane with her reinventions.
I know this might sound ultra-blasphemous but hear me out.
Minaj is the only female commercial rap artist who is endorsed as a major contender in the male-dominated rap world. Minaj’s rap skills put her at the top of the boys’ club. Minaj is not just the best female MC on radio, she’s one of the best mainstream rappers, period. Her flow, lyrical content, wordplay and ability to steal the show is beyond impressive. (Real talk, Minaj is a better rapper than all of her label mates. Yes, including Aubrey.)
From very early on, Minaj knew that being a good rapper wasn’t enough; she needed to summon all 48 laws of power if she wanted to be the best. Her evolution began straight outta high school.
Early 2000s— Minaj the Hustler
A young Onika Maraj joined the rap group Hoodstars, which included her future ex-boyfriend Safaree Samuels among others. The group eventually broke up and Minaj took day jobs (slanging cheddar bay biscuits at Red Lobster) in order to fund studio time. Three years after Hoodstars dissolved, Nicki Miraj became Nicki Minaj at the insistence of one of her earliest producers.
Her suggestive new stage name (ménage à trios, duh) was a sign of an image to come, though mixtape-era Minaj was a pretty conservative dresser with a slick press-and-curl sew-in. Her look was very round-the-way-girl by way of Wet Seal, but her focus was the music. It was her rap skills that had the streets talking. Three mixtapes later and Minaj signed to Young Money in 2009. She hopped on dozens of features with artists like Usher and Mariah Carey as she put together her debut album.
2010—Minaj the Harajuku Barbie
Minaj crafted a look that would ensure she was unforgettable: that of the animated hypersexual, comical rapper with a wardrobe and wig closet that would make Rainbow Brite (or Lady Gaga, for that matter) weep with admiration. Her mixtape fans called foul, but Minaj charged on.
In late 2010, Minaj released her debut album, Pink Friday, which topped the charts. The album produced three major hits and introduced the world to Minaj’s arsenal of accents and musical alter egos, which included Roman Zolanski among others. New fans were ravenous and stanning down for her.
But with adoration comes backlash. Some hated her sexual appearance, while other hated her seemingly brand-new backside. None of this stopped Nicki’s shine. Butt shots or not, she was on her way. In 2011, she toured with Britney Spears and got away with a nip-slip on Good Morning America.
2012—Minaj Crosses Over
Minaj’s skill and Barbie persona brought her to the mainstream. That January, she performed alongside Madonna at the Super Bowl; in February, she dropped “Starships.” Mainstream hip-hop purists were disgusted with Minaj for selling out with the syrupy track. Her sophomore album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, dropped in May and was a success. Her mainstream strategy had paid off and four months later, Nicki became a judge on one of the most popular talent shows ever: American Idol.
Though her stint on the show was fraught with tension, Minaj caught national exposure on a weekly basis. Her brand was expanding. While going through Idol drama, Minaj lent her voice to the animated blockbuster, Ice Age: Continental Drift, and was the subject of a documentary on the popular E! network.
Just two years after her debut, Minaj managed to get a role in a blockbuster film, star on a hit TV show, score two number one albums and a headlining tour.
In early ’13, Minaj debuted her clothing collection for K-Mart and her first perfume. With her product placement, her mogul ambition was shining through. By the end of her stint on Idol, Minaj had even begun to tone down her look. Post-Idol, Minaj continued to work on music, and by year’s end had become the most-charted female rapper in Billboard chart history.
2014: Minaj the Heartbroken
Minaj made her live-action acting debut in The Other Woman, one month before the public discovered that her long-time relationship with Safaree Samuels had ended. Things got real messy for an artist shrouded in such secrecy. The public dissolution of their relationship led Nicki to put her feelings on the next record.
Minaj debuted a notably mature appearance on numerous red carpets, as she began laying tracks for what would become her best album to date: The Pinkprint. Toward the end of 2014, rumors swirled that Minaj was rebounding with rapper Meek Mill. The breakup made her relatable, and the rebound with an adoring successful rapper was tabloid gold.
2015: Minaj the Empowered
We’ve seen Nicki the Hustler, Nicki the Sexpot, Nicki the Heartbroken, and now we are watching Nicki the Empowered. Like 2014, this year has been a tale of extremes for Minaj. During the summer, while her mentor Lil Wayne feuded with her boss Birdman, Meek Mill decided to blow up Drake’s spot and the 6 God was not having it. An embarrassing battle ensued and Nicki remained pin-drop silent. While I’m sure she’s going through it emotionally, a few misplaced words murder relationships and momentum.
Publicly ignoring Meek/Drake-gate, Nicki tended to her world tour, and then Swiftgate happened. Taylor Swift vs. Nicki Minaj was over before you knew it, but it wouldn’t be the last American sweetheart Minaj would check this year. Her “What’s good, Miley?” cemented her empowered, uncensored realness.
People who were not fans applauded Nicki and began to see her in a new light. On the heels of her now infamous Miley Cyrus clapback, Minaj announced that her life story would be turned into a TV show for the sugary sweet ABC Family channel.
This is next level. While many question how Minaj’s self-professed difficult childhood would translate to a family show, I wonder why anyone questions anything Minaj does. She has control. Her recent New York Times Magazine cover story profile showcased that Minaj is not afraid to highlight and effectively challenge misogyny and misogynoir. She has a clear vision of her big picture, and no reporter hunting for a pullquote is going to blame her for the drama between the men in her life. Likewise, Minaj is not going to allow ABC Family to call the shots on her childhood. Every move serves her legacy and brand. Each year she matures, learns, and adjusts. Her pace is astounding.
I’m curious to see the long-term Minaj evolution. She glo’ed up. While you may vehemently disagree, there’s no denying that Nicki Minaj is evolving and taking strategic steps to ensure her longevity.