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Lil Wayne protege a rare female rapper

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Nicki Minaj often describes herself as a Barbie doll. But don’t let the cute moniker fool you. Minaj’s aggressive flow and fearless wordplay have pegged her as a rising star within Lil Wayne’s Young Money crew.

The 23-year-old rapper is currently displaying her buzzed-about MC skills on Young Money Presents: America’s Most Wanted Music Festival. The 32-date tour, running through September 6, is headlined by Wayne and features Young Jeezy, Soulja Boy Tell’Em, Pleasure P, Jeremih and the Young Money camp.

“The lack of female rappers has in some ways made it easier to come up because now there’s an open lane for me,” Minaj says. “I salute the female rappers who came before me, but it’s my time now.”

Minaj’s third Young Money Entertainment mixtape, “Beam Me Up Scotty,” features guest spots by rising Canadian rapper Drake (who was on the Wanted tour before injuring his knee), Busta Rhymes and Gucci Mane. Despite the set’s impressive list of collaborators, Minaj remains in the foreground and displays a unique female persona in a male-dominated genre.

For the past two years, Minaj has foregone a major-label deal and a formal debut album in order to establish her fan base. Appearances on a handful of high-profile remixes, from Wyclef Jean’s “Sweetest Girl” to Drake’s chart-topping “Best I Ever Had,” have caught the attention of hip-hop enthusiasts. Minaj’s activity on social networking sites has also allowed her to gain mainstream awareness.

“We’re establishing her online first,” says Portia Kirkland, VP of marketing at Minaj’s production company Mizay Entertainment. “Nicki always stays in touch with her fans through Twitter, MySpace and blogging. We didn’t position her as music but as a lifestyle.”

That lifestyle began to take shape while the Queens-born rapper attended LaGuardia High School, the performing arts school on which the film “Fame” was based. An appearance on Dirty Money’s “The Come Up” street DVD series caught the attention of Lil Wayne, who contacted Minaj and asked her to work with Young Money. Since then, the two have developed a chemistry, with Minaj appearing on his acclaimed 2007 mixtape “Da Drought 3” and Wayne guesting on all three of her Young Money-issued mixtapes.

“He’s no-holds-barred when he raps, and I’ve always been like that,” Minaj says. “I bring sarcasm and comedy, which (Wayne) connects with. I guess we both dare to be different.”

Though not yet attached to a label deal, Minaj is recording a debut album that she hopes to release early next year. Her main focus now is on the Wanted tour and impressing arena-sized crowds. “It’s intimidating 30 seconds before I go onstage,” Minaj says. “But once I’m out there, it’s all gone. I’m the fearless Barbie doll.”