Nicki Minaj never envisioned herself as hip-hop's reigning "it" girl. The question alone makes her giggle as she offers an answer nowhere near as cocky as her saucy rhymes.
"When I was growing up I thought I'd be a famous actress," she says. "Acting came very natural to me. I didn't imagine all this music stuff happening."
Minaj is harnessing those drama skills, which she honed at LaGuardia High School in New York City, by assuming the identity of one of the many animated alter egos she's masterfully crafted in lyrics: There's Roman Zolanski, her gay male counterpart; Nicki Lewinsky, the sex kitten; Nicki the Ninja, a spotlight stealer; Nicki the Boss, who runs her own empire; and Nicki the Harajuku Barbie — the over-the-top doll who doesn't hesitate to sign the breasts of her adoring female fans.
With those razor-sharp bangs, a penchant for colorful wigs, vibrant, body-hugging attire and brazen guest verses, she's been on a lot of people's lips of late. Like Lady Gaga, much of her appeal hinges on her image, and Minaj's quirky, charismatic presence seems to have arrived fully formed. The masses — including her more than 1.5 million Twitter followers — have gobbled it up.
But somewhere within the caricature resides Onika Tanya Maraj, the 26-year-old Queens mastermind behind the hype who recently made chart history after her Annie Lennox-sampling single, "Your Love," became the first female hip-hop No. 1 to hit Billboard's rap singles chart since Missy Elliott's "Work It" in 2002. She's also the female rapper with the most chart entries in one year on Billboard's 100 — she's had eight — all before the release of her debut album, "Pink Friday," this week.
On a recent afternoon she is doing what she does best: playing dress-up for the camera. After a Mid-City photo session, she is shuttled to a Santa Monica studio for another shoot. Wearing a blue and black bob, bubble-gum pink bomber jacket, hip-hugging jeans and pink high-top sneakers, Minaj might look like she's channeling one of her alter egos, but her sheepish grin and demure demeanor suggest that the real Onika is coming to surface.
The buxom rapper got her break when mentor Lil Wayne spotted her remake of Notorious B.I.G.'s "Warning" on a street DVD. After he mentored a set of mix tapes — 2008's "Sucka Free" and 2009's acclaimed "Beam Me Up Scotty" — she landed a record deal through his Young Money imprint.