The first time I laid eyes and ears on Nicki Minaj was three years ago at The Woodlands Pavilion. It was well before her debut album, “Pink Friday,” made her a multigenre force, when she was still dropping mixtapes and guest verses for bigger rappers. Minaj was sandwiched somewhere in the middle of a rap show featuring Lil Wayne, Drake and Souljah Boy, a throwaway filler barely noticed by the crowd.
She was cutesy, cartoonish and ridiculous. Those adjectives still apply today — and have made her a superstar.
Minaj has crafted a career that deftly straddles dual worlds. She’s a rapper who’s exploded into the pop stratosphere. And her flirty, silly persona has an angry, aggressive flipside. The pink-haired girl cooing on “Starships” and “Super Bass” seems far removed from the take-no-prisoners MC on “Monster” and “Roman’s Revenge.”
The beauty is that Minaj has been able to serve both sides of her artistry and audience with ease. She currently has four songs on Billboard’s pop, dance, R&B and rap charts. That’s no small feat in any genre.
“Nicki Minaj’s fearlessness is what I love the most about her,” says Nnete Inyangumia, producer and co-host of Billy Sorrells’ “Skits and Bits” on Sirius XM. She left the KBXX (97.9 FM the Box) Madd Hatta Morning Show earlier this year.
“Some say she’s just a gimmick because of her multiple personalities and loud style, but she has proven she has the lyricism to not only hang with hip-hop’s leading men but also give them a run for the money.”
A current pair of singles illustrate the dynamic. “Beez in the Trap” is an explicit, low-simmer rap that pairs her with Georgia rapper 2 Chainz. The pingpong beat is almost hypnotic.
She’s still rapping on “Pound the Alarm,” but it’s playful, poppy and backed by a thundering house groove. The song already has proven a hit overseas and is destined to fill stateside dance floors.
“Nicki Minaj is definitely important to music. She’s a female rapper and at the top of the rap game,” says local singer and rapper Carolyn Rodriguez, known as Medicine Girl. (A new EP, “Night Nurse,” is due this year.)
“I know she’s been in the game for years, way before we knew who she was. It’s important for the growth and development of other female rappers, like Ms. Krazie, Filly Brown and, of course, your homegirl servin’ up that medicine. It’s not easy for a female to get their voice heard, and any woman who can do that must have fought really hard.”
As Minaj’s star has risen, so have the number of collaborations. There have been pairings with artists her equal (Kanye West, Rihanna, Usher) and several she has long-surpassed (Keyshia Cole, Robin Thicke, Jason Derulo). And Minaj’s verse’s are the best thing about the otherwise tepid “Beauty and a Beat” collaboration with Justin Bieber.
Sometimes, Minaj’s creativity gets the best of her. See February’s derided Grammy performance, which included an onstage exorcism. Still, it made her the first solo female rapper to perform on the show. She’s also been mentioned as a possible addition on the revamped “American Idol,” which just announced Mariah Carey as a new judge. (Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez are leaving the show after two seasons.) That her name is even being bandied about says a lot about the diminutive rapper.
"There’s no doubt in my mind that she knows what she’s doing. She is one of the chosen stars of this generation,” Rodriguez says. “She’s selling and touring on a global pop scale. I don’t see her momentum slowing down anytime soon, especially with the multiple personalities she invents every year. I love it.”
Minaj returned to Houston twice last year, with Lil Wayne and Britney Spears, and there was no missing her at either show. She stole the spotlight from Wayne with her bride of Frankenstein hairdo and neon body suit. And she handily outperformed Spears during the Femme Fatale Tour, taking fans on a sci-fi burlesque of sorts that showcased all sides of her bug-eyed persona.
A headlining tour, then, is long overdue. She hasn’t been an opening act for quite some time.
“I think she’s dope. Very animated and talented,” says local MC Tabitha “TroubleSum” Grant, whose “Stiletto 2 The Pedal” album is due soon. “Her eccentricities makes her contributions to hip-hop relevant. She is amazingly creative.”
Nicki Minaj: Pink Friday Tour
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Bayou Music Center, 520 Texas
Tickets: $49-$99.75; 713-230-1600 or livenation.com
Nicki Minaj concert after-party
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
Where: South Beach, 810 Pacific
Admission: Free before midnight with ticket stub or free before 11 p.m. with VIP text (text SOBE to 46786); 713-529-7623 or southbeachthenightclub.com