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).