Cardi B is here to stay
One hit wonder? Cardi B isn't going anywhere.
“Cardi B is an industry plant,” one friend wrote to me the day Invasion of Privacy released, in an attempt to undermine what Belcalis Almanzar had accomplished on both the album and over the last year or so. The refrain from those that don’t ascribe to the Church of Cardi goes something like this: “Cardi B is only popular because her label invests hundreds of thousands of dollars to get her on the radio and her popularity is a fabrication.”
Ignoring the fact that that’s just marketing 101, it’s a straw man argument that avoids tackling both the quality of Invasion of Privacy and Cardi’s progression as an artist — both technically and emotionally.
Consider that Cardi B burst onto the scene in June, 2017, with Bodak Yellow, a searing, speaker-rattling summer anthem that set New York and most of North America ablaze. Bodak Yellow reached #1 on the Billboard 100, making Cardi the second-ever female rapper to hold down the top spot. Of course, success attracts detractors, and many pointed out the similarities between Cardi’s sound on Bodak Yellow and Florida rapper Kodak Black’s distinctive flow — which explains the song’s name.
Our collective image of the Bronx-area rapper was of a former stripper turned reality TV personality turned one hit wonder and then Cardi got engaged to Migos’ Offset. If you pause the story here, I can understand the industry plant qualms: one hit and a celebrity engagement a bona fide rapper does not make. A few singles and a music video for Bodak Yellow didn’t do much to change that perception.
In the months following her star turn and her engagement Cardi B seemingly brushed off allegations of infidelity levelled at her fiancé — giving some credence to the ‘industry plant’ theory. But, if you actually take the time to listen to Invasion of Privacy, you start to realize that in a six or seven month span, Cardi B grew to be more than just a purveyor of quick hit, catchy anthems and that despite the initial public nonchalance, Invasion of Privacy is very much an reflection on her public relationship.
On Bodak Yellow, Cardi famously rapped “I might just chill with your boo / I might just feel on your babe.” The implication being that she wouldn’t be put off by the fact that someone was in a relationship. But, having lived through a rather public infidelity spat with her fiancée, her tone is different on Thru Your Phone, where she chastises those who insert themselves into relationships, rapping “I screenshotted all her naked pics / Oh, you wanna send nudes to my man? / Wake up and see your boobs on the ‘Gram?” Despite the aggressive and confrontational tone of the song, it’s indicative of a deeper Cardi than what we heard on Bodak Yellow — she’s introspective and vulnerable, rather than simply braggadocious.
"Invasion of Privacy debuted at the top of the charts and Cardi smashed one-week streaming records for female artists...if any male rapper were to accomplish such a feat, they would be met with nothing but absolute praise."
That’s a trend that carries over on other songs on Invasion of Privacy, notably Be Careful and I Do. On the former, a single and the track sequenced immediately after Bodak Yellow on the album, Cardi muses about relationships and infidelity in the digital age. Is liking an ex’s picture on Instagram a form of emotional cheating? And laying her relationship troubles bare on the track is a striking contrast to the dismissive attitude she took in the immediate aftermath of the allegations. On I Do, accompanied by singer-songwriter SZA, Cardi champions a philosophy of self-love and self-empowerment, seemingly coming to grips with the fact that, at the end of the day, she’s the only person who’s loyalty and love she can count on.
Of course, the emotional vulnerability and introspection is accompanied by a smattering of cultural references — a foundational element of pretty much all hip-hop. It’s the interplay between the two and Cardi’s use of pop culture to talk about her experiences that makes everything work. Consider her reference to Beyoncé’s Resentment on Thru Your Phone, and contrasting Steph and Ayesha Curry’s relationship to that of Tommy and Keisha in Belly on Be Careful. It’s a reminder that Cardi is, like the rest of us, human and seeks out similarities between her experience and those depicted in music and movies. After all, isn’t that something we all do?
It also positions her as a referential artist, of sorts. If there’s any doubt on that point, consider the aforementioned reference to Kodak Black on Bodak Yellow, and Bickenhead’s quasi-rebuttal to Project Pat’s 2001 Chickenhead.
It’s not just the content of her songs that’s representative of a deeper and more diverse Cardi B. Like That, featuring Bad Bunny and J Balvin, is arguably best placed to be the most played song off the album. Of course, that means comparing it to Bodak Yellow, and the Latin-inflected Like That is very, very different. It’s lighter-sounding than Bodak Yellow, for starters, but also showcases a distinct sound that reflects Cardi’s Trinidadian and Dominican roots.
All of this to say that, even if Cardi B’s label has invested heavily in marketing her, that doesn’t make her an imposter or a lesser artist, nor does it discount the merits of Invasion of Privacy. Instead, the strength of her debut album and the artistic evolution, in terms of both sound and content, showcased on it give strength to the argument that her label saw the immense potential of Cardi B and wanted to capitalize on it. In no way should that be an indictment of an artist.
After the album’s release, Cardi B had 13 songs —12 of which were from the album— on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the woman with the most simultaneous entries on the list. Invasion of Privacy debuted at the top of the charts and Cardi smashed one-week streaming records for female artists, surpassing Taylor Swift.
Keep in mind that this was a debut album and if any male rapper were to accomplish such a feat, they would be met with nothing but absolute praise. Cardi B is still incredibly young —she’s only 25— and if she can follow up Invasion of Privacy with something moderately decent, she’ll be well positioned for long-term success. If the Bronx rapper can continue to evolve and touch on things that are relatable for listeners, then there’s no telling how far she can go. If she can hold her own as a touring artist, then she’ll cement herself as a force to be reckoned with in music writ large and hopefully earn comparisons to her male counterparts, rather than just Nicki Minaj. The touring aspect will likely have to wait until after she gives birth to her and Offset’s first child, but alas.
Of course, it’s possible that like many who have come before her, Cardi B’s star turn will be short-lived and we’ll be left reflecting on ‘what ifs’ and ‘whatever happened tos’. Given the strength of Invasion of Privacy and her emotional and artistic evolution from Bodak Yellow until now, though, I’d guess that the odds are stacked in her favour.