On December 20, Cardi B appeared on The Tonight Show. She talked about her 2017 (“I have been proven”), her family (“Once you start making money, everybody wants you to be they kid’s godmother or something”), and her engagement to Offset of Migos (“It’s the right thing to do”). She trilled, drew shapes in the air, and let her nails sing. She was her own ringtone, New York’s storm alert, a pound and a half for the price of one. Jimmy Fallon, affectionate but lost, resorted to his Child Sees First Dump Truck routine and giggled as much as he talked. “I love you, man,” he concluded.
He is not alone. Two weeks into 2018, Cardi B is on six Hot 100 singles. She skates through the rebooted new jack swing of Bruno Mars’s “Finesse” remix, steals the remix of G-Eazy’s “No Limit” by rewriting G-Eazy’s hook (“Fuck him, then I get some money”), and calls herself the “trap Selena” on “MotorSport,” a posse cut with Migos and Nicki Minaj. “Bartier Cardi” is only Cardi’s second official single, disorientingly. Here, she swaps bars with 21 Savage and outshines him with rhymes linked by Offset namechecks. For Ozuna’s “La Modelo,” she sings in Spanish but raps in English.
If joy of delivery is a distinct variable, Cardi B has three clicks more of it per song. If you are excited, she is hype. If you are confident, she is already speaking to reporters. If you are an assassin, she is standing on your grave. Nobody on a track with Cardi B right now can do more than keep up.
Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” is number one on the Pazz & Jop singles list, with Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA” at number two. “DNA” fighting it out with “Bodak Yellow” is like Monk trading fours with Cecil Taylor, opposing terminal ends of a genre, equally charged. Kendrick stacks up footage and dodges bullets until the beat trips the breaker. Cardi lays out the comfort of control, while reminding you not to take that comfort as your own. Kendrick sucks the air out of a stairwell while Cardi clears out the backyard. Renters or owners? Probably both.
Her 2017 peak still looms. “Bodak Yellow” — holding at number ten on the Billboard Hot 100 for the week of January 13 — was the first song by a female rapper to go to number one since Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” in 1998. (Cardi held the number one spot for one week longer than Lauryn’s two.) “Doo Wop,” like the entire Miseducation album, is a 200 percent thing — both 100 percent soul and 100 percent hip-hop, a synthesis that set up the next twenty years of R&B. Where, say, new jack swing sounds like a lost cousin of the present, Lauryn Hill slots next to SZA and Solange and Frank without trouble.
Cardi B echoes Hill in more than stats. Both are women with roots in New York hip-hop (45 minutes separates Hill’s East Orange, New Jersey, from Cardi B’s South Bronx) who hit number one talking about their vision of independence. Hill found the crease where soul and hip-hop weren’t points in a linear smash-and-grab teleology, but adjacent systems that could nourish each other and live without triggering a zero-sum shoot-out. Cardi B’s synthesis isn’t that different. An Instagram star before “Love & Hip Hop,” before the mixtapes, and before the major label, Cardi B fuses the social media target length (less than ten seconds) and the strong hook (same). Cardi B doesn’t need to “graduate” from social media as if records are better or structurally opposed to the brief internet post — she makes them the same thing. Give her a few seconds and she will snatch your brain on the platform of your choice.
Cardi’s new synthesis slides back and forth through time as skillfully as Lauryn’s did. When Cardi dominated the summer with single words (“comfortable” is a three-syllable manifesto), she came across like another New York rapper. People loved Biggie for a hundred reasons, and one was that he could deliver a word in several planes at once. Before you knew what “Warning” was about, you knew that he had said the hell out of “predicament.” Pre-language, language, sound, effort, lack of effort — an MC can load one universe into one word, and Cardi knows this.
As there is no Cardi B without a childhood in the Bronx as Belcalis Almanzar, there is no “Bodak Yellow” without the South. Some of that is down to the Kodak Black song Cardi uses as a blueprint. More relevant is her reliance on voice and texture, one of the reasons hip-hop now sounds more like Atlanta than any other city. If “Doo Wop” blended disparate genres, “Bodak Yellow” melts hip-hop into itself and resolves regional differences into a single sound. The New Yorkest single of the year is one of the most Southerny, too. People like their flows slowed down and dragged out. It works with any accent. Cardi isn’t marrying an A$AP Mobster — she chose someone from Atlanta’s first-tier team. Love or hip-hop? Probably both.