Tanner Stransky
November 19, 2010 AT 05:00 AM EST

To begin to understand budding rap star Nicki Minaj, first you have to meet her multiple personalities. There’s Nicki the Ninja, a naughty kung fu assassin. There’s Harajuku Barbie, a coquettish, pink-loving fashionista. And there’s Roman Zolanski, a gay dude who loves to get saucy. All of these characters — and many others — show up throughout her outlandishly entertaining (and rapidly increasing) body of work. ”These people just come out of my mouth,” explains Minaj, 25, as if she has no control over her alter egos. ”Then I have to give them names.”

Minaj’s fascinating eccentricities are part of the reason her major-label debut, Pink Friday (out Nov. 22), is so highly anticipated. She’s the rap collaborator of the moment, appearing on countless buzzy tracks, including Trey Songz’s ”Bottoms Up” and Kanye West’s ”Monster.” Pink Friday features her rapping alongside some of music’s biggest names (West, Drake, Eminem, Rihanna, will.i.am), and Minaj promises the album will be a wild ride. ”It’s girly girl meets crazy, psychotic lunatic meets Top 40 meets mixtapes,” she says.

Raised in Queens, Minaj graduated from New York’s famed LaGuardia performing-arts high school, then spent a few years building a reputation in the underground rap scene. One early admirer was Lil Wayne, who was so impressed that he signed her to his Young Money label. Many fans initially heard her on a 2010 remix of Mariah Carey’s ”Up Out My Face,” which was her first big guest rap. ”I was shaking,” Minaj remembers about working with Carey. ”After we shot the video, she gave me a little pep talk that was really sweet and sentimental. She was like, ‘You’re going to make it. You’re going to be really big!”’

It wasn’t quite that simple, of course. Minaj’s debut solo single, ”Massive Attack,” flopped when it came out in April (it’s not included on Pink Friday). But in June another track, ”Your Love,” rode a canny Annie Lennox sample to the top of the rap charts, making Minaj the first woman to hold that spot since Lil’ Kim seven years earlier. ”I’m really proud of the women and the girls, my little Barbies, who go out and support it,” she says. ”Women can create female rap superstars if we want to.”

Since then Minaj has turned up on even more hits, and her performance of ”Check It Out” with will.i.am at September’s VMAs was one of the night’s most talked-about moments. Inevitably, her growing pop stardom has led to a bit of a backlash among some hip-hop purists. ”This is my first album, but people aren’t treating me like I’m a new artist,” she says. ”I’ve already done [songs] with Jay-Z and Kanye and Lil Wayne and Eminem and Drake, so people are looking like, ‘Okay, what you got now?’ I’m always being scrutinized. But that’s a good thing. That’s what I asked for. You can’t get to the top and not be criticized, right?”

Pink Friday hits during one of the year’s busiest release weeks, and it will go up against huge discs from Ke$ha, Justin Bieber, and West (whose album she’s prominently featured on). Minaj isn’t worried, though. ”It doesn’t matter if I sell 80,000 or 800,000 in the first week,” she says. ”Eventually the album will be multiplatinum, because it’s a body of amazing work. I don’t have any fear about dropping the same day as Kanye. People like good music, and when they hear good music, they’re going to buy it.”

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