Nicki Minaj Poses For GQ, Says Anaconda Video Represented Women Taking Their Power Back
Nicki Minaj: Cheeky Genius
Nicki Minaj’s eyeliner is a precision event, a marvel, as if drawn on by the kind of pre-programmed robot arm used for laparoscopic surgeries. It is a peacock navy color, dark and shiny and full, extending maybe a not-outrageous half centimeter up from the top lid, extending an additional still-not-crazy three centimeters outward past where her eyes end. Her eyelashes are even and delicate, like wisps from a dandelion, and I can’t recall if I’ve ever seen her without prosthetic versions. I have had plenty of time to search my memory, though, because here on this couch, in this room, during this interview, with me sitting next to her, Nicki Minaj has fallen asleep.
We are at Barclays Center in one of the dressing rooms, which are low, low beneath Brooklyn; most are named after streets and neighborhoods in the borough. During the rehearsals for Fashion Rocks, the New York Fashion Week concert fund-raiser, the halls were filled with publicists and escorts who had to pretend not to be dazzled by those they were escorting. Minaj had walked in a few minutes before, tiny next to her assistant and her muscle, wearing black sunglasses, a trucker hat cocked to the side, and a T-shirt with the periodic-table box for carbon. She had been led straight into the DeKalb dressing room, named for the street that bisects a couple of local neighborhoods now populated by yuppies but that still contain housing projects. Her smile is a warm sun. As is this room. The temperature in here has been set to about 300 degrees, at Nicki’s request. She says she gets cold a lot.
Next door to her is the Canarsie dressing room—I actually grew up in Canarsie; it’s still a dump—and inside is Usher, who at the MTV Video Music Awards last month slapped Nicki’s ass and continues to slap it endlessly in GIFs all over the Internet. Nicki was the star of the VMAs that night. Her hot, humpy performance of “Anaconda” was part of a medley, and it was followed by a quick costume change that didn’t quite reach completion: She had to pinch the two breast-covering flaps of her black dress closed, because her cue for the finale of the opener, “Bang Bang,” with Jessie J and Ariana Grande, came before she could zip. She power-walked in like a boss, joining the other two onstage, both of them so skinny and with such rough angles and straight edges and reaching so hard for some soul. Nicki destroyed them.
This is what she does. She takes a pretty good song, waits until you are popping along to it, then a little longer, until it feels repetitive and you start to see through to its flaws, and then boom, she comes in and makes it a completely different song—a better song. She is the best part even of great songs; her featured verse on Kanye West’s “Monster” is the best of several, including ones by Jay Z and Rick Ross. She did that song because she was asked and because “Kanye’s a genius.” She did “Bang Bang” because she “knew it would be big.”
In the dressing room on the other side of Nicki’s, the Empire, named after a boulevard in Brooklyn that sounds regal but is even rougher than Canarsie ever was, is J.Lo. I could write a dissertation about the two seconds during which MTV caught J.Lo watching Nicki do “Anaconda” at the VMAs. Perhaps J.Lo, in those seconds, stares at Nicki and considers her own youth, and also that this is what she has wrought, that back when she brought this whole butt thing into the mainstream all those years ago, she went out of her way to be discreet, to keep us wanting more, to never let us look her ass directly in its eye, that it was an ass of implication and innuendo—that, if she may, she made asses safe for the white folks at home in a way they never had been before. Who knew that just giving the people what they wanted would yield such success? In those two seconds, J.Lo’s look is a mixture of pride and despair.
It has been counterpointed to me that perhaps J.Lo was just thinking of how far we’d all come, that now we can all celebrate our asses. I don’t know; maybe if she didn’t have a new album out, I’d agree. Contact me to debate this; I will make myself available. I want to talk about asses so much. I want to know what it is we’re telling the world when we use our asses in the way that Nicki has been using her ass—when they are not the accent in a video but the point of it.
And most of all, of course, I want to know Nicki’s thoughts on this. I was awake there in the DeKalb, and I had questions. She was asleep, which was fine, I suppose, because she didn’t appear to have answers, anyway.
The Versus Versace party she’d attended the night before our interview had yielded a plastic case filled with M&M’s—an odd party favor, something I’ve received at bar mitzvahs. She pulled it out of her purse as we talked in the basement of Barclays, and this would be my only indication that she recognized she needed a boost. The case was taped closed, so I offered to open it for her; her nails, a pointy taupe manicure, were making it hard. We ate some together, and she noticed that they each had the Versus lion insignia on them. “Isn’t that crazy,” she said, impressed.
She’s into branding these days, particularly her own. In the “Anaconda” video, there are no fewer than five products placed prominently for advertising: her Beats by Dre speakers imprint and her Moscato but also a Victoria’s Secret bra, some Air Jordans, and a baffling “teatox” drink called MateFit (dialysis machine sold separately). It’s not exactly seamless integration, and at times it is so overt that it feels like a comment on the culture of branding, maybe some poignant thought about sex and consumerism?
Nope. “My management team has a division that has a guy that his main focus is to go out there and find new brands for me to do business with or to find brands that would like to be in our videos and contribute to our budget,” she says. It’s like a Kickstarter, but for a multi-millionaire.
She was not born wealthy. Nicki, 31, grew up in Queens and attended LaGuardia, the high school from Fame. She says her father once tried to burn down her house while her mother was inside. She did odd jobs after school: She was a customer-service rep for a while, but that didn’t go great. “I like dealing with people, but I don’t really like a lot of bullshit, so maybe customer service wasn’t the best job for me.” She was fired from a waitressing job at a Red Lobster after she followed a couple who had taken her pen into the parking lot and then flipped them the bird. I asked her if it was a special pen. “No,” she said. “It was the principle.”
She came to prominence in outsize, italic, caps-lock, Technicolor exaggeration—pink wigs, outrageous outfits, eyelashes that were a comment about eyelashes. She had different personas—alter egos, she called them—with names and backstories. She did funny accents and was willing to make herself beautiful, then grotesque, then absurd, then back again. And here she is now, demure by comparison, just plain old black extensions, just a T-shirt about carbon.
"I always thought that by the time I put out a third album, I would want to come back to natural hair and natural makeup," she told me. "I thought, I will shock the world again and just be more toned down. I thought that would be more shocking than to keep on doing exactly what they had already seen."
She no longer feels as if she needs to hide behind outrageousness. This next chapter is about success. Nicki Minaj is rap’s first and only female mogul, having parlayed all your ogling into a spot on Forbes’s Cash Kings list—the only person of our gender paid well enough to be so honored. She is the top-charting woman in rap, a top-charting rapper in general, and a crossover phenomenon who can go back and forth between hip-hop and pop the way Taylor Swift can no longer go back and forth between country and pop.
A few days earlier, she’d been in Los Angeles finishing up her third album, The Pinkprint, out this month, and she’s changed things “a billion times” because she’s a perfectionist. Her first two albums were big hits, platinum sellers. Already The Pinkprint has yielded a chart-topping single and an unstoppable meme—the “Anaconda” cover art features Nicki, pants nowhere in sight, squatting, photographed from behind—but also a quieter Nicki, and certainly a more tired one. She can’t be baited into talking shit about anyone anymore; she answers questions simply and succinctly.
Now that we have charted her rise as a cultural force, it is time to ask Nicki exactly what she’s trying to say. If the “Anaconda” cover is the autumn of her flamboyance, it is time to get what we’ve wanted all along: an explanation of what exactly is going on here, which is something I will ask her the minute she wakes up.
To be completely accurate, she never fell into actual REM sleep during our interview, but at four separate times she dozed off, her head jerking awake at just the moment it had started to dip. In between, she was what I could call low-key and reserved, because I am generous, but the picture looked like this: those eyelids, falling, falling over eyes that would cross momentarily, closing for a moment but staying too long—a blink that lasted a few blinks longer than a blink.
But also, to be completely fair, I’m not sure how she was upright at all. This was the middle of New York Fashion Week, and if you followed her Instagram, every few hours it was a new event with a new dress, new hair, new makeup. It was parties all night, all the air-kissing, all the red carpets.
And of course all this fancy dress-up plays into the sort of bodily performance art she’s been doing onstage and in her videos since her first mixtape, in 2007; that release was called Playtime Is Over, and on the cover she was a plastic doll in a box. She has put herself in a Barbie box at least twice, actually, the second time in a video with Mariah Carey. She is among the few living women in Kanye’s “Monster” video, which is a landscape of female corpses—”the strangest video I ever shot”—and there are two of her in it; one her ties up and whips the other her with a riding crop. And now comes this song and video, which are clearly about the female form and the male obsession with it. She must have something to say about this.
"The female form?" she asks, brow furrowed, her head cocked back, like, Huh?! Yes, of course, I say. Now we’re getting down to it. Now we’re going to talk about butts.
No, she says, it’s just a song, there’s no hidden meaning, no layer beneath. “She”—Nicki’s character in the video—”is just talking about two guys that she dated in the past and what they’re good at and what they bought her and what they said to her. It’s just cheeky, like a funny story.” Cheeky. She has to be messing with me.
But “Anaconda” samples a song that’s literally called “Baby Got Back.” There must be some thought given to this part of the body, considering all the attention it receives. Choreography points to it; she boosts it up and it receives applause. The song is a five-minute gender-studies symposium.
But Nicki shakes her head: “All it says is, ‘My anaconda don’t.’ “ Why are we talking about asses?she seems to be saying. Sure, there is a direct, not inferred, reference in her lyrics to “salad tossing”—which, to be clear, is the act of being anally probed by someone else’s tongue. But this is a song about reptiles. Don’t be such an intellectual!
Okay, fine. You can’t deny the video, though. You can’t pretend that there isn’t some extreme sexual commentary going on in the video, right? A steamy women’s-only jungle mecca, aerobic slithering, drumming on a dancer’s ass. There, in the video, Nicki is twerking and crawling across the floor to poor, hapless Drake, sitting in a puddle of his own anticipatory blue balls. She slaps him before he can touch her, and that has to mean something.
"I knew that I wanted a gym theme." Shrug. "And that’s that." That’s that, guys. That’s that.
She sees me grasping, and maybe she feels a little sorry for me, so she offers me this: “I think the video is about what girls do.” She is poking at a salad that hasn’t been tossed. (The dressing came on the side.) “Girls love being with other girls, and when you go back to us being younger, we would have slumber parties and we’d be dancing with our friends.” (I’ll take her word for it; the slumber parties were not jungle-themed in Canarsie.)
Okay, the “Anaconda” cover art, then. It was almost an afterthought, she says, the product of a photo shoot on the day that the “Anaconda” video was shot. “I just said I’ll put it out, never thought in a billion years that people would be putting [other] people’s heads on it. It’s the craziest shit.” I tell her that online I’d seen it as a rocket, jet fuel and fire being released from her undercarriage. “What hasn’t it been?” she says. “They’ve made it everything.”
You heard it here first. “Anaconda” is about a snake, and also about a woman’s ex-boyfriends, and the video is just one big slumber party. You can release a record cover into the atmosphere that makes all who see it so shocked and discomforted that their only way to metabolize it is to turn it into the world’s fastest-spreading meme, to the point where her squatting form ends up on a polo shirt, right where the little crocodile usually goes. You can do all this, and still you can look someone in the eye and say that it’s not cynical in the least, that it’s not a comment on gender or sex or the culture or anything. Double shrug. These are not the droids you’re looking for.
"I don’t know what there is to really talk about," she says. "I’m being serious. I just see the video as being a normal video."
We are winding down, because it’s time for Nicki to go rehearse. For this performance, she has incorporated male dancers. “I went in yesterday, finally saw the dance for the first time, and I saw the guys doing all this sexy stuff that I wasn’t a part of. And I said, ‘Hello, why aren’t they humping me on the stage?’ ” The choreographer didn’t realize that this was something she might want. She does: “We’ve got to give them something to talk about again.”
So it’s all for shock, it’s all for talk, it’s all for hashtags and memes. Not even a contrived statement—which is fine, it’s just that most people at least pretend there’s something they’re trying to say. And so I’m left to wonder, where is the woman who pronounced in an MTV documentary that she won’t stand for disrespect, that she won’t accept being given pickle juice at a photo shoot? Where is the philosophy and the fire? And there in the DeKalb, where it is so hot I can see sound, I start to wonder if I’m losing it. I look over to ask Nicki, to suggest that maybe I should take a nap, too, and we can let our unconsciouses figure this out—I could be her hype man, but for naps!—except she is out again.
The next night, at Fashion Rocks, J.Lo went on before Nicki. The song she performed was called “Booty,” and the only lyrics I could discern were Big, big booty / what you got a big booty again and again, J.Lo marking her territory. If you could troll Nicki Minaj through a song, this was it. J.Lo wore a short dress and did a move you mostly see strippers do on cop shows—I’ll call it the squatted twerk: knees bent, up down up down up down, butt close to the ground but never touching it. We clapped loudly for this. A woman behind me who has no idea how the record-promotion business works panted to her companion, “I hope Nicki does ‘Anaconda.’ “
Right before I left her the previous night, Nicki had stopped me, and maybe because she felt bad for me and maybe because she, too, is generous, she had given me two things—a ticket to this show and this tiny morsel:
"I’m chopping up the banana. Did you realize that?"
What? What banana?
In the “Anaconda” video, she says. “At first I’m being sexual with the banana, and then it’s like, ‘Ha-ha, no.’ ” I ask if she’s referring to how the Drake scene immediately follows the kitchen scene. “Yeah, that was important for us to show in the kitchen scene, because it’s always about the female taking back the power, and if you want to be flirty and funny that’s fine, but always keeping the power and the control in everything.”
Maybe she had been messing with me all along.
Or maybe she was simply telling me that it is not her job to explain herself. I had been warned before the interview that I shouldn’t ask about her ass, that she finds it degrading, and I had chalked up her reticence to that. But maybe this is what she finds degrading: to work day and night to get those features down, to make actual magic and to make it come out in full articulation, every syllable, every accent, meticulously applied to save someone else’s song in the third act, to entertain you, only to have some asshole come down to the DeKalb dressing room in the two hours that she could have spent taking a real nap, not an upright one, and ask her what she means when she’s doing the thing she does. Must she do everything? She’s not hiding anything—look at her, she literally isn’t hiding anything. It’s all there for you to see. Do some of the work yourself, people. She’s busy running her brand. She’s inspiring a meme that will keep us busy for months. She is tasting the Moscato and smelling the Nicki Minaj perfume that comes in miniature busts of Nicki Minaj. She is not here for your gender-studies symposium. It is not her job to tell you who the eff she is. And she’s exhausted. She is only made of carbon after all, just like you and me.
She came out in her sparkle bra, tearing fiercely across the stage. "Bwoy twoy named Trwoy used to live in Detrwoit.…" J.Lo was already re-seated and watching the performance, and at first she clapped along lazily, but then stopped. For a variety of reasons, it is hard to parse what might be going on in J.Lo’s mind by looking at her face, but when Nicki launched into her own dancer-backed squatted twerk—a younger twerk, a bouncier twerk—I swear I saw J.Lo’s left eyelid blink out of sequence with her right one, a subdermal twitch indicating that perhaps she’d had a rage stroke.
Meanwhile, onstage, Nicki was hoisted up by the male dancers, arms in the air in full expression, and the sunshine of her smile shone into the arena. She was all rested up.