Nicki Minaj has worn a lot of hats–or, in her case, candy-colored wigs–in the half-decade that she’s been in the public eye: rapper, pop star, actress, fashion icon, mogul. Listen to her hits on the radio and she sounds ferocious and irrepressible, like someone who could do, or be, anything.
But curled up in an armchair in a New York City hotel room on a frosty winter day, she is weary and uncertain. She’s trying to talk about her new album, The Pinkprint, which is all about stripping away the distractions to reveal the human being underneath.
The problem? It’s still up for debate who, exactly, that human being is. Minaj, 32, is the first to admit it. “I’m searching to find out who I am in a lot of ways,” she says. “What I really want out of life–” She hesitates. “I still feel like I’m searching for something.”
That makes two of us, since I’ve also been searching for the real Nicki Minaj. Over the past four months, our plans to meet have been proposed, then scrapped, in three different cities. I look for clues to her whereabouts, but she hasn’t been photographed by paparazzi in months. Her Instagram feed reveals nothing; instead she posts ads for Myx Fusions, the fruit-infused moscato beverage produced by a company of which she is a co-owner, in between outtakes from fashion photo shoots and the occasional selfie, often taken in an unremarkable bathroom. On Twitter, she is equally opaque. One night she writes, “Let me be happy now. God.” At the risk of reading too much into a punctuation mark, that period after now haunts me for days. Even in person she’s hard to pin down: mostly soft-spoken and thoughtful, withdrawn and terse when pushed, then impassioned and eloquent when she feels strongly about something.
To a casual listener, Minaj may not seem deserving of such close study. But in the music industry, her name carries weight. “She’s the best female rapper out there–there’s nobody as good as her,” says Madonna, who featured Minaj on her past two albums and invited her to perform at the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show. Ernest “Tuo” Clark, the hitmaker who co-produced Minaj’s recent single “Anaconda,” sounds awestruck when describing her. “People in the studio call her the snow-white leopard,” he says. A sighting of her is that rare.
It would be easy to write Minaj off solely on the basis of “Anaconda,” a raunchy ode to big butts. On the single’s artwork, she’s squatting in a pink G-string, throwing a provocative glance over her shoulder. The music video features a parade of women with extraordinarily robust derrieres jiggling their assets in various stages of undress. It doesn’t just test the boundaries of good taste–it twerks all over them.
But in September, “Anaconda” hit the No. 2 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, becoming Minaj’s best-performing single to date in the U.S. The clip broke the record for the most views in 24 hours on the music-video service Vevo, with 19.6 million hits. It’s since been seen almost 400 million times.
Yet on The Pinkprint, “Anaconda” turned out to be something of an outlier–a frothy party banger amid songs that are often about the pangs of the morning after or the trials of being a singular woman in a realm dominated by men. There’s still braggadocio and swagger, but it’s shot through with melancholy and frustration–she boasts and yearns in the same breath. “All I want is to love and be loved,” she raps on “The Crying Game,” a collaboration with singer Jessie Ware. It’s a startlingly plangent lyric, and one that’s hard to imagine a man delivering sincerely.
For Minaj, being able to set these complexities to music is a feminist issue. “You never know how much is too much–too much emotion, too much vulnerability, too much power,” she says. “Everyone wants me to be something different. Women in the industry are judged more. If you speak up for yourself, you’re a bitch. If you party too much, you’re a whore. Men don’t get called these things.”
Now, she says, she’s lifting the veil: “I promised myself that with my third album, I would let my fans feel more connected to me. I felt like I owed it to them.” The Pinkprint is more intimate, yet its creator remains elusive–just a confessional lyric here or an inflection there allude to some deeper pain. Even at her most honest, she leaves only clues.
Born Onika Maraj, Minaj spent her early life in Trinidad and Tobago, where she was raised by her grandmother. As a child, she moved to a rough corner of Queens, N.Y., to live with her mother Carol. Her father Robert had a violent temper and struggled with addiction. At one point, Minaj has said, he burned down their house; Carol escaped just in time. The teenage Onika showed an aptitude for performing arts and attended the famous LaGuardia High School. “A lot of kids that grew up where I grew up don’t get accepted to schools like that,” Minaj says. “That’s one of the only things I can remember from my teenage years where I felt like my mother was really proud. She made sure I went to the auditions.”
After graduation, Minaj worked odd jobs while trying to launch a career as an actress. Eventually she started rapping, recording a string of fiery, sexually provocative mixtapes that won the attention of Lil Wayne, already a successful rapper. In 2009, after a reportedly fierce bidding war, he signed her to his Young Money Entertainment imprint with an unusually desirable 360-degree deal that allowed Minaj to retain all of her rights to “merchandising, sponsorships, endorsements, touring and publishing,” per a press release. This was crucial for her.
“When I first came out, I was branding without even realizing it,” she says. “People were dressing up as me for Halloween. Companies came to me and asked whether I’d do lipstick or headphones or liquor. People felt like I could sell something.”
From the beginning, she was strategic about the business end of her empire. “We think about what could generate the most long-term wealth, and we look at what people have done in the past–what worked and what didn’t,” she says. “I always wanted to know the ins and outs of the business. I hate when artists don’t know what the hell is going on in their career. What is wrong with you? Why would you let someone else control your life–without you being a part of it?”
She applied that eye for detail to her debut album, 2010’s Pink Friday, featuring collaborations with Kanye West, Eminem and Rihanna. Her look was high-concept, with heavy makeup, bizarre outfits and a pink wig; the imagery was heavily stylized. On that album and its follow-up, 2012’s Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, she shuttled between aggressive rap–with lurching, guttural beats and profane lyrics–and featherweight radio candy, dance-pop songs like “Super Bass” and “Starships.” She rapped in the style of an evil alter ego she named Roman Zolanski, adopting strange accents. Drawing from a litany of musical genres, she seemed zany, bewildering. Soon she was sitting front row at fashion shows with Vogue editor Anna Wintour and judging on American Idol, where she sniped with Mariah Carey.
The world of pop music has been increasingly open to women at the helm of their own empires, exercising both creative control and keen business acumen–Madonna, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift testify to that–but rap remains a boy’s game. Minaj’s success has a lot to do with crossing over to the mainstream in strategic ways–making pop smashes without abandoning her rap roots–but it’s also about her laserlike focus.
“When you’re able to make money in rap these days, it’s a blessing because–let’s face it–everybody steals your sh-t,” she says. “They can see you on Twitter all day. They don’t have to come to your concerts. So I was always adamant about becoming a brand first, and I sacrificed a lot to do that. I sacrificed going out. I sacrificed making friends in the industry.”
She erected a strong shield. “I isolated myself a lot because I didn’t want anyone to play”–mess around–“with me,” she says. “I didn’t want men to feel too comfortable with me. I knew they would think that I would be the type of girl they could play with.” She pauses. “I wasn’t.”
Minaj reportedly ended a decade-long romance while recording The Pinkprint; though she has never acknowledged it publicly, her ex-boyfriend, Safaree Samuels, has been on a press tour of his own, describing his relationship with Minaj in a radio interview and airing his grievances on Twitter. (“I don’t want to discuss that,” she says brusquely when asked about her relationship status.) But The Pinkprint is unmistakably a breakup album. Heartache ripples through her songs, as on the stark ballad “Grand Piano,” which features Minaj using pipes most listeners probably didn’t know she had.
“At times it felt scary,” Minaj says of making herself so vulnerable in her music. “And at times it felt exhilarating and therapeutic. Every day I feel differently about sharing things.” On the opening song, “All Things Go,” she raps about an abortion she had as a teenager.
“Every woman goes through different emotions after that,” she says. “With me, there was a lot of guilt. I was trying to block it out of my head for as long as I possibly could. I don’t know if I’ll ever know if that was the right decision.”
Discussing it publicly is a calculated move that Minaj says she deliberated about for weeks. Meanwhile, a lyric video for her single “Only” was less carefully considered. It contained imagery reminiscent of Nazi propaganda and ignited a maelstrom of controversy. Minaj says she didn’t sign off on it–if anything, she says, it’s an example of why it’s so necessary for her to approve every decision made as part of her enterprise, no matter how minute. “I was very sick,” she says. “I was in bed for a week, and I put that in the hands of someone else.”
The video for “Anaconda” is scandalous for different reasons, but it smacks of Minaj’s distinct personal vision. “I handpicked the girls in that video,” she says. “I wanted them to have big booties. I watched videos and didn’t see any girls that looked like that. That’s scary! Even rappers don’t have those girls in their videos.” For all the discussion “Anaconda” generated, Minaj says she wasn’t trying to provoke. “I just wanted to make girls feel proud of who they were,” she says. “There’s a lot of only making some women feel good in this industry. Everyone is on a diet or trying to look perfect. I wondered if anyone was embracing curves anymore.”
Sexual provocation is a political act to Minaj. “People view sexy as weak,” she says. “If you’re overtly sexy, people don’t expect you to be smart. Sometimes women are dressing sexy for themselves–not necessarily because they want to have sex with some man. Sometimes that’s what makes them feel good and empowered.” Sex has also served as a way to distract the public from her private life and the events she hasn’t been comfortable sharing. It’s a clever sleight of hand. When you’re baring that much flesh, nobody bothers asking you to bare your soul.
Explaining why The Pinkprint is so important to her, she says, “It’s about feeling confident enough to share who you are with the world. You know?” She pauses for a long time. “And even though sometimes love hurts, I still wouldn’t trade it for the world. Being hurt or having lost love is better than being bitter. I never want to be bitter. No matter what you go through in love, there’s always something good to take from it.”
Suddenly she looks unsure, as if perhaps she’s said too much. It must be hard to be Nicki Minaj–to build an empire in rap, a frequently misogynistic corner of the music industry, by harnessing her sex appeal while simultaneously vying to not be defined by it. To command the respect of the hip-hop kingpins who might otherwise objectify her and then to make herself so vulnerable. Perhaps her identity isn’t some big mystery. She’s just whoever she has to be to get through the day.
Minaj is backpedaling. “It’s not all love songs,” she says. “I pushed myself harder than I’ve ever pushed myself for anything. This album does such a great job of being hard. That’s what I want people to remember from this album–that I didn’t rest on my laurels. I never want to be called ‘good for a girl.’ I want to push myself to be the best rapper.”
She sets her jaw. “Period.”
This appears in the February 16, 2015 issue of TIME.