Nicki Minaj is five-foot-four, most of it in the gun-barrel thighs. In her bouncy cameo at Madonna’s sleepy Super Bowl show, Minaj lit up, looking like the anime villain of Madonna’s musical generation and the outlandish hero of her own—a threat to grind her gonzo godmother between those thighs like eggbeaters.
Minaj is the first great rapper to have made her name as a kind of hip-hop pinup—just as much, and maybe more, with her strut, her swag, and her loudmouth-in-outer-space style as by what she sounds like or what she says. (Though she does say a lot of really fantastic things, like, famously, “First things first I’ll eat your brains,” and “I only stop for pedestrians / Or a real, real bad lesbian.”) And it’s no coincidence she’s also the first woman to make a legitimate case for herself as hip-hop’s top dog. Or that doing it, as a woman, has meant turning herself into a doll-eyed candy-colored chameleon, converting talk shows and red carpets into manga strips with impossibly dyed, sometimes dichromatic wigs and a mind-bending array of improbably flattering gear—asymmetric sculptural gowns, patchwork-quilt skirts, and patterned one-piece jumpsuits that hide absolutely nothing. Shape-shifting is a survival mechanism for a lady in rap: If you stay in one place, the latent male aggression will gut you like a fish. Just ask Nicki’s sex-queen soul sister Lil’ Kim—or don’t, since as far as Kim is concerned, Minaj is an ungrateful plagiarist.
Since Minaj first showed up on raucous mixtapes in 2007, she has been a flipbook look book of slipstream identity and schizoid style, besting her Young Money mentor Lil Wayne at his own out-of-the-box game by doing it always with flirtatious glee. One of the hottest things about Minaj is how she cuts so quickly, in her lyrics and her outfits, from hard-edged supra-masculine to soft-focus and girlie: Her single-factory studio debut, 2010’s Pink Friday, was assembled out of hooks and built to charm, and she promises her second album, due in April, will be a great, angry leap forward, packed to bursting with character wizardry and virtuoso content. In the meantime, she’s kept building her stable of alter-ego thoroughbreds—Nicki Mirage; Nicky Lewinsky; Rosa; Roman Zolanski and his weirdly British mother, Martha Zolanski—all of whom parade through the pastel schizopolis of her bizarro music-video universe. And all of whom are dressed to the nines, in an à la carte assemblage of Cyndi Lauper gone cyberpunk, sexed-up Missy Elliott, black-light anime, Japanese street fashion, and hip-hop booty mag. Among a laundry pile of other influences from the anything-goes fashion future.
The whole circus is dazzling and code-cracking genius, since pop markets run by the same laws as any other: grow or die. The problem of being sexy in rap has forced all of Minaj’s flummoxed emcee predecessors the other way, into little whirlpools of self-caricature. (See, along with Kim and Elliott, MC Lyte, Da Brat, and Foxy Brown.)
With Nicki, the slideshow sequence of caricatures is so blinding you lose sight of the person doing the puppet-mastering. And stop caring: In a music culture built by a decades-long authenticity arms race, she makes you forget, finally, the essentialist question. Who Nicki is is much less important than what she is, which is really famous.
The references to forebears are there, though, in the clothes and in the brag: Kim and Missy and Left-Eye, Madonna, Grace Jones, Gwen Stefani, Britney Spears, Janet Jackson. All those women were also, and maybe unavoidably, style icons as much as musicians—Madonna especially, her own shape-shifting a kind of street-fashion fable that echoed down the generations: Anyone could be a star if you wanted it bad enough.
But the incredible thing about Nicki’s fantastical crystal-ball fairy tale is how little street is in it—impossibly little. The luxe polish is especially remarkable because she did grow up relatively rough, in a broken home her father once tried to burn down in Jamaica, Queens, from where she commuted to high school at La Guardia not for music (she didn’t make the cut) but for theater.
Minaj didn’t make her name right away—she’s 29 now and spent the first years out of school waitressing at Red Lobster, working in customer service and trying to hustle up label interest with some bottom-feeder New York crews. But when she did, parlaying a MySpace following into a mentorship with Wayne, she did it as theater, looking like an imperious kid whose entire one-woman show was conceived in a hall-of-mirrors prop room and costume shop: A gangbanger becomes a sex goddess becomes a flirty girl in a princess dress, sometimes in the space of a single guest verse, sometimes within a single staccato bar.
She and her funhouse pal Kanye West have been called the pop wing of weird rap, but in their outlandish show-and-tell staginess they share a lot less with Odd Future than with Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, a set of new-model pop stars who seem to be gazing out through the other end of fame’s crazy kaleidoscope. All of whom, remember, grew up in the nineties, getting their first glimpse of stardom through Hype Williams’s bugeye on Total Request Live. And getting a first taste of it, in Nicki’s case anyway, through MySpace peep-show performance art.
Once upon a time, dance pop was about self-affirmation, and the thing being affirmed was usually some sort of identity—ethnicity, gender, sometimes class, and maybe even sexuality. The Nicki generation seizes a whole new subject for pop: not who you are and how you made it, but the meaning and experience of celebrity once you have it. In place of identity, these prima donnas are performing fame. And doing it with what you might even call “taste”: an idiosyncratic aesthetic vision for everyday life, one that has nothing to do with where they’ve been and everything to do with synthetic aspiration. Minaj isn’t being inauthentic about celebrity—celebrity is the most authentic thing about her. Making it now doesn’t require pantomiming the big dreams of a little Italian girl from Detroit or the troubled life of a Trinidadian-born drama tween from Queens. Stardom can actually porter whatever baggage you bring to it. All it asks is that you embrace its bonkers logic and then perform it back to us, dancing your ass off in that hypercolor dreamscape, all decked out for the fame-drag ball.
But “drag” is a touchy subject for Minaj, given career-long rumors that she’s “really” a lesbian whose upscale-femme get-out is all actually put-on. (“Nicki Minaj is butch!” go the conspiracy-theory comment threads.) But as neither-here-nor-there as the rumors are, they’re also a tribute to her perfect plastic versatility. Minaj herself has described the style with which she first made her mark as Harajuku Barbie, and, for all the otherweirdliness of her constant costuming, it might be the dress-her-up-yourself-doll part of that packaging that’s most important—and “butch” just another way of saying, “Bitch can get away with anything.” She can.
The first time I saw Minaj perform it was on YouTube, as it probably was for many of her super-devoted fans. (When I last checked, one video, for “Superbass,” had been viewed over 220 million times, and like most of her songs had spawned an entire ecosystem of tribute videos and impersonation clips.) The clip begins with Katy Perry on stage, at a December 2010 USO-style gig at the Miramar Marine Corps base. Perry was finishing up her set, wearing a latex-y dress somewhere between dominatrix and storm trooper and launching into a bouncy finale of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” At the chorus, thousands of troops bopping along with her, Perry turned stage right and shouted Minaj’s name, and an inscrutable pastiche apparition strutted onto the stage, in a slinky laser-show dress that looked like it might actually be electrified and underneath a two-foot-wide blonde pyramid wig that could have been a spotlight from an alien spaceship. In the front row, the girls in uniform were going nuts.
So is it safe to assume that you were always interested in fashion?
I’ve always been intrigued by color and by interesting hair. I was one of those weird little girls doing my own hair at the age of 9. I was, like, getting weird gels and new brushes and cornrow holders. I would tweak and perm at the age of 13. When I first went to get my hair colored, I was about 14 and I wanted blonde highlights. The beautician said, “No, you have to get your mother on the phone,” and I was just crying and begging. I’ve always been experimenting. Cyndi Lauper’s videos—that’s what intrigued me.
And you definitely use your looks to get noticed.
I like the idea of doing something that everyone else is not. I get high off that. Just the idea that other people don’t have the balls to do something—that’s my thing.
You were at a lot of fashion shows last season.
The biggest surprise to me was that after I went to some shows with Anna Wintour, I got an autographed photo from her the next day that said, “We match!” I had on these, like, weird balls and craziness, and she had on this really sophisticated dress, but they both were orange. I was like, “Oh my God, I’m getting this framed!” I’m going to get a bigger version and put it in my gym, because that’s some fly motivation.
What’s the story with your different alter egos?
I have different personalities, so I just started naming them. Like, there’s one that’s angry, a little more in-your-face. I named that person Roman. He guest stars on my new album. There’s also his mother, Martha. She guest-stars as well. She’s from London. I also have a Barbie character that comes out every now and then. She’s soft-spoken, really sweet, and polite. She’s got a kid’s voice.
Do you dress for your different personalities?
If I’m more dressed down in sweats and black hair, that’s the Nicki character. Roman is more outlandish with his dress code—he’ll wear speakers on his butt and stuff like that. Barbie wears little cute dresses that don’t show too much skin.
Are you coming back to Fashion Week this time?
I’m not impressed to be in that world. I’m in my own world. I think sometimes the fashion world isn’t even about clothes anymore; it’s about this “in” crowd, and I’m not into that. But I’m doing a Barbie fashion show. They did a Barbie for me, and that is super friggin’ amazing.
Culture Eats Strategy For Lunch
BY FC Expert Blogger Shawn Parr | 01-24-2012 | 6:30 AM This blog is written by a member of our expert blogging community and expresses that expert’s views alone.
Get on a Southwest flight to anywhere, buy shoes from Zappos.com, pants from Nordstrom, groceries from Whole Foods, anything from Costco, a Starbucks espresso, or a Double-Double from In N’ Out, and you’ll get a taste of these brands’ vibrant cultures.
Culture is a balanced blend of human psychology, attitudes, actions, and beliefs that combined create either pleasure or pain, serious momentum or miserable stagnation. A strong culture flourishes with a clear set of values and norms that actively guide the way a company operates. Employees are actively and passionately engaged in the business, operating from a sense of confidence and empowerment rather than navigating their days through miserably extensive procedures and mind-numbing bureaucracy. Performance-oriented cultures possess statistically better financial growth, with high employee involvement, strong internal communication, and an acceptance of a healthy level of risk-taking in order to achieve new levels of innovation.
Misunderstood and mismanaged
Culture, like brand, is misunderstood and often discounted as a touchy-feely component of business that belongs to HR. It’s not intangible or fluffy, it’s not a vibe or the office décor. It’s one of the most important drivers that has to be set or adjusted to push long-term, sustainable success. It’s not good enough just to have an amazing product and a healthy bank balance. Long-term success is dependent on a culture that is nurtured and alive. Culture is the environment in which your strategy and your brand thrives or dies a slow death.
Think about it like a nurturing habitat for success. Culture cannot be manufactured. It has to be genuinely nurtured by everyone from the CEO down. Ignoring the health of your culture is like letting aquarium water get dirty.
If there’s any doubt about the value of investing time in culture, there are significant benefits that come from a vibrant and alive culture:
Focus: Aligns the entire company towards achieving its vision, mission, and goals.
Motivation: Builds higher employee motivation and loyalty.
Connection: Builds team cohesiveness among the company’s various departments and divisions.
Cohesion: Builds consistency and encourages coordination and control within the company.
Spirit: Shapes employee behavior at work, enabling the organization to be more efficient and alive.
Corporate culture is a hot topic among businesses who want to attract the best talent, translate their values to their products and services, and show customers what they’re all about. And it doesn’t cost a thing:
Think about the Marines: the few, the proud. They have a connected community that is second to none, and it comes from the early indoctrination of every member of the Corps and the clear communication of their purpose and value system. It is completely clear that they are privileged to be joining an elite community that is committed to improvising, adapting, and overcoming in the face of any adversity. The culture is so strong that it glues the community together and engenders a sense of pride that makes them unparalleled. The culture is what each Marine relies on in battle and in preparation. It is an amazing example of a living culture that drives pride and performance. It is important to step back and ask whether the purpose of your organization is clear and whether you have a compelling value system that is easy to understand. Mobilizing and energizing a culture is predicated on the organization clearly understanding the vision, mission, values, and goals. It’s leadership’s responsibility to involve the entire organization, informing and inspiring them to live out the purpose the organization in the construct of the values.
Vibrant and healthy
Do you run into your culture every day? Does it inspire you, or smack you in the face and get in your way, slowing and wearing you down? Is it overpowering or does it inspire you to overcome challenges? It’s important to understand what is driving your culture. Is it power and ego that people react to, and try to gain power, or a culture of encouragement and empowerment? Is it driven from top-down directives, or cross-department collaboration? To get a taste of your culture, all you have to do is sit in an executive meeting, the cafe or the lunch room, listen to the conversations, look at the way decisions are made and the way departments cooperate. Take time out and get a good read on the health of your culture.
Culture fuels brand
A vibrant culture provides a cooperative and collaborative environment for a brand to thrive in. Your brand is the single most important asset to differentiate you consistently over time, and it needs to be nurtured, evolved, and invigorated by the people entrusted to keep it true and alive. Without a functional and relevant culture, the money invested in research and development, product differentiation, marketing, and human resources is never maximized and often wasted because it’s not fueled by a sustaining and functional culture.
Look at Zappos, one of the fastest companies to reach $1 billion in recent years, fueled by an electric and eclectic culture, one that’s inclusionary, encouraging, and empowering. It’s well-documented, celebrated, and shared willingly with anyone who wants to learn from it. Compare that to American Apparel, the controversial and prolific fashion retailer with a well-documented and highly dysfunctional culture. Zappos is thriving and on its way to $2 billion, while American Apparel is mired in bankruptcy and controversy. Both companies are living out their missions–one is to create happiness, and the other is based on self-centered perversity. Authenticity and values always win.
Uncommon sense for a courageous and vibrant culture
It’s easy to look at companies like Stonyfield Farms, Zappos, Google, Virgin, Whole Foods, or Southwest Airlines and admire them for their passionate, engaged, and active cultures that are on display for the world to see. Building a strong culture takes hard work and true commitment and, while not something you can tick off in boxes, here are some very basic building blocks to consider:
Dynamic and engaged leadership
A vibrant culture is organic and evolving. It is fueled and inspired by leadership that is actively involved and informed about the realities of the business. They genuinely care about the company’s role in the world and are passionately engaged. They are great communicators and motivators who set out a clearly communicated vision, mission, values, and goals and create an environment for them to come alive.
It’s one thing to have beliefs and values spelled out in a frame in the conference room. It’s another thing to have genuine and memorable beliefs that are directional, alive and modeled throughout the organization daily. It’s important that departments and individuals are motivated and measured against the way they model the values. And, if you want a values-driven culture, hire people using the values as a filter. If you want your company to embody the culture, empower people and ensure every department understands what’s expected. Don’t just list your company’s values in PowerPoints; bring them to life in people, products, spaces, at events, and in communication.
Responsibility and accountability
Strong cultures empower their people, they recognize their talents, and give them a very clear role with responsibilities they’re accountable for. It’s amazing how basic this is, but how absent the principle is in many businesses.
Celebrate success and failure
Most companies that run at speed often forget to celebrate their victories both big and small, and they rarely have time or the humility to acknowledge and learn from their failures. Celebrate both your victories and failures in your own unique way, but share them and share them often.