Born Onika Maraj in Trinidad before moving to Queens, New York as a child, Nicki Minaj harbored artistic ambitions early in her life, and attended Fiorella H. LaGuardia High School – the performing arts academy made famous in the movie Fame. After graduation, she toiled on the fringes of New York’s music community. Her first break came when she worked with Full Force, the veteran R&B group and production team responsible for hits by Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, James Brown, UTFO and many others. She briefly performed in Hood$tars, a pop-rap group led by Full Force member Bowlegged Lou’s son, Lou$tar. (It’s also where she met her former fiancée, Safaree Samuels.) She built her reputation through rugged freestyle performances on hood platforms like Smack DVD and The Come Up. It was on the latter where Lil Wayne discovered her, and he began mentoring her.
Nicki Minaj spent the next two years honing her style and image. She spit rhymes alongside street acts like Maino, Hell Rell, Red Café, Ransom, Jadakiss, Ron Browz, Stack Bundles, French Montana, and Gravy. She traveled to Atlanta and recorded songs with Gucci Mane, an experience she’d later say was crucial to her development, as well as Soulja Boy, Yung Joc. In the process, she evolved from a hardcore New York spitter to a polymorphous, unpredictable artist that experiments with vocal tone and multiple identities. Her breakthrough arrived with her third mixtape, 2009’s Beam Me Up Scotty, which generated her first Billboard charting hit, “I Get Crazy,” and found her working with Lil Wayne’s Young Money team like Drake, Jae Millz, and Weezy himself. An appearance on Birdman’s Priceless paired her with the pioneering rapper Lil Kim.
Thanks to Beam Me Up Scotty, as well as the Young Money crew album We Are Young Money, Nicki Minaj became one of the hottest rappers in the music industry. She landed big pop collaborations with Beyoncé, Rihanna, Usher, Christina Aguilera, Madonna, and Mariah Carey. But she also bolstered her hip-hop credentials with standout verses for Kanye West, Ludacris, Trina, Fabolous, and Big Sean. She released sonically diverse multi-platinum albums like Pink Friday, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, and The Pinkprint, and held her own with Cam’ron and Nas. Like those two icons in their heyday, Nicki Minaj can make a claim to being the biggest rapper in New York, even though her successful forays into mainstream pop and EDM meant that she often doesn’t get proper recognition for her trailblazing hip-hop career.