Just who is Nicki Minaj? If you take an interest in fashion, you might have seen her going up various style magazines' barometers for her outrageous get-ups. If you're a hip-hop aficionado, you'll already know her music through her acclaimed mixtapes and numerous collaborations with rap's finest. The 25-year-old who is being touted as the saviour of female rap is gearing up to hit the mainstream.
One of her collaborators, as well as close friend, is Drake, already a superstar Stateside, and it is surely only a matter of time before he is over here too. Together they're rap's brightest new stars, the king and queen of hip-hop in waiting.
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Minaj (born Onika Tanya Maraj) was raised in Queens, New York, having spent her first few years living with her grandmother in Trinidad. Hers was a sometimes troubled upbringing, including by a crack-addicted father who used to sell the family's belongings to fund his habit.
After attending LaGuardia performing-arts school, where she studied acting, she decided she wanted to make it as a rapper, and got a job waitressing to fund her music. It was during this time that she would hang out with guys in Queens who all wanted her to sing the hooks alongside their raps. But Minaj wasn't prepared to be the typical female rap collaborator.
"I hated doing anything that made me seem like a girl at that time," she told Vibe magazine earlier this year. "I wanted to be as strong as the boys and as talented as them, and I wanted to show them I could do what they did."
She saved her money for studio time and recorded some tracks which started creating a buzz. It wasn't long before one made its way to Lil Wayne, who signed her to his Young Money Entertainment label, which Drake is also signed to. Kanye West and Jay-Z are both huge fans but despite collaborating with Ludacris, Usher, Mariah Carey, as well as Drake, she has yet to release her first album.
There hasn't been such a buzz around a female rapper since Lil' Kim emerged. What marks Minaj out is that she subverts the standard hip-hop formula that says female rappers have to be either street or sexy. She is a formidable performer, spitting out articulate and amusing lyrics, mixing swagger with her own skewed version of femininity. She's only too aware that she is moving in a man's world, and has said: "When I grew up I saw females doing certain things, and I thought I had to do that exactly. The female rappers of my day spoke about sex a lot and I thought that to have the success they got, I would have to represent the same thing, when in fact I didn't have to represent the same thing."
Her unique style is also getting her a lot of attention. Sometimes referred to as the Lady Gaga of the hip-hop world because of her often cartoon-ish apparel, she too has a number of different personae that she has carefully constructed. She refers to Nicki the Ninja, "the hip-hop lyrical assassin"; Nicki the Harajuku Barbie, the coquettish girl who loves pink; and, finally, Nicki the Boss, who takes her role as an entertainer seriously.
She has said, "I don't mind being called a weirdo. There are a lot of people in hip-hop who are probably never going to get what I do. But, by just being myself, I end up touching a lot more people who might never have paid much attention to a female rapper."
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Drake is also subverting the genre. Unlike many men in rap, 23-year-old Aubrey Drake Graham has no interest in being a gangsta cliché. While he certainly has his share of bravado, he brings emotion and vulnerability to his performances. He respects women, something that can be heard in his lyrics. In a genre as misogynistic as hip-hop, where women are so often merely sex objects, Drake raps and sings about liking his women "book- and street-smart". In interviews he is charming, friendly and humble, devoid of bling and excess.
Speaking with CBS, he recalls meeting his mentor, Lil Wayne, for the first time, in 2008. Wayne (currently serving a one-year jail sentence on a gun-possession offence) told him to not change and reassured Drake that he didn't need to get tattoos or dress differently. "From the day Wayne met me until now", Drake says, "I haven't changed anything. He said: 'Don't stop smiling either, don't try to be mean or aggressive. Just be you and rap about life and women and family and be happy. Be the guy that I could never be.'"
His lyrical aptitude and accomplished rapping have meant that just about every signature player in rap, including Jay-Z and Eminem, is lining up to work with him. He is, though, an obvious target for people claiming that he lacks street cred, too.
Born and raised in Toronto, Drake had an unsettled childhood. Like Minaj, his father was involved with drugs and crime. Raised by his mother, Drake found modest fame as a teenager playing Jimmy Brooks on the Canadian teen drama, Degrassi: The Next Generation. He started releasing mixtapes in 2006, which found their way on to the radio. By 2009 he was the target of an almighty bidding war to sign him, and earlier this year he was nominated for two Grammy awards for the single "Best I Ever Had". When he released his debut album, Thank Me Later, in June, it went straight to number one in the US Billboard charts.
There have been numerous rumours about a romance between Minaj and Drake, but it seems they are just very close friends. Not that they mind teasing their fans about the nature of their relationship. Drake has said of Minaj: "When I was on tour I saw Nicki for the first time and, like, literally fell in love... I've always really, actually, really had a crush on her, always really loved her, and she's always just looked at me as, like, her little brother."
Minaj's strong voice and attitude-filled delivery and Drake's sensitivity may be dividing opinion in the hip-hop world, but the thoroughly refreshing pair have just joined hip-hop's elite. Like them or not, it only proves Minaj's own motto correct: "If you don't have any critics, you probably don't have any success either."
Drake's single "Fancy / Best I Ever Had" and Minaj's album 'Pink Friday' are both released next month
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