LOS ANGELES – Underneath the stage before February's Super Bowl halftime show, Nicki Minaj felt an emotion she hadn't experienced in quite some time. She was really, really nervous.
Over the last three years, the young rapper had become one of the most charismatic and commercially successful stars in pop music, with a gum-snapping flow and acerbic guest rhymes that stole the show from vets such as Mariah Carey, Kanye West and Rihanna. Her pop-inclined solo debut, “Pink Friday,” hit No. 1 and launched bestselling singles like the elastic “Super Bass.” She'd just finished an arena tour opening for Britney Spears to the biggest crowds of her career.
So the MC born Onika Maraj resorted to her time-honored tactic to get over the jitters. She played a character, the stadium-commanding pop star Nicki Minaj. “Leading up to it under the stage riser, I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, there are so many people out there,' ” Minaj, 29, said. “But once I got out there, 30 seconds into it, I just decided to be myself and have fun with it.”
Only four months into 2012, Minaj has already headlined two of the biggest moments in live music, with her Super Bowl gig followed by an outlandish exorcism-themed Grammys set that was the talk of the telecast. Her new album, “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded,” is an even more daring document of a young artist holding onto her creativity while navigating major commercial stardom.
“Reloaded” is a labyrinthine psychodrama centered on one of her many alter egos, the gay, twentysomething man Roman Zolanski, whom Minaj cheekily claims is a demon that lives inside her and emerges when she's angry. It's the kind of concept-heavy follow-up album that makes record label execs bolt awake at night soaked in a cold sweat.
But if it sticks, “Roman Reloaded” might secure Minaj's career in her best role yet, as one of the most daring and versatile pop artists working today.
Even her public face as “Nicki Minaj” is a character, one of a slew she's toyed with as a musician. There's Roman; Roman's hysterical British-accented mother, Martha Zolanski; and Harajuku Barbie, an outsized-innocent young girl.
Minaj's early mixtapes caught the ear of her mentor Lil Wayne with her verbal dexterity, while sharing Missy Elliott's knack for bending words into pop art. But her debut full-length surprised and disappointed some hip-hop fans.
Sing-songy tracks such as “Your Love” and “ Moment 4 Life” were perfectly capable singles but felt featherweight and aimed at a different, younger audience. “I felt a lot of pressure to be inspirational and responsible (on that album),” Minaj said. “I like all kinds of music; when I was working at Red Lobster, the soundtrack of my life there was Avril Lavigne. Hip-hop fans are my core, and I can never not be hip-hop. But why not showcase all sides of who you are?”
Minaj wanted “Roman Reloaded” to embrace all her personalities.
A roster of guest MCs, including label mates Lil Wayne and Drake and peers Young Jeezy and Rick Ross, co-sign with appearances.
It continues the path she forged on “Pink Friday's” track “Roman's Revenge,” in which Eminem revisits his Slim Shady alias to trade barbs with Minaj's Roman.