Shot exclusively for XXL by Jonathan Mannion

Nicki Minaj is on a solo journey. True, she’s got backup from Lil Wayne and his Young Money crew, but the rocket to female-rap stardom she’s climbed on only carries one passenger at a time.

Throughout hip-hop’s male-dominated history, women have struggled to find their collective voice. A select few have achieved rap-star status (Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Eve), while a couple are bona fide superstars (Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill). But none of that scares the 25-year-old unabashed rapstress, who has rocketed to fame since signing to Young Money/Cash Money/Universal seven months ago.

Onika Maraj’s entrance into hip-hop was generic by most artist’s standards. In 2006, the Southside Jamaica, Queens, native broke out as a new solo artist, and, after appearing on The Come Up—The Carter Edition street DVD, she caught the eyes and ears of music megastar Lil Wayne. Over the next three years, Nicki dropped two mixtapes, 2007’s Playtime Is Over and 2008’s Sucka Free. The following year, she put out her third, and most popular tape to date, Beam Me Up Scotty. While Nicki’s ties to Young Money were getting stronger, she linked up with Gucci Mane and his So Icey crew, later sharing management with the Atlanta trap star.

Over the course of 2009, the New York MC juggled double duty as the leading lady of two Southern rap cliques. In August, she officially signed to Young Money/Cash Money/Universal, approximately two months after rising star Drake signed to the same labels.

Rolling into the new decade, Nicki has stayed on course, while her fan base has grown with every guest appearance and video. First, she had a big feature on Yo Gotti’s “5 Star Chick (Remix),” alongside Gucci and Trina. Next Nicki jumped on the Robin Thicke collabo “Shakin’ It 4 Daddy.” Then, she had a major look on Mariah Carey’s “Up Out My Face,” show stopping performances on the Young Money singles “Bedrock” and “Roger That,” a feature on Wayne’s Rebirth cut “Knockout,” and her most recent prime-time moment, a starring role on Ludacris’s monster smash “My Chick Bad.”

Now it’s the Black Barbie’s time for a real takeoff. With her first official single, “Massive Attack,” for her yet-to-be-titled debut still under wraps at press time, Nicki’s fall 2010 release is anticipated by almost as many heads as is her Young Money brother Drake’s debut, Thank Me Later. Both artists will be dropping LPs while their mentor is behind bars, unable to be there to lend his full A-list support.

On a Friday afternoon in March, a week after the cover shoot, XXL caught up with Nicki in Los Angeles to chat about her travels and shooting for the stars.

Your buzz has been growing more and more each month. How has that felt for you?

Yeah, I guess it has been growing, thank God. I dunno, it’s been an exciting whirlwind. I never really know what to expect. But the buzz has definitely been heightening, so I’m happy.

When did you first start to feel that things were coming together for you?

I definitely think that, when I shot the [“Up Out My Face”] video with Mariah Carey, I started feeling like, Wait a minute, this is not something I really ever envisioned for my life just nine months before that.

So growing up you’re a fan of hip-hop. You’re listening to it, watching it, learning to rap, and you see what the open lane is and figure how you can try to fill it? Is that how it works?

I never look at it like that; I just kinda do what I feel. I never knew what lane I would fill, [or that] I would fill a lane at all. I didn’t even really contemplate that far down the road. I just started having fun, and a lot of that came from me seeing Wayne dare to be different, and I started feeling like I can be a multifaceted rapper. I don’t have to be a one-dimensional female rapper. Once I put that in perspective, it was like everything just got easier for me, because I no longer wanted to fit in anybody’s box—I just wanted to be Nicki…

Clearly there’s an opening, because females in hip-hop come so far and few between, but the winners make an open lane out of a closed lane. The winners just say, “I am,” and it happens, and they don’t do a lot of thinking and guessing and planning about what they can do—they just do it. And that’s kinda like how I am.

You are both a new female rapper and a new rapper from New York. Do people recognize your gender more than that you’re a New York artist?

I think very often people miss that I’m from New York, and I don’t really know why that is, but I remember I said on Twitter one time, “Shout out to Queens,” and all of the gay boys thought I was talking to them, and I realized that people haven’t gotten that I’m Southside Jamaica, Queens, New York City. I feel like I say it a lot, but I guess I’m not saying it that much, or it’s that I’m so diverse and I don’t always rap with the New York accent—I switch it up, you know. People don’t see me as just repping one city or one state. I actually really like that. That was always my goal: to be able to bridge that gap, you know, whether it’s to London.

When I listen to my favorite artists, I don’t care where they’re from. When you listen to Whitney Houston, you don’t care if she’s from New Jersey or France. Like, she has an incredible voice. So I’m glad that sometimes people don’t put me [as the] “new, New York artist.” But I am very proud to rep New York. Who wouldn’t be? We’ve seen the best male and female artists, so it’s an honor to be from New York. —Vanessa Satten

To read the rest of this cover story, be sure to pick up the May 2010 issue of XXL, featuring Young Money's Nicki Minaj and Drake on the cover, which hits newsstands nationwide April 20.