In the beginning: "I've been rapping for 17 years," Hicks says. Meaning as long as she's been able to speak. The South Side native grew up the lone rapper among her five siblings. "My family is what motivates me," she says. "There's nobody in my family that said, 'Rap is not good for you.' They believed in me." Early raps were about "anything that rhymed," until Hicks discovered her older brother and sisters' tapes of Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick — two artists who still inform her music. "I listened to the music they listened to. My mom used to play old school hip-hop too," she recalls. "On VH1 they show flashbacks, and I would see the videos. So I started doing some research about original rap." Now entering her senior year at George Wythe High School, Hicks' tastes have grown up with her. She still gives love to the old school, but cites her biggest influence as Jay-Z.

Let's hear it for the girl: At the age of 14, a precocious Hicks began calling into "The Cypher," an MC battle show on 106.5 The Beat. Eventually she was allowed to flex her rap muscles against the other MCs, all of whom were older and male. Each week Hicks beat her competition, becoming the reigning Cypher champion of the Richmond/D.C. area. "I've never battled a female," she says. "I think I'm judged differently from other female artists. Most people tell me, 'You rap better than most male artists in the industry now.'"

Keeping it real: "The Preliminaries" came out July 26 on local label X Records. Hicks says keeping her lyrics clean for the record wasn't hard. "My songs are about violence and struggle; those are the two basic things. But it's still positive. I can get my point across without killing anybody." Now that her first album has dropped, Hicks is already looking ahead to other goals, she says: "I see myself in movies. I see myself producing. I see myself doing a lot of things. Way more things than I do now. Every year I'm gonna move up another level." — Kate Bredimus

Lil Nikki performs at the Back-To-School Jam at the Civic Center in Petersburg Aug. 26 and at Fairfield Commons, 4869 Nine Mile Road, Aug. 27.

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