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.”