We’ve fallen in love with stupendously bizarre Queens rapper Nicki Minaj in our own way—each of us with our own customized trigger. For the past year, the tart-tongued Trinidadian has been ubiquitous, a nonstop torrent of deranged guest verses, ludicrous face-pulling videos, garish costumes (she favors neon wigs and painted-latex “Invincible Street Fighter II Character” getups), and delightful Twitter antics (she put out a $50,000 bounty for her lost pink stuffed monkey, Oscar, who was safely recovered). Be it Usher, Ludacris, Lil Wayne, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, or Gucci Mane, she has upstaged every star she’s encountered, stolen every scene, chewed and swallowed every last bit of scenery she’s wandered into. With a bottomless arsenal of cartoon-villain accents, lascivious come-ons, and absurdist boasts, she’s the strangest and most fearsome female MC to emerge in years, but Minaj herself didn’t ultimately make me fall in love with her. Michelle Trachtenberg did.
In February, the Gossip Girl villainess starred in a minute-long YouTube video, shot while driving through the Holland Tunnel with cameraman and soap-opera hunk emeritus James Van Der Beek (why not?), in which she raps—shockingly well, it must be said—most of Minaj’s lines from lightweight quasi-lothario Robin Thicke’s otherwise negligible “Shakin’ It 4 Daddy.” The effect is mesmerizing. As Nicki’s burgeoning greatness is arguably more theatrical than musical, Trachtenberg is not on unfamiliar ground here, flailing her arms and goggling her eyes expertly as she serenades the camera:
And when I pop that pussy
I pop it so crazy kooky
I pop it on his Suzuki
I’m back in those Daisy Dukies
Incredible. Her delivery of “I pop it so crazy kooky” alone is Oscar-worthy. This was the strongest confirmation yet of Minaj’s confounding power, which is just as evident when Nicki herself is, y’know, actually around: Performing the song on the Late Show With David Letterman, Minaj rendered Thicke a mere afterthought as usual, flailing and goggling herself as she thundered, “Money in the air/It’s a festival/’Cause I ball-ball-ball-ball-ball/No testicles” with unshakable conviction. Letterman looked utterly smitten, or maybe just bemused, or maybe there’s no real difference.
The best thing about living in New York City in fall 2010 is worrying about Minaj’s debut album. (As with Drake, her riot-inducing budding-superstar cohort in Lil Wayne’s Young Money stable, actually releasing a standard full-length is mere confirmation of her budding superstardom, not the cause of it.) Pink Friday is scheduled for release on November 23 (fun fact: not a Friday), a date she Tweets with such autistic regularity that despite the hip-hop world’s infamous release-date roulette wheel of doom, you’re inclined to actually believe it. Pink Friday could be glorious. It could be terrible. There’s no real way of knowing. But wrestling with that potential alone—that unease and blind hope and profound concern—is an exhilarating feeling. This could be a signature moment in the ongoing revitalization of NYC hip-hop; it will be utterly fascinating regardless.
The issue is that despite the 2,000-car-pileup of guest verses (for the uninitiated, just dive straight into the deep end via her psychotic serial-killer turn on Usher’s “Lil Freak”), magazine covers, tabloid titters, and low-simmering feuds (Lil’ Kim, understandably threatened, is not amused), Minaj is not a fully formed personality yet. (Her headlining online mixtapes are pretty exhausting and uneven; she’s made noise about preferring to have delayed her first official album until next year, when we’d have gotten to know her a little better, but the fickle market calls.) Strange as it is to say for a rookie work, Pink Friday already feels like a spin-off attempt, a radical departure from Minaj’s wild success as an ensemble-cast standout, be it within the otherwise hapless Young Money crew (grocery bag!) or the hip-hop universe at large. Think of her as Frasier, Rhoda, Benson, Cleveland, Brak. (For devoted fans of the Adult Swim cartoons-for-stoned-adults universe, Minaj really is a female Brak incarnate, hilarious voice on down.) It’s a different world, having your name in the largest type on the album cover.
No one has any idea what constitutes “the real her,” is the thing. Least of all her, possibly: Alleged first single “Massive Attack” stiffed so badly it’s most likely been discarded, noisy and disjointed and, especially when paired with the luxuriously tacky video, unpleasantly reminiscent of Grace Jones’s terrifying perfume ads in Boomerang. Her next try fared far better: “Your Love,” a sweet, goopy, Auto-Tuned ballad hitched to a bone-simple Annie Lennox sample, put Minaj on top of Billboard’s rap chart, the first solo female to be there in nearly a decade. Great. Except the song itself is pretty mild—the odd Bruce Willis shout-out aside, it doesn’t revel much in her sumptuous weirdness. Prepare for the possibility that she’s simply a world-class character actor, better suited for briefly stealing the spotlight than carrying it. Minaj was arguably the star attraction at Summer Jam 2010, radio station Hot 97’s annual parade-of-rap-stars arena blowout, but she didn’t do her “own” set—she simply wandered out during other people’s, usually in a different costume, tore the stage up, struck a few poses, and wandered back off. Less is more with her, and it’s dangerous requesting more of it.
Could be, though. Could be, could be, could be. If anticipating Pink Friday turns out to have been more fun than actually listening to it, it would still be a rare gift for hip-hop devotees in this particular part of the world. “I love New York City!” Van Der Beek declares at the end of the Trachtenberg video—that’s not something you hear people say too often on a national stage, in 2010, when it comes to rap. What a strange place to hear it again. Could be the start of a delirious love affair.