In May, Nicki Minaj made the peculiar decision to release a love song as the lead single for her third album, The Pinkprint. “Pills N Potions,” a Dr. Luke creation, is basically a torch song. Read the lyrics and they won’t make much sense — it’s like somebody wrote them using a set of Valentine’s Day magnet poetry. By Minaj standards, the song flopped, never cracking the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100. Even among superfans, it was considered hollow and forgettable, a poor representation of the pop music into which she’s successfully grown.
When Minaj records love songs, she sounds phony and stilted, taking romantic platitudes to their most generic, fairy tale extremes. Their music videos feature famous men (Nas, Lil Wayne, The Game, Drake) as her love interests in theatrical scenarios. It’s as though she’s play-acting the pull of emotional gravity, a schlocky and awkward strategy. All artists do this, but it feels especially pronounced with Minaj. That’s partly because her love songs aren’t anchored by real-life evidence of her private world. If Taylor Swift’s records function as clues to a crossword puzzle about her own love life, Minaj’s records refuse to admit that the puzzle can be solved — or that it even exists.
Despite her ubiquity and flash, Minaj is the single most private pop star working today, including the queen of discretion and poise, Beyoncé. Nicki Minaj the pop star has kept her personal life out of the public eye so thoroughly that it’s difficult to begin to wonder how her music connects to Nicki Minaj the person. Who is Troy from Detroit? Remember when everyone thought she was a lesbian? Who is The Game supposed to be playing in the video for “Pills N Potions”? Does Minaj go home at night and crawl into a cryogenic Lady Gaga sleep chamber? Who’s she having dinner with on that G5 in “Only”? Who could dare take her on a date or break her heart?
Enter Safaree Samuels, a man who’s filled a significant but inscrutable role in Minaj’s life since her career began. Samuels has many titles, both official and informal: hypeman, sidekick, manager, bodyguard, cowriter, best friend, and (let’s assume) boyfriend. As far as we know, he’s the person who’s been consistently closest to Minaj. He appears by her side at basketball games and award shows, and in paparazzi shots and music videos (“Stupid Hoe,” “Beez in the Trap”). He does ad-libs once in a while — that’s him on “Did It on ’Em,” barking, “That was a earthquake, bitch! You felt the ground shake, right?” Minaj will sometimes make conversational reference to Samuels in her raps, calling him “SB,” like on “Stupid Hoe”: “Ayo SB, what the fuck’s good? We ship platinum, these bitches is shippin’ wood.” Or on an ancient freestyle: “When I’m on the stage, I’m with SB.”
Samuels has also had a hand in her music — he’s listed as an executive producer and A&R coordinator for 2012’s Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded. He’s encouraged her to record rap-rap songs and brought her beats to use; he cowrote the pulverizing “Did It on ’Em,” among many others. He openly hates pop music. He’s been everywhere and nowhere, a peripheral presence constantly there but rarely acknowledged. In a bonus documentary from the Roman Reloaded reissue, there’s extended, intimate footage of Minaj and Samuels on vacation in Trinidad, negging one another like teenagers in love, but never making physical contact. Earlier this year, Nicki posted a photo of heart-shaped red roses for a 10th anniversary — but never mentioned a name.
If you spend enough time paying attention to Samuels on the sidelines of the Minaj empire, a complicated figure emerges. He’s tried to make a career for himself in various ways, uploading rap freestyles on YouTube channels under the name Scaff Beezy. Minaj had no visible involvement, and she’s done nothing to promote his music publicly. And no wonder. A sample line from one of the songs: “Use my dick a lot so you know I stay in CVS / Do a lot of push-ups cuz I don’t want boobs on my chest.” These days, his Instagram account is filled with videos of him doing tricks on racing bikes and working out. (His newest moniker is SB Stunts.)
Months ago, I reached out to Samuels through Nicki Minaj’s videographer to request an interview for a piece about him. I assumed I would be blocked, but Samuels was initially receptive. But he never followed through. I’m guessing he senses that any interest taken in him is ultimately an interest taken in Nicki Minaj. It’s hard to imagine Samuels ever earning a reputation as anything other than her sidekick, something he’s likely grappled with for years. The comments below his latest video (“High N---- Shit”), which he premiered on WorldStar recently, are mostly about Minaj — harshly worded speculation about their relationship and whether or not she helps him write his raps. An ironic twist of fate, given how many people accused Minaj of using ghostwriters early in her career.
All at once, Samuels comes across like a goon, a brat, a saint, a strong and silent type, a cheerleader, a bridesmaid, a selfless boyfriend willing to sublimate his ego, and a beta male in the shadows of his mega-star girlfriend. Maybe he’s one of the targets of Minaj’s ferocious no-scrubs anthem, “Lookin’ Ass.” He could probably start a support group for men in relationships with important women — they could discuss what it’s like to have a reputation defined by perceived emasculation. There are dismayingly few high-profile relationships between powerful women and less-powerful men in popular culture, so it would be a small, select group — publicly dissected figures like Scott Disick and Bruce Jenner, or men of extreme mystery like Oprah’s Stedman Graham and Anna Wintour’s gentleman friend. I suspect that Minaj’s decision to keep her personal life so private is, in part, a way of avoiding the disdain and judgment that people have for relationships in which women hold the reins — essentially, she’s protected Samuels’s masculinity.
Unblurring a picture of reality from tabloid gossip and Instagram feeds is a little like planning your life around horoscopes, but let’s go there for a minute: Despite her efforts, bits of private turmoil have crept into Minaj’s public life this year. Couched in her anti–Iggy Azalea “no shade” speech at the BET Awards was a curious side note, one that made mention of a recent emergency that almost caused her to call an ambulance.1 A few months later, TMZ — generally pretty quiet about Minaj — posted a rumor that she and Samuels had split. Samuels allegedly wanted to pursue his own fame; she wasn’t happy about it. At around the same time, Samuels was photographed shirtless, his garish Nicki Minaj chest tattoos dramatically covered with black ink.
When Minaj accepted her award for Best Female Hip-Hop Artist at the BET Awards in June, she made an emotional speech, telling the audience: “When you hear Nicki Minaj spit, Nicki Minaj wrote it.” It sparked a bloggy firestorm and overshadowed something she said about the ambulance: “The other day, literally, I didn’t tell anybody this, I really thought I was about to die. Like, I was saying my prayers to die. And I didn’t even wanna call the ambulance because I thought, Well, if I call an ambulance, it’s gonna be on TMZ.”
Soon after, police told TMZ that they were called to Minaj’s house after she smashed the windows of Samuels’s (Minaj-owned) Mercedes. No arrests were made, but Samuels was allegedly escorted from the property. Around the same time, Samuels posted a cryptic Instagram photo from a hospital bed, captioned “not good.” In the last several months, Samuels has also been posting increasingly professional-looking photos and videos involving stunt bikes. He’s taken up rapping again; he’s got a mixtape on the way. And he’s been flaunting his new physique in gymstagrams, trimmed of fat and beefed up. Minaj is nowhere to be found. His new self-presentation reeks of desperation, of someone trying to create a new identity and flailing. On the newly released back cover of The Pinkprint, Lil Wayne, Birdman, and Cash Money’s Slim are listed as executive producers. Samuels is not.
When we talk about Nicki Minaj, we talk about the relationship between hip-hop and pop, about gender, about aesthetics. We dissect her every career move and speculate about which path she should take. This year, her strategy has been confounding — she began this album cycle by reentering the street-rap space with a series of fierce mixtape tracks, only to veer back into pop with “Pills N Potions,” “Bang Bang,” and “Bed of Lies.” (And “Anaconda,” of course.) It pains me to admit that she’s made some weak songs — legitimately weak, not just digressions from her rap core. Longtime Minaj fans have made an unspoken bargain that they would accept her pop music, even enthusiastically, with the promise of great rap — maybe a great rap album — always possible. That promise has faded in recent months, and forced me to own up to my ambivalence about her pop career. To admit that I think her love songs are bad. And that what I truly want from Minaj is the same thing that Peter Rosenberg and her doofus ex-boyfriend want from her — the old Nicki. It feels treasonous.
Maybe the incoherent Pinkprint cycle has been part of a master plot to market Minaj to as wide an audience as possible. Maybe it’s just cynical A&R. But it also seems possible that Minaj is a human being (er, a human beeeiiinnngggg), and that a bumpy year with Samuels has played out in her work — in the form of bad art direction, album release delays, and interviews during which she’s dozed off. That’s not to say that Samuels was once a secret puppeteer for Minaj; we’ve seen his skills. But maybe the complexity and seeming volatility of their relationship — and the pressure to keep it secret — has spilled over. I would like The Pinkprint to be a great rap album, sure. But it’s not my expectation, and I’ve made peace with that. Instead, what I’m hoping is that Minaj has used her new record as a place to explore the tumult in her life rather than shield it further. When the album arrives next week, I’ll be looking for signs of Nicki Minaj the human being.
Carrie Battan (@cbattan) is a writer in New York.