In several songs, rapper Nicki Minaj describes herself as a proud bisexual—she has a special weakness, we learn, for ample-bottomed girls. In others, she is defiantly straight: insisting that she prefers men, dropping “no homo” disclaimers to drive the point home. In “Brrraaattt,” she plays a thug, firing semiautomatic weapons at her rivals. In “Cuchi Shop,” she plays a madam in charge of a stable of prostitutes. In interviews, she announces herself as a would-be role model for young girls. She says she’s from Queens, N.Y., but in several songs she slips into accents that suggest she’s from England or perhaps the San Fernando Valley. On one song, a 2008 mix-tape track called “Autobiography,” she seemed to imply that her father had killed her mother—an interpretation that has circulated on message boards, although she has since mentioned her perfectly alive mom in interviews. At the song’s start, she identifies herself as Nicki Maraj, pronounced mirage. It’s tempting to read into the moniker some acknowledgment that, with this MC, things aren’t always what they seem. Except it turns out that Maraj is the surname she was born with. Or is it? Who are we talking about again?
Hip-hop is full of unreliable narrators, but over the course of her short career, Nicki Minaj has taken unreliability to near-whiplash extremes. “I do lots of weird voices and I kind of act out my raps,” Minaj, who studied theater at the Manhattan performing-arts high school LaGuardia, has said. “Acting … allowed me to be playful and crazy, and it helps me tell stories.” On her three mix tapes and across an ever-broadening résumé of guest appearances, Minaj has become one of hip-hop’s most exciting and fastest-rising stars, in part by cultivating this unhinged, shape-shifting persona. Fans tune in to find out not just what she’ll say this time, but who she’ll be.
Minaj was born in 1984. One of her first mix-tape appearances, a 2006 remake of the Firm’s 1997 single, “Affirmative Action,” was typical of her early rhymes: She sounds intent on proving her chops, rapping with a battler’s showy aggression and rigor, stuffing her verse with internal rhymes and the sort of oblique similes that turn listeners into detectives, rewinding and scrutinizing tracks for clues. On her first two mix tapes, 2007’s Playtime Is Over and 2008’s Sucka Free, she was unafraid to try on big shoes, remaking the Notorious B.I.G.’s “The Warning” and rapping over the instrumental from his “Dead Wrong,” in which she brags, “If Biggie was alive, he’d sign me.” Minaj’s protean streak became apparent on Sucka Free, where she draws attention to her playacting, switching from one dubious autobiography to the next: cold-blooded murderer here, “rap game Heidi Fleiss” there.
By the time 2009’s Beam Me Up Scotty mix tape came out, she had won endorsements from Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane—Southern titans with mile-wide goofy streaks—and her music had grown even looser. She began calling herself Barbie, the implication being that she’s proudly plastic: Silly voices took hold, verses were shot through with bursts of robotic singing, and her wordplay took on a loopier aspect. On “Slumber Party,” she breaks into a rendition of the old Batman theme song during an extended, punning ode to her vagina: “It’s tighter than a choker, got him smilin’ like the Joker, got that na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na.” (The apparently fan-assembled Barbie World mix tape is a handy collection of Minaj’s most recent material).
In Minaj’s music, hers isn’t the only identity in play—her recent rhymes are stocked with people who dissemble, mutate, and live lies. On “Out My Face,” a Mariah Carey song in which Minaj makes a lively cameo, she tells us her boyfriend has cheated on her … with a man! … of the cloth! “He was creepin’: all up in the church, he was sneakin’ with the deacon,” she dishes, too tickled by the juiciness of the gossip to pretend she’s that upset. On “Little Freak,” she and Usher are about to go to bed, but first they want to find a third wheel. Minaj plays a bisexual vixen with her guard up against mere dabblers: “I really like your kitty-cat, and if you let me touch her, I’ll know you’re not a bluffer, I’ll take you to see Usher,” she purrs at a candidate. And on “Saxon,” one of her best and most bizarre songs, Minaj takes on the voice of the Barbados-born pop star Rihanna: She calls herself Ri-Ri and sings in a vaguely West Indian lilt about envious “copycats” who mimic her every move. If this wasn’t twisty enough—Minaj pretending to be Rihanna complaining about people who pretend to be her—Minaj toggles between first-person and third-person in the refrain: “Switch my hair, they gon’ copy her/ Switch my gear, they gon’ copy her,” she sings. “Saxon” was most likely a demo prepared for Rihanna’s consideration, with words and concept courtesy of Minaj (who’s said she’s done contract work for other acts), but it leaked online under Minaj’s name and without any definitive explanation. The song is a puppet show staged in a hall of mirrors.
What should we make of Minaj’s identity shuffle? In her music, we get the sense we’re watching an artist figure out who she is in full public view: doodling various versions of herself and letting us watch. Mercurial types are common in pop music, but rarer in hip-hop, where the presiding promise—albeit a wobbly one—is that MCs are who they say they are. If a rapper changes—as artists like Andre 3000 or Jay-Z have over time—this is typically figured as an evolution, not a snap transformation. Minaj’s music emphasizes, with delirious glee, that the autobiographies we encounter in rap are, to some degree, performed, contingent, or even arbitrary.
This may have something to do with the fact that Nicki Minaj, unlike the vast majority of mainstream rappers, is a woman. The history of female MCs who have made a dent on the culture is woefully thin, but Minaj turns this seeming disadvantage into an asset: She treats the relative absence in hip-hop of strong (and strongly defined) female voices as though it were an inviting blank canvas, not an oppressive void, and she hops from persona to persona with a license we can hardly imagine a mainstream male rapper enjoying. It’s possible that some more stable version of Minaj will harden into place by the time her debut album comes out later this year (mix tapes are an easier place to experiment than big-money, major-label bows), but perhaps she’ll keep herself in some constant state of flux—stay plastic.