Underneath the stage before February’s Super Bowl halftime show, Nicki Minaj felt an emotion she hadn’t experienced in quite some time. She was really, really nervous.
Over the last three years, the young rapper had become one of the most charismatic and commercially successful stars in pop music, with a gum-snapping flow and acerbic guest rhymes that stole the show from vets such as Mariah Carey, Kanye West and Rihanna. Her pop-inclined solo debut, “Pink Friday,” hit No. 1 and launched bestselling singles like the elastic “Super Bass.” She’d just finished an arena tour opening for Britney Spears to the biggest crowds of her career.
Still, as she stood next to her peer M.I.A. — and the show’s headliner Madonna, the stakes felt higher than ever before.
So the MC born Onika Maraj resorted to her time-honored tactic to get over the jitters. She played a character, the stadium-commanding pop star Nicki Minaj. “Leading up to it under the stage riser, I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, there are so many people out there,’” Minaj, 29, said. “But once I got out there, 30 seconds into it, I just decided to be myself and have fun with it.”
Only four months into 2012, Nicki Minaj has already headlined two of the world’s biggest moments in live music, with her Super Bowl gig followed by an outlandish exorcism-themed Grammys set that was the talk of telecast. Her new album, “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded,” is an even more daring document of a young artist holding onto her creativity while navigating major commercial stardom.
“Reloaded” is a labyrinthine psychodrama centered around one of her many alter egos, the gay, twentysomething man Roman Zolanski, whom Minaj cheekily claims is a demon that lives inside her and emerges when she’s angry. It’s the kind of concept-heavy follow-up album that makes record label execs bolt awake at night soaked in a cold sweat.
But if it sticks, “Roman Reloaded” might secure Minaj’s career in her best role yet — as one of the most daring and versatile pop artists working today.
Minaj, born in Trinidad and reared in Queens, N.Y., developed her knack for character invention as a defense mechanism, useful while growing up in a poor home with a substance abusing father, whom Minaj has said once tried to kill her mother by setting the family home on fire.
“When you have dysfunction at home like that, it can push you to violence or to be creative,” she said. “So I did voices and accents from the time I was 7 years old. I think fans see how I started in the inner city, but became a theater major and used that to become an artist.”
She honed her interests in artistic role play, taking theater classes at Fiorello H. La Guardia High School, whose arts curriculum was the inspiration for the stage and movie hit “Fame.”
Even her public face as “Nicki Minaj” is a character, one of a slew she’s toyed with as a musician. There’s Roman; Roman’s hysterical British-accented mother, Martha Zolanski; and Harajuku Barbie, an outsized-innocent young girl.
Minaj’s early mixtapes caught the ear of her mentor Lil Wayne with her verbal dexterity, while sharing Missy Elliott’s knack for bending words into pop art. But her debut full-length surprised and disappointed some hip-hop fans.
Singsongy tracks like “Your Love” and " Moment 4 Life” were perfectly capable singles but felt featherweight and aimed at a different, younger audience. “I felt a lot of pressure to be inspirational and responsible [on that album],” Minaj said. “I like all kinds of music; when I was working at Red Lobster the soundtrack of my life there was Avril Lavigne. Hip-hop fans are my core, and I can never not be hip-hop. But why not showcase all sides of who you are?”
Minaj wanted “Roman Reloaded” to embrace all her personalities. Early leaked tracks like “Roman Holiday,” the vampy noir she performed at the Grammys, the spooky and echo-sodden “Beez in the Trap” and the giddy taunt “Stupid Hoe” hark back to her wild-eyed mixtape tracks, but with an ear for sticky, radio-pleasing phrasings.
A roster of guest MCs, including label mates Lil Wayne and Drake and gruff peers Young Jeezy and Rick Ross, co-sign with appearances. It continues the path she forged on “Pink Friday’s” track “Roman’s Revenge,” in which guest Eminem revisits his Slim Shady alias to trade barbs with Minaj’s Roman.
Minaj hopes that playfulness can inspire rappers to loosen up.
“Em and I both came from nothing, so we’ve had to do a lot of escaping,” she said. “Traditionally, hip-hop has had such a judgmental spirit. But Wayne made a rock album, and Kanye named an album ‘808s & Heartbreak’ and sang all over it. I feel artists like us are setting a new tone and making new rules here.”
Just as crucially, “Reloaded” highlights other talents that suggest she can work in diverse pop styles. The trancey “Starships,” produced by Lady Gaga’s longtime collaborator RedOne, is summertime dance-party spritz, while her duet with the embattled Chris Brown, “Right By My Side,” is tender without being saccharine.
“She grew up as a street rapper, but when she wanted to sing more, we encouraged it,” said Mack Maine, the president of Minaj’s label, Young Money, an imprint of Cash Money/Universal co-founded by Lil Wayne. “She developed alter egos and became an icon for it. There were very few times where we’ve had to let her touch the stove herself to find out that it’s too hot. But while some artists can get lazy, she’s never like ‘I’m good, thanks.’”
But as Minaj’s characters and her own pop persona develop, there’s one role she still can’t shake: As a rare female MC with mixtape-circuit credibility and a mainstream pop career.
Minaj loves to toy with images of femininity. While her underground lyrics can be plenty racy, her delivery often undermines the sexiness with violent glee or a cuteness so exaggerated it’s threatening. In her videos, she’s not afraid of skimpy outfits, but her outsized facial features and deadpan poses subvert them.
“My thing was never to just be sexy,” Minaj said. “If I had a choice, I’d choose kooky and sarcastic over that. I feel like that’s more real for me than someone being one-dimensional and just wearing a short skirt.”
Pop music, for all its commercial problems of late, has no trouble generating hit singles and cultural conversation starters. Where it’s struggling is in creating long-term stars with a wide range of skills. Finding one’s sound isn’t as important as finding an authentic charisma — vocal, visual, in pop media — that can be deployed as needed in the fast-shifting currents of music.
If Minaj can maintain control of her character creations, the potential for her third act is limitless.
“During the day, everyone is four or five different people. I’m a different person when I’m with my friends than when I’m at a business meeting,” she said. “I just give them all names.”