Tuesday, December 28, 2010

MySpace Artist Of The Year

If you want to know how in demand Nicki Minaj was in 2010, try naming her your Artist Of The Year.

Earlier this month I was set to catch up with Minaj at a People magazine shoot in a spacious studio in Los Angeles’ Culver City neighborhood. Things were running behind—as they often do when you are on the set of a photo shoot for a colossal national magazine—and soon Minaj was jumping into an idling Escalade for the quick drive over to a Westside soundstage, where she was due to film an episode of Chelsea Lately.

No problem, I thought—I’ll just sit down with her in her dressing room backstage. But moments after discussing such pressing matters as gender roles and the size of her booty with host Chelsea Handler, Minaj was back in the Escalade, high-tailing it to the airport in order to catch a red-eye back to New York. And just like that, my interview was over before it had started.

From there, however, the plan became to hook up a few days later, when she was back in Los Angeles to shoot a video for her Drake-assisted album cut “Moment 4 Life.” Even if you didn’t know about the ensuing case of laryngitis she was diagnosed with—coming just before the video shoot and shortly after celebrating her 26th birthday in Las Vegas—you can imagine how this turned out. I never was granted an audience with the personality-and-wig-swapping superstar.

But then again, did I really need to?

In 2010, Nicki Minaj was absolutely everywhere.

This year, she sang, rapped and talked her ass off—and, in a way, it was almost fitting that by the time she returned to Los Angeles, she had essentially lost her voice. Yet, even if she couldn’t physically accept the honor, there was no doubt that the Trinidad native was our Artist Of The Year: Throughout the past 12 months, no one seemed to embody the evolving state of the record industry—or found as interesting a way to succeed within it—more than she did.

Whereas many pop star-wannabes spent the past year honing their image and sound, Minaj appeared, in the lean months of 2010, seemingly fully formed. She also seemed to be in a tremendous hurry, lending what would we come to know as her trademark style—equal parts furious rhymes, playful voice swapping tricks and an arresting visual presence—to a bevy of other artists’ tracks. By April, she had already appeared on Mariah Carey’s “Up Out My Face,” Ludacris’ “My Chick Bad,” and Usher’s “Lil Freak,” just to name a few.

But it was her flame-throwing verse on Kanye West’s “Monster” (in which she delivered the now immortal line, “First things first, I’ll eat your brains”) that changed the public’s perception of her forever. Originally released in August as a free download through West’s G.O.O.D. Friday campaign, Minaj accomplished more in 90 seconds than most female rappers did all year, pulling off the herculean feat of besting rap legends like West and muther-effin’ Jay-Z (who, as luck would have it, asked Minaj to perform the song with he and West this past September, at a modest venue in the Bronx called Yankee Stadium).

“Monster” was a where-were-you-when-Kennedy-was-shot?-type moment for Minaj and its gravity was certainly not lost on those who were in the studio when she laid down her now-legendary rhymes. “I was [there] when she did her verse,” recalls Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, who, to the shock of indie-rock bloggers everywhere, also contributed vocals to the track. “I remember thinking that it was one of the best verses I had ever heard, but thought it might be the fact that I was sitting in the actual studio and getting my mind blown doing that. Still to this day, though, the verse has complete control over everything. It’s perfect.”

Minaj, of course, didn’t invent the cameo strategy that made her inclusion on tracks like “Monster” so life altering. In 2010, Bruno Mars followed a similar route to stardom, appearing on ubiquitous pop hits like “Nothin’ On You” by B.o.B. and “Billionaire” by Travie McCoy before dropping his solo debut, Doo-Wops & Hooligans, in October. However, you would be hard pressed to find another artist who proved as vividly as Minaj did that this could be not only a sustainable new industry archetype, but also a hugely successful one.

“Nicki made herself (a star) by just being who she is,” says Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who was in the studio when Minaj laid down her epic verse for Kanye’s “Monster.”

In total, Minaj was featured on over a dozen different tracks throughout the first nine months of 2010, and nearly all of them became chart-topping smashes. There was a week in October where she had seven singles charting in the Billboard Top 200—at the same time. And while certainly these towering numbers were bound to impress new fans, what was most intriguing about Minaj’s rise is that—in an era when instant-celebrity status has replaced the need for an actual career—she felt like a legitimate star worth rallying around.

“She doesn’t seem to give a fuck,” says Vernon, who ended the year performing at the Bowery Ballroom in New York alongside Minaj, West and practically everyone else who appeared on Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. “Yet she gives a serious fuck about the right things. You can make people into stars—just about anybody, I’ve learned. Nicki made herself one by just being who she is.”

Like many who are close to Minaj, Cash Money Records co-founder Bryan “Birdman” Williams attributes much of Minaj’s attention-getting ability to the fact that she put in years worth of work before taking center stage. After Lil Wayne discovered her delivering a spitfire verse on a hip-hop DVD, and quickly had her to signed to his Young Money Entertainment label (an imprint under Cash Money Records), Williams says that Minaj “did two or three tours with us, just sitting on the sidelines watching” in order to learn the ropes.

“She didn’t know how much grinding we do,” Williams explains, calling from the office he keeps in New York to handle the business of what—thanks to the success of stars like Drake and Minaj—is turning out to be the biggest rap imprint in the Western World. “But,” Williams is quick to add, “she learned that by being around us. So when her turn came, she painted a picture that people liked. It used to be that rappers just rapped. Nowadays, Nicki got a style no other female out there have.”

That style, though, is still in the process of revealing itself, as her hugely anticipated debut album, Pink Friday, demonstrated with a handful of surprisingly tender, R&B-accented cuts. Songs like Minaj’s current hit “Right Thru Me” abandoned her animated flow in favor of a sound that felt more parts Keri Hilson than Kanye mixtape. Not every fan of Minaj’s furious guest spots warmed to this development: One noted critic took to Twitter to ask Minaj’s label to send him a copy of Pink Friday so that he could burn the album’s elastic, Eminem-aided freak out “Roman’s Revenge” and then smash the rest of the CD into pieces.

For others, though, pop-wise tracks like “Fly” and “Right Thru Me” simply illustrate how difficult Minaj is to categorize, a quality that has kept the majority of her fanbase firmly by her side. When it was released this past November, Pink Friday marked the highest first week sales ever for a female rapper and has gone on to sell over half-a-million copies—an amazing number for an artist whose career seemed to question the necessity for releasing an album at all.

However, what Pink Friday really seemed to accomplish for Minaj is that it set the stage for what should be an incredibly thrilling—not to mention long-lasting—musical future. “Nicki feels like a rapper that will not fall through the layers of history,” Vernon says, echoing the sentiments of many this year. “[She’s] someone that will be speaking to many—for decades.”

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