She’s caught hip-hop’s finicky attention thanks to her lyrics, flow, style, looks and major co-signs. With the current lack of female MCs, and her small slice of fame growing larger every day, Nicki Minaj is ready to fill the void.

Interview: Vanessa Satten
Images: 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 UpThe 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 May 4, 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 Wayne is behind bars, unable to be there to lend his full A-list support.

On two Friday afternoons in March, spread across her jam-packed schedule, XXL caught up with Nicki in Los Angeles to chat about her travels and shooting for the stars.