By Carissa Eclarin

and Julianne Micoleta
Elk Grove

Nearly three months after being released from prison, one of hip-hop’s biggest artists, Lil Wayne, started his “I Am Music II” tour on March 18, and it hits the Windy City on Friday at the United Center.

With all due love to Weezy, Schurz senior Jennifer Martinez is more hyped about second headliner Nicki Minaj. “Lil Wayne is good,” she said, “but he’s not as good (of an) emcee (as) Nicki is.”

But who is Nicki? The answer might change by the day.

Her crazy get-ups go from pink, cotton-candy-looking wigs one moment to vibrant, neon rainbow colors the next. Even her personality is fluid. She adopts different accents and alter egos, such as mouthy “gay boy” Roman Zolanski, as part of her act.

Whoever she is, it seems to be working for her. Minaj had a breakout year in 2010. The “First Lady” of Young Money Entertainment was featured with A-list artists on many of last year’s biggest singles: “My Chick Bad,” “Bottoms Up” and “Check It Out.”

Her debut solo album, “Pink Friday,” released on Nov. 22, has already gone platinum.

But the 26-year-old rapper didn’t reach success—or find her identity—overnight. She’s come a long way from her mixtape-making days. Minaj has evolved from an underground rapper into a world famous multi-colored personality.

“I’m definitely playing a role,” the rapper revealed in the March issue of BlackBook magazine. “I’m an entertainer, and that’s what entertainers do. … I do feel pressure to satisfy people now,” she said. “They don’t pay to see me roll out of bed with crust in my eyes, and say: ‘Hey guys, this is me, authentic.’ They pay for a show.”

That’s OK with Carl West, CEO of MG Media and managing editor of TBT News Service, a hip-hop culture publishing company, who thinks the music and the gimmick go hand in hand.

“Madonna walked around in bras and bustiers,” West said. “You find your place and you deliver it. If your objective is to be a star, it’s only normal that you’re going to do what’s necessary to be successful in the business. … The image they put out is more of a caricature of themselves in order to make money.”

As with any artist, though, Minaj has her share of critics and regular bouts of disapproval from celebrities, teens and others who say she’s too eccentric or flashy for their taste.

“She has booty implants and breast implants. She had her teeth capped. She got fake hair. Basically, she’s a fake person,” said Kurtis James, a junior at Hyde Park.

“I think she tries too hard to stand out and sometimes it looks bad, unlike Lady Gaga’s ‘different’ image,” said Elk Grove sophomore Brent Wolff.

Wolff is not alone in comparing Minaj to Gaga: The media has been unrelenting in that regard, some dubbing the raptress a “Black Lady Gaga.”

“We both do the awkward, non-pretty thing,” Minaj told BlackBook. “What we’re saying—what I’m saying, anyway—is that it’s OK to be weird. And maybe your weird is my normal. Who’s to say? I think it’s an attitude we both share.”

Alexander Frutcher, editor-in-chief of online urban culture oasis Ruby Hornet, agrees and notes that artists are always a mirror of the times. “The key to any artist sustaining longevity is to evolve with the times–with their own sound and style,” he said. “Maybe in two years she’ll be wearing a new wig or no wig. The Beastie Boys have a new album coming out in May, but each of their albums has been different, which has been part of their success with fans.”

Frutcher said he thinks Minaj will continue to evolve as a performer and points out that other Cash Money artists “have gone from an underground, abrasive rap style to a more pop and mainstream accessible style.”

Love her or hate her, no one can ignore Minaj’s presence in the music industry. Her versatility is what makes her so universal.

“Nicki Minaj has swag. Swag is just not what you wear, but also how many people like you,” said Schurz junior James Cruz. “Her style is unique: she switches her hair color all the time and wears whatever she likes … We already have enough female artists copying the same style.”

This mentality is what makes Minaj so appealing to her fans: her firm belief in self-expression, a positive message for teens.

“Minaj is a good role model because she shows she can roll with the boys and that she can expresses herself without any fear. She shows that if men can do it, why not women?” Cruz said.

>> Shaquille Roberts of Hyde Park and The Mash staff

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About The Mash

The Mash is the Chicago Tribune's newspaper and website written for teens, by teens. The paper is distributed for free every other Thursday at Chicago-area high schools and is written largely by high school students.

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