LOS ANGELES - Nicki Minaj never envisioned herself as hip-hop's reigning "it" girl. The question alone makes her giggle as she offers an answer nowhere near as cocky as her saucy rhymes.
"When I was growing up, I thought I'd be a famous actress," she says. "Acting came very natural to me. I didn't imagine all this music stuff happening."
Minaj is harnessing those dramatic skills, which she honed at LaGuardia High School in New York City, by assuming the identity of one of the many animated alter egos she's masterfully crafted in lyrics: There's Roman Zolanski, her gay male counterpart; Nicki Lewinsky, the sex kitten; Nicki the Ninja, a spotlight stealer; Nicki the Boss, who runs her own empire; and Nicki the Harajuku Barbie - the over-the-top doll who doesn't hesitate to sign the breasts of her adoring female fans.
With those razor-sharp bangs, a penchant for colorful wigs, vibrant, body-hugging attire and brazen guest verses, she's been on a lot of people's lips of late. Like Lady Gaga, much of her appeal hinges on her image, and Minaj's quirky, charismatic presence seems to have arrived fully formed. The masses - including her more than 1.5 million Twitter followers - have gobbled it up.
But somewhere within the caricature resides Onika Tanya Maraj, the 26-year-old Queens mastermind behind the hype who recently made chart history after her Annie Lennox-sampling single, "Your Love," became the first female hip-hop No. 1 to hit Billboard's rap singles chart since Missy Elliott's "Work It" in 2002. She's also the female rapper with the most chart entries in one year on Billboard's 100 - she's had eight - all before the release of her debut album, "Pink Friday," last month.
On a recent afternoon she is doing what she does best: playing dress-up for the camera. After a photo session, she is shuttled to a Santa Monica studio for another shoot. Wearing a blue and black bob, bubble-gum pink bomber jacket, hip-hugging jeans and pink high-top sneakers, Minaj might look as though she's channeling one of her alter egos, but her sheepish grin and demure demeanor suggest the real Onika is coming to surface.
The buxom rapper got her break when mentor Lil Wayne spotted her remake of Notorious B.I.G.'s "Warning" on a street DVD. After he mentored a set of mix tapes - 2008's "Sucka Free" and 2009's acclaimed "Beam Me Up Scotty" - she landed a record deal through his Young Money imprint.
She took the "femme fatale in an all-male crew" formula to another realm by employing sexually ambiguous lyrics to raise the pulses of both men and women. Almost overnight she went from an underground character to go-to voice on singles from Kanye West, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Rihanna, Usher, Ludacris and Robin Thicke.
With few female emcees on the charts, Minaj has been hailed as a kind of savior with pop crossover potential. In the past half-decade, rappers such as Foxy Brown, Eve, Lil' Kim and Elliott have been out of the spotlight, and with Lauryn Hill only vaguely on the scene, the absence of a powerful female voice has been notable. Minaj glows when there is mention of the heads she's managed to turn.
"I'm excited that people use the word 'revive' in association with me and female emcees. I never thought I would be such an instrumental part of anything," she says.
"I just pictured myself coming in and rapping. But of course, it's like, the best thing to hear because not only am I doing this for me, but I'm doing it for so many other girls."
The attention hasn't been without backlash, even among her would-be peers. Sandra "Pepa" Denton, one half of pioneering group Salt-N-Pepa, told Vibe that although she thinks Minaj is talented, because of her youth "she hasn't learned the message yet" and will fail to move female rap forward. And Lil' Kim has been vocal about her contempt for the newcomer and has accused Minaj of mimicking her style and failing to respect her legacy.
Minaj laughs it all off and bats her thick eyelashes. She seems loathe to discuss the rivalries, although she not so subtly addresses a few of them on "Pink Friday" tracks.
"It's the most annoying thing I've had to deal with," she says. "It's like, just let me be me. You've never seen me before. Period. Every female that rapped inspires me because I know that being in a male-dominated industry is hard. They have all paved the way for me."
"The females haven't been as dominant as she's been right now," says Bryan "Baby" Williams, chief executive of Cash Money Entertainment, her label. "I think that's great for the business of hip-hop. We need more of that," he says. "(But) she's different from any other female that has done it. She exercises her own vision. It's been magical watching her develop."