Nicki Minaj’s trademark cackle echoes across the room, bouncing off the glass walls and 20-foot ceiling of a giant photo studio on Sunset Boulevard. Her voice dips into a booming, deep register: “MontAAAAAna!” she menaces, like a father who’s just discovered contraband in his son’s bedroom. Then the song plays again—French Montana’s Nicki-featuring dancehall single “Freaks” is blasting from the speakers on repeat.
Flesh-and-blood Nicki is much more subdued than her recorded self, splayed wordlessly across a leather couch. Between takes, she’s uncharacteristically reclined, her tiny bare feet dislodged from a pair of pointy heels. We’re at the tail end of a long photo shoot, during which she’s been shuttling back and forth between the set and an adjacent dressing room. When the final walk back to the set comes, it’s pure theater: sauntering in a red leather bra and a skintight black skirt, she’s aided by a procession of helpers tidying small details. The swarm includes a handful of stylists from her glam team, her right-hand man (and rumored longtime boyfriend) Safaree Samuels and a videographer taping the scene from the front.
Nicki keeps her personal video cameras rolling often these days; at 31, she’s entering a phase she’ll want documented for the archives. With two platinum albums under her belt, she’s already mythologizing her in-progress third, The Pink Print, describing it as “the blueprint for female rappers to come.” The album’s set to feature hit-makers like Dr. Luke, Ester Dean, Boi-1da and Detail, and she’d like to get Rihanna in the mix. Drake will contribute, too, though “he’s unpredictable,” she says. And of course, she assures me, “The rhymes will be tight.” Nicki is one of the world’s biggest stars, but there’s a lingering sense among her followers that her career will be incomplete until she releases a classic rap album. Meanwhile, she’s got even bigger plans.