Music

In Hip-Hop’s Game of Thrones, Is Cardi B Our New Rap Queen?

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Popular music loves a good feud, and the rap world produces some of the best. And while we all remember Jay-Z vs. Nas and Gucci Mane vs. Young Jeezy, often the brightest spotlight is reserved for when the rap fight is also a catfight: the Real Roxanne vs. Roxanne Shanté, Foxy Brown vs. Lil’ Kim; Nicki Minaj vs. Remy Ma, Azealia Banks vs. well, everyone. The battle for the title of Rap Queen has been waged since at least the early ’90s, always with the underlying assumed truth that there’s room for only one woman at the top. Last week, the Rap Queen game of thrones had a new contender, as Cardi B—the Internet celebrity-turned-reality star-turned-rapper—staked her claim for the crown. The only question was who would challenge her.

But something unexpected happened. On Monday, when her mammoth single “Bodak Yellow” reached the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100, Cardi B was met with . . . support. Missy Elliott, Lil’ Kim, Nicki Minaj, and many more rap heroines took to Twitter to congratulate her on her achievement. Even Taylor Swift, whose song “Look What You Made Me Do” Cardi B unseated, sent the young rapper a bouquet of flowers. “Every single FEMALE RAPPER CONGRATULATED ME TODAY .Is the best feeling cause I listened to ALL OF THEM” Cardi B tweeted at 1 a.m. Tuesday.

Cardi B, born Belcalis Almanzar, has always been a performer. Her first taste of fame came in 2013, when videos of her stripping went viral on Vine and her Instagram page. When she sings “I don’t dance now/I make money moves” on “Bodak Yellow,” she’s not kidding. She parlayed those viral stripping videos into a role on VH1’s Love & Hip Hop: New York in 2015, two mixtapes in 2016, and a deal with Atlantic Records that produced “Bodak Yellow” this summer. For the most part, Cardi B doesn’t have beef with anybody. Throughout her rise to fame she’s been reverent of the women who came before her, and kept herself above any drama. She often says she wants to work with every woman in rap, and that appreciation and acknowledgement has served her well.

The only kink came this week. Soon after her single went to number one, in what seems like a hip-hop initiation rite, Cardi B found herself locked in her first public feud. In a now-deleted Twitter story late Tuesday night, Azealia Banks dissed Cardi B, calling her “the poor man’s Nicki Minaj”  and accusing her of using a ghostwriter. This was quite a departure from Banks’ comments earlier this summer, when she told XXL that she was a Cardi B fan and even panned the magazine for not covering her more. Banks has made a habit of attempting to start unrequited drama in the past few years, and this doesn’t seem much different. Cardi B responded to the criticism by posting a video on Instagram of Banks dancing and singing the chorus to “Bodak Yellow” with the caption “One of the reasons Bodak Yellow went #1! Cuz even the HATERS love it!”

She’s right. “Bodak Yellow” is a ridiculously catchy, incredibly fun song that deserves to hit number one just because of how beloved it is. But it’s still a pleasant surprise to see how supportive the industry has been of Cardi B’s success. As Chris Molanphy chronicled in an excellent history of the Single Rap Queen for Pitchfork, “the music industry has supported only a handful of platinum-level female rappers throughout history.” Molanphy lays out a chronology of rap’s queens:: Salt-N-Pepa; Da Brat; Lauryn Hill; Missy Elliott, Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, and Eve (the exceptions that prove the “There Can Only Be One” rule); Missy Elliott; Fergie; and Nicki Minaj.

Unlike pop music, where several artists can reach peak popularity simultaneously (think: Beyoncé and Taylor Swift), rap has effectively kept its successful female rappers pared down to one at a time by pitting them against each other. Since 2010, when she dropped her major-label debut, Pink Friday, Nicki Minaj has firmly held the rap queen title. But Cardi B’s number one single (a feat Nicki herself hasn’t achieved yet) doesn’t seem like a threat. For the most part, the rap world seems to be strangely at peace with Cardi B’s success.

Maybe part of why Cardi B is seeing such an outpouring of support is that this success—another woman at the top of the Billboard chart—is a win for every female rapper. Female rappers rarely get even into the top 40 without already having established careers and fanbases. Not only is Cardi B nice to other rappers, then, she’s also proof that there’s room for more than one woman to rap at the top. While young MCs like Desiigner, Rae Sremmurd, and Migos have broken through to number one hits in the last year despite, Cardi B is the first female rapper to do so since 2014. In the chart’s history, solo rappers have held the top spot only twice: Lauryn Hill’s 1998 “Doo Wop (That Thing)” and Iggy Azalea’s 2014 “Fancy” featuring Charli XCX. After its release on June 16, “Bodak Yellow” steadily rose up the charts as a result of accumulated plays across streaming, airplay, and digital sales. It is an unexpected breakthrough hit on a chart that rarely features female rappers of color. This win isn’t just a win for Cardi B: It’s a win for women in rap who hopefully will be able to bring more and more of their songs into the ears of American listeners.

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