Nicki Minaj - Hustle & Glow
NYLON|April 2016

Sitting pretty on the double-platinum success of The Pinkprint, rap queen Nicki Minaj is now giving acting and executive producing a whirl. 

 

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd

Amid youtube’s endless bounty exists a clip of a young Onika Maraj, performing a scene in an acting class.

She’s doll-faced in a red T-shirt, jeans, and braided cornrows, but the part is mature: She is to argue with another student actor over the custody of her baby. As the scene begins, something clicks and she shape-shifts into the role, so deeply embodying it that she ends up hurling a heavy corded telephone at her cohort. Off-screen we hear it clatter to the ground. With that, the scene ends and Maraj is back, looking sheepish and a little startled as she asks, “Did I hit you with the phone?” Her teacher’s initial reaction is an astonished “Hoo-hoooo!”—clearly concerned for the other student but visibly impressed by the velocity of this young thespian’s ambition.

As most fans know, this precocious performer would grow up to become Nicki Minaj, and to even casual followers of her career, that intense gaze and unmitigated focus is a now-familiar signature. At just 33, the Trinidad-born, Queens-raised artist has already crashed through many a glass ceiling—she’s the most successful female rapper in history, for one, and in 2015 was Forbes’ ninth highest earning rapper in the world. Her determination ensures that she will continue to break new ground, but that video is indicative of a more specific aspect of Minaj’s career. Though a multifarious performer—rapper, singer, producer, style icon, cultural force—she was first an actor, a path she strayed from early on when concerts turned out to be more lucrative. Still, her ability to role-play has been a defining aspect of her rap career. Through the years she’s nimbly traversed accents (British, Spanglish) and personas (Roman Zolanski, Harajuku Barbie). This year, however, as she takes some time to regroup musically before turning her attention to following up 2014’s The Pinkprint, Minaj is fully committing to her theatrical side, both acting-wise in April’s phenomenally good Barbershop: The Next Cut, co-written by Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, and as an executive producer for a forthcoming Freeform TV show inspired by her life, among other projects she can’t yet name.

Winding down in a dressing room at Manhattan’s Milk Studios, Minaj smiles when asked to recall her acting days at New York’s Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. “At that time I was obsessed with Jada Pinkett [Smith]—I wanted to be Jada and Halle [Berry] mixed. Now I’m going back to those desires.” It’s 8:30 p.m. on a frigid Sunday and Minaj is taking her first break of the day. Smallboned and cat-eyed with the gleam of a beauty queen even in jeans and sneakers, she woke early to drive to New York from Philadelphia, where her rapper boyfriend Meek Mill resides, and has just spent about six hours in a photo shoot for this magazine. Her T-shirt depicts Anna Wintour as a skull and crossbones, and recalls one of Minaj’s early debutante moments, when she sat front row next to Wintour in a blonde bouffant at a 2011 Carolina Herrera runway show. That year was her first on Forbes’ highest-paid rappers list; since then, she’s toned down her wild style, earned 10 Grammy nominations, created a clothing line, and released seven fragrances, among them the appropriately dubbed “Minajesty.”

The work ethic is strong, though now Minaj’s speaking voice cracks with a hint of illness, the consequence of standing in the icy rain on a recent double date with Meek and some close friends, the singer Monica and her basket baller-husband Shannon Brown. Today, Nicki the Boss is “Theraflu’d up” and hydrating with water and a bottle of Arizona Fruit Punch. Two days prior, Mill was sentenced to 90 days house arrest for a probation violation relating to his out-of-state tour schedule. Three days later, The Pinkprint will be officially certified two-times platinum in the United States. There’s a sense of perpetual motion surrounding her—the day-to-day whirlwind that accompanies any ultra-famous person, really—but it’s immediately apparent that her focus remains intact. “Really being a boss is all about adding to your résumé,” she says, her steel brown eyes sharp beneath a blonde pageboy. “I’ve always been interested in business, and I’ve always been a businesswoman, before I had $10 to my name.”

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