Fronting her first ever Vogue cover, Nicki Minaj talks quitting social media, healing heartbreak, and bouncing back stronger than ever to reclaim her crown.
This article was originally published in the September 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia
Leave it to Nicki Minaj to set the world on fire. After an almost four-year hiatus, the curvaceous rapper revealed her new project last month and, as expected, fans rejoiced. In a few hours, Queen, the performer’s fourth album, reached number one in more than 86 countries, including the UAE, Palestine, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. Bow down – Minaj is back to take her crown.
I meet the star in New York’s Spring Studios as part of a crew of around 25 people – mostly women – on set to produce Vogue Arabia’s second September issue cover and the rapper’s first Vogue cover. “Have you ever worked with her? I heard she’s tough,” someone asks discreetly. Although we’ve been waiting for more than five hours, you can feel the excitement in the air. But something in the studio sounds out of sync. Blasting from the speakers, instead of the expected upbeat rap or dance hits, the soothing voice of Irish singer Enya is raising eyebrows. “This is Nicki’s choice of music for the shoot,” announces one of her team members, probably noticing everyone’s surprise. Even before her arrival, Minaj is signaling that under her bad girl image lies a woman of many layers, full of surprises.
Once the rapper arrives, I can’t help but notice her height. She is quite petite; one of her security guards is practically twice her size. Her proportions – the famous hourglass waist and generous hips – appear exactly as shown in any of her hit videos, from “Anaconda” to “Super Bass.” Instead of her signature platinum blonde or pink wigs, she’s sporting almost to-the-floor black hair. Framed by lush lashes, there’s also a certain spark in her feline eyes that says, “I’m the boss.” In fact, during the shoot, whether wearing Marc Jacobs or Versace, only one look is enough to let everyone know her verdict of a particular image.
When the two of us sit down away from the entourage, the obvious first question is, why did she wait so long before releasing a new album? “To be honest, I had a very rough time with my previous relationship. It snapped me out of my career,” she says candidly, referring to her ex-boyfriend Meek Mill, the scandal-prone rapper. “Then I came to my senses, snapped back in like a queen does and got back to it. Everything I learned in those few years made me so much stronger as a woman, but also a more spiritual person and a better writer.”
Perfecting her musical abilities was surely a plus for Minaj, who knows her vocal supporters were clamoring for new material. Indisputably, she is the number-one female rapper on the planet – just on Instagram, she has more than 90 million followers. “I felt the pressure from my fans, and there’s this burning desire inside of me to continue to create and to entertain people. I was always thinking that I had to go back on tour to enjoy that special energy that comes from performing around the globe but for it to happen, I had to give them another album.”
In order to produce Queen, the album Minaj believes showcases her skills on a “higher level” as a songwriter and producer, she opted for a spontaneous approach, free-styling and recording her words on her phone, instead of writing them down. Sitting wrapped in a white bath robe (and still looking extremely regal), she shares that the inspiration for some of her new songs, such as “Chun-Li,” came to her by way of the “nice vibe” on a balcony overlooking Miami. The tune was put together in a record time of five minutes and released two days after, on April 12. “Now with my craft, I’m quicker, more solid, and sharper than I’ve ever been,” she emphasizes.
To focus on her music, Minaj also removed herself from her active social media channels. “I think that anybody who says they don’t care about the horrible things being said about them or lies being spread, is not being truthful,” she declares. “I’m a human being and, yes, of course it bothers me when I read horrendous things about myself.” This wasn’t the first time the rapper decided to go on a social media break to reconquer her clarity and mental strength.
“When I’m in the studio, I can’t be constantly looking at my phone and, to be honest, I really don’t care what other people are doing. When it’s time for me to do what I need to do, I know I’m going to be the best, and that’s a fact. I took time to myself to create something for my fans that I was sure was going to be perfection. And when I came back online I was like, ‘I didn’t miss it that much.’”
Known for her sharp and unfiltered lyrics, Minaj uses her songs to target some of her most direct competitors, but also to get closer to her musical allies. For Queen, she collaborated with musical powerhouses Ariana Grande, Eminem, The Weeknd, and Lil Wayne, among others. From a fashion perspective, Minaj also surrounded herself with some of the most highly respected professionals in the industry, reclaiming her status of style icon. While the video for “ChunLi” was shot by Steven Klein, the cover of Queen and the “Ganja Burn” video – where Minaj is portrayed making references to Egyptian iconography – were produced by duo Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott. The performer’s Instagram was also recently flooded with pictures of her wearing looks by Fendi and Chanel, captured by none other than Karl Lagerfeld himself.
Of course, as for any star, there were some rocky style moments, too – in Minaj’s case, red carpet looks that made heads turn for the wrong reasons. “Sometimes I’m happy that my career didn’t end back then because there are some things I look back on and cringe, cringe, cringe,” she laughs. Showcasing a daring fashion sense has always been part of her character, even before she was the global superstar she is today. “I remember when people were wearing three different socks, of different colors. I did that! I also did the neon biking shorts, trying to be fashionable. I was crazy!”
But not all is bad. Lately, the rapper has garnered solid style reviews. For the last Met Ball, fashion’s most exclusive event, Minaj wore a dramatic Oscar de la Renta red and black gown and cape, with a matching bejeweled Tiffany diamond headpiece. “We have a lot of fun designing for her, from the temptress Met Gala look to the ballerina dresses for her music video. Nicki is so hardworking, and it is always inspiring to partner with such an incredible talent,” notes Laura Kim, co-creative director at Oscar de la Renta.
“There was an immediate bond from the first time we met Nicki,” adds Fernando Garcia, also helming the brand. “She talked about how Oscar invited her to her first fashion show. She is now a close friend and a great supporter. We’re all about finding people who connect with the brand and take it somewhere unexpected.”
Love her or hate her, one thing that cannot be denied is that Minaj is the ultimate girl boss. Unlike many other stars in the industry, she is not just an artificial marketing product or a singing puppet. Her career, which she manages with an iron fist, is the result of her natural musical gift and perseverance. For this shoot, she made sure to discuss the creative details on the phone with the Vogue Arabia team beforehand; something that rarely happens with a star of this caliber. She preaches – and practices – that the secret to success is a strict work ethic. “When you are a woman in a male-dominated industry, like mine, you have to protect yourself,” she notes.
“I’ve always been around men but I’ve created a wall so that everyone knows I’m a businesswoman. I wasn’t born into money, but I never had to do any favors to get my songs played on the radio. I always conduct myself like a lady. This might have given me an aura that makes people afraid, but I’m not here to play. I’m just as smart, talented, and creative as any man – and I’m getting that money,” she muses, the quirky sense of humor that punctuates our day peeking through. But was she able to conquer her well-deserved recognition as fast as any male rapper, I wonder? “Of course not.”
To better understand Minaj’s career – that took off so stratospherically with the release in 2010 of her debut album, Pink Friday – we should go back in time, when she was still just Onika Tanya Maraj. Born in 1982, in Saint James, Trinidad and Tobago, she immigrated with her family to Queens, New York, when she was five. She remembers her mother playing Diana Ross and Bob Marley at home. She started rapping at a young age, influenced by her next-door neighbor. “I wanted to impress her because she was also rapping, so I wrote my first words and then knocked on her door to say, ‘I got a rap.’ She was like, ‘Oh yeah?’ and I was like, ‘Yee.’ Ever since then, I haven’t stopped.”
As many struggling artists, before the three mixed tapes that made the industry notice her and the subsequent record deal with Young Money Entertainment, Minaj labored at a series of not-so-glamorous jobs. “I hated going to work, of course. I had a long commute, so I would listen to music and start building verses in my head. I would write everything down when the traffic light would go red,” she remembers, smiling. “In the restaurant where I was a waitress, I would go to someone’s table to take the orders and before I got their bread, I’d write raps on my order notepad about what they said or what they were wearing. I had this determination, this hunger for success that I couldn’t get off my mind. I always thought, I’m going to get the hell out of this joint, stop waitressing, and become a big superstar.” And so she did.
Now Read: The Nicki Minaj Quotes That Didn’t Make it Into Print
Photography: Emma Summerton
Style: Anna Katsanis
Fashion director: Katie Trotter
Hair: Kim Kimble at Six K LA
Makeup: Sheika Daley at Six K LA
Nails: Dawn Sterling
Onset designer and tailor: Olia Zavozina
Set design: Nick Des Jardins at Streeters
Art director: Phillip Duncan
Production: Sister Productions
Style assistants: Felix J Castro, Zita Medvedova
Photography assistants: Eric Bouthiller, Rox Hartridge, Nate Margolis
Digital technician: Andrea Bartley
Shot on location at Spring Studios, New York