Music

Cardi B Is the Red Hot Boss Bitch of the Pop Moment

Even her detractors can’t deny the palpable strength of will that makes “Invasion of Privacy” vibrate with personality

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Around 10 p.m. at her release party Thursday night in New York’s meatpacking district, Cardi B inhabited her role as Boss Bitch of the Pop Moment with endearing sass and insouciant verve. Swinging a luxuriant blonde ponytail above a tailored white-lace dress jacket, the 25-year-old rapper, who only two years ago parlayed a notorious Instagram feed into a breakout role on Love & Hip Hop New York, introduced each of the new tracks from her major-label debut in between sly callouts to haters and shout-outs to fans. A blur of impromptu gesticulation, she flawlessly lip-synched her rhymes as they played, prompting protective label reps to stop audience members from recording her direct to YouTube.

One of the most eagerly anticipated major-label debuts in years, Invasion of Privacy was preceded by too many quality independent releases for anyone to believe it would be bad. Even before the pop chart–topping success of last year’s “Bodak Yellow,” Cardi B’s work — online, on cable TV, on stage, and on record — had been too consistent for any but the most hardened or clueless cynics to underestimate her potential. Favorable early comparisons to Lil’ Kim ignored how she evoked other distaff pioneers, including the raw spunk of Sha-Rock, the succinct flippancy of Salt ’N Pepa, the hardness of MC Lyte, and the relaxed authority of Queen Latifah. When Atlantic released “Bodak Yellow” last June, Cardi B’s trajectory toward stardom was already in place, built on mixtapes, guest performances, online videos, and pure charisma. By October, she was up for nine BET Hip-Hop Awards and had the number one single on the Billboard Hot 100.  

To her credit, Belcalis “Cardi B” Almanzar made an album she herself would want to buy, and as a result Invasion of Privacy abounds with equal parts true grit and potential hits. She admits that the material here slants more commercial in sound and subject matter than she might prefer, but is quick to assure you it’s all part of a bigger plan. Don’t let her cusswords fool you; Cardi is a brave, smart, determined, industrious tyro. A hood superhero. A drive-or-die bitch. If you already own Gangsta Bitch Music, Vols. 1 & 2 then you know all this. As she told you on “Sauce Boyz”, she never defrosts. “Bronx Season” (lead track on 2017’s Vol. 2) is the unapologetic autobiographical statement that vindicates every drop of love her larger-than-life personality extracts from her loyal followers.

A line like “How much times do I got to prove these niggas wrong,” might seem like a yen for external validation until you realize Cardi’s so confident she doesn’t really care what anybody else thinks. “Get Up 10,” the lead track on Invasion of Privacy, picks up where “Bronx Season” and “Bodak Yellow” leave off. It’s the continuation of the historical novel of Cardi’s life; a spooky psychological memoir that explains her determination to prove all doubters wrong while simultaneously laughing and popping off in their faces. The hook, “Knock me down nine times, but I get up ten” is no brag, just fact for all the tough urban strivers she represents. A frequent adolescent runaway with gang affiliations who nonetheless finished high school and briefly went to college between earning on a stripper pole, she’s not soft, she’s not stupid, fearful, or dependent on anyone but herself. Hers is the kind of female energy recent #MeToo warriors really want to channel but somehow can’t seem to own.

The genius of Cardi launching Invasion of Privacy after her 2016–2017 stint on VH-1’s Love & Hip Hop New York, is that she used her time with the show in the most strategic way possible. Zany onscreen antics helped immortalize her Instagram persona, but she used those two seasons of reality television to set up her mixtapes, pump up her social media following, and facilitate her indie-label’s fifteen-city tour. One might say that this 25-year-old ’round the way girl has improved upon the Paris Hilton and Kim K. methods of celebrity advancement. “I want a certain type of respect,” she confided on the Breakfast Club. And if the past three years of stellar collaborations, talk show appearances, and awards-show nods are any indication, she is willing to work her ass off to get it.

Shrewdly interpolating lines from Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” into the current single “Be Careful,” Cardi reminds us she not only drops bars but can also sing. Although it’s clear she alludes to Hill as a form of homage rather than demanding comparison, one can imagine Cardi B as a more Millie Jackson-ish version of Hill, fertilized by the cautionary tales of Amy Winehouse and Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes. After collaborating in 2017 with the Migos on “MotorSport,” and performing alongside Bruno Mars on his remix of “Finesse,” Cardi B successfully bridged the two poles of hip-hop credibility and paved the way for the range of material on Invasion of Privacy.

From the aggressive bounce of “Get Up 10” to the sultry melancholy of “Ring,” Cardi migrates easily from classic trap and Fugees-style hip-pop, to bachata-meets-boogaloo hybrids. She rides with reggaeton greats Bad Bunny and J. Balvin on the Spanglish party record “I Like It,” and keeps pace with guest crooners like SZA and Kehlani on melodic downtempo tracks like “I Do” and “Ring.” The influence of genre-bending releases from Beyoncé and Solange make even moody odes to heartbreak want to percolate with polyrhythmic swing. While Chance the Rapper taps into Cardi’s lesser-known spiritual side by injecting Christian optimism into the song “Best Life,” it doesn’t stop her from bringing us sex and pornography with tracks like “She Bad” and “Bartier Cardi.”

People now talk about the rise of Latino trap as if crunk didn’t blend with reggaeton and dancehall way back when Lil Jon was working with Pitbull. If you draw lines of evolution between the subgenres of Miami bass, crunk, and trap music, you find one common denominator that particularly typifies Southern and Southeast corridor hip-hop: Each produces defiant party music rooted in a non-white cultural reality (simultaneously grim and glorious) that insists — with a militant rhythmic attitude — upon self-affirmation, no matter what. No matter how dark the lyrical content, all three styles command you to dance, offering an almost ritualized opportunity to liberate your ass with the hope that your mind will eventually follow. And as Cardi B, Ginuwine, and Luther Campbell can tell you, all three drew inspiration and commercial momentum from the world of strip clubs. “Bickenhead” is Cardi B’s salute to the Dirty South via allusions to the 2001 single “Chickenhead” by Memphis artist Project Pat. Fast and feisty, it’s a showcase for an artist willing and able to embrace all of rap’s regional histories. Judging by her eclectic taste and sense of humor, Cardi B seems to be a unifier by nature. She manages to avoid high-profile feuds with fellow female MCs by generalizing her disputes: Lyrics mostly accuse “them bitches” and “these hoes” without naming names. It’s enough for Cardi that the guilty know who they are.

Even Cardi’s detractors can’t deny the palpable strength of will that makes these tracks vibrate with personality. Cardi convincingly morphs from battle rapper to shrewd business woman to vengeful girlfriend. Her carefully slurred intonation and pronounced accent shifts implied meaning, which injects ambiguity and subtlety into lines about sex and violence that might otherwise be taken too literally (or not literally enough). She sells all of this not only because of what she says, but how she says it.

In her multi-culti fluidity, Cardi comes across like a wonderfully bizarre amalgam of Lil’ Kim, La Lupe, and Keny Arkana — a pretty unexpected fusion that carves out ample territory in which to grow her talent without competing in any direct way with Remy Ma, Nicki Minaj, Princess Nokia, Ivy Queen, or the many other current, recurrent, and future rap divas. In fact, the most relevant comparison I can remember to Cardi B as a catalytic force in the music industry may be Roxanne Shanté, whose debut single “Roxanne’s Revenge” shook up the rap game in the mid-1980s. It was Shanté, along with Queen Latifah, who first overturned existing gender inequalities by becoming a female boss of her respective crew, as seen on the new Netflix biopic Roxanne Roxanne.

What I like to remember about Cardi B is that she was a professional entertainer — yes, a stripper — and a TV star long before Atlantic Records begged to sign her. In that 1990s Mickey Mouse Club sense of multimedia grooming, this petit entrepreneur of Trinidadian and Dominican extraction had more going for her as a debut recording artist than any random Orlando-bred Britney- or Justin-come-lately.

And let’s stop sneering at strippers, shall we? I can name successful rock stars, filmmakers, a former member of the Voice’s copy department, and the president of a groundbreaking record label who all did time in exotic dance clubs. Moving through that world (as Eve, Amber Rose, Channing Tatum, and Diablo Cody can attest) prepares those clever enough not to get old on the pole for — as Cardi might put it — bigger money moves. 

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