Why is Nicki Minaj the best judge American Idol has ever had? It's deceptively simple: She is the only judge in Idol history who ever had the chance to see the show before she got famous. So she knows what it's like to watch Idol as a fan. Minaj comes off as sincere and devoid of bullshit, zeroing in on the right contestants. She seems like the smartest person in the room, even though she's a nonstop cartoon montage of candy-colored wigs, space-hooker costumes and ridiculous accents.
Minaj is the main reason Idol is kicking off its freshest season in years. She brings a whole new level of gung-ho dementia to the latest makeover. Mariah Carey looks like a stiff sitting near Minaj, which can only add to Mimi's misery, since the job requires her to talk to normal people, not exactly her specialty – she has no idea what it's like to see people yawn and walk away while she's droning on. Keith Urban tries hard, but he realizes nobody notices he's even there. (And that goes triple for poor Randy Jackson.) It's Minaj who deserves all the credit for firing up the singers and revitalizing the format. She combines the best judging attributes of both Simon (sensible, hard to con, immune to sob stories) and Paula (unpredictable, silly voices). If she can keep it up for the next few months, this might turn out to be Idol's finest hour.
This story is from the February 28th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.