Over Super Bowl weekend, Cardi B cheerfully eclipsed this year’s televised halftime show by appearing in Atlanta at a series of related events that only underscored her steadfast refusal to take the stage inside the stadium in protest of the NFL’s continued blackballing of Colin Kaepernick. Only Cardi B seems able to dominate a news cycle as much by what she doesn’t do as by what she does.
Online media celebrated Cardi performing a 45-minute set at Atlanta’s Bud Light Super Bowl Music Fest on Saturday night, and the Hollywood Reporter showed her joined onstage by Patriots owner Robert Kraft — who danced — while she performed Saturday afternoon during the Fanatics party at the College Football Hall of Fame. Cardi B exceptionalism strikes again! Yes, her fame seems predicated on walking an extremely fine line between moral righteousness and scandal. Millions saw her G-rated cameo in a Pepsi commercial during the game, while nearly as many have watched more R-rated cameos in videos like Rita Ora’s “Girls” and the City Girls’ “Twerk.” Although deep in the throes of resolving marital problems and a bitter multimillion-dollar lawsuit launched last year by her former manager Klenord “Shaft” Raphael, Cardi soldiers on in a labor-intensive career that gets both hotter and more controversial as time goes on.
Although you can find lots of bemused critical commentary about the fact that Cardi B’s pop crossover success was largely driven by cameo appearances on a cable-television series, there are clearly other factors at work among the P&J voter pool who’ve voted big for this scrappy hip-hop diva from the boogie down two years in a row, following up last year’s love for “Bodak Yellow” (2017’s number one single) with “I Like It” (2018’s number two single). Part of it is respect for her work ethic. Cardi stayed in the public eye through her pregnancy last year, appeared on Ellen and SNL, made top-quality music videos, and accepted a number of invitations to collaborate with other high-profile or rising artists on singles that also ended up on Pazz & Jop lists this year.
Yet, my own straw poll research reveals that different people like Cardi for different reasons. The “secret” to her success is that she is able to simultaneously be and represent different things to different people.
To her queer following, and to fifteen-year-old “urban” teens, Cardi B is a girl who beat an entire system of outdated stereotypes that limits what they can be. To twenty-year-old college girls, she is an oddly tantalizing symbol of the courage they still lack. To thirty-year-old career girls, she is living proof that identity is constructed, the future is unwritten, and that you can thrive in a world with no rules, and fewer certainties, as long as you are brave, funny, and focused. But perhaps most importantly, to all susceptible men she frames herself as La Belle Dame sans Merci: the visually compelling, elfin woman they desire but can’t control — and have been taught to fear. With a spontaneous sense of humor that veils a fierce intelligence, Cardi B comes across as the irresistible ballbusting femme fatale men hate to love.
Part of the intimidation factor is Cardi’s often brutally unsentimental entrepreneurial drive: She must be willing to take risks without the monetary safety nets inherited by female Hiltons and Kardashians. For all her cussing and playful self-deprecation, she can be as diplomatic as Ralph Bunche when she needs to be. Cardi also makes public mistakes, sometimes big ones, with more self-confidence than a career politician, even arriving for court appearances like visiting royalty. In her radio interviews and Instagram posts, Cardi B comes across as likably candid and “regular.” She’s the ultimate practical individualist (who nonetheless retains a ride-or-die streetwise posse and close connections with her extended family). When she gives people advice — as in the lyrics of “Be Careful” or on social media — her words are often confessional, slightly profane, and laden with the wry wisdom of personal experience.
As the daughter of a Trinidadian mom and a Dominican dad, Belcalis Marlenis Almanzár grew up internalizing both Bronx and Caribbean family values — a mix of social habits and assumptions that don’t always correlate with conservative WASP expectations. A self-avowed capitalist only because cash rules everything around her, Cardi B could teach a master class in respectful etiquette, only she won’t teach from a textbook written by Emily Post. Cardi’s personal creed is way too pre-Columbian and Old Testament for that.
The rapper’s half-Latino, half–West Indian bloodlines make her potentially heir to two islands’ musical traditions: Trinidad’s calypso, kaiso, and chutney-soca; and the merengue, bachata, and bachatón of the Dominican Republic. In the 1990s, young producers of Caribbean extraction began mixing and matching digitized rhythms and instrumentation to create dance music aggressive and edgy enough to compete with techno and hip-hop. When crunk and reggaetón upped the nightclub ante, artists like Pitbull and Erick Morillo stepped up with creative new fusions aimed at the bilingual crossover market. But the most successful singles were those that blended sex and humor in witty, memorable ways. Little wonder that a sassy mouth with no emotional filter became Cardi B’s biggest marketing asset. Long before the degendered term Latinx usurped Latino/a in the mouths of academic intersectionality advocates, explicit lyrics advertising a fluid, aggressive, or even a transgressive sexuality could win attention on a dance floor.
If you recall, the prototype for Cardi’s voice, feisty personality, and tiny stature is actually Rosie Perez, who was elevatated from In Living Color’s dance troupe to national stardom when Spike Lee cast her in 1989’s Do the Right Thing. It took thirty years of strategic multimedia representation of blacks and Latinos to pave the way for Cardi B. The political and crypto-feminist context of Do the Right Thing is relevant here because it ties into the political subtext of most of what Cardi B says and represents, both on record and in person. Born in 1992, she belongs to a generation that grew up being educated and entertained by a thematic synergy between the way American people of color were being portrayed on records, TV, and film. Call it empowerment pedagogy, but Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, Cardi B, and even their elder brother Lin-Manuel Miranda are its beneficiaries.
The ideal of a multicultural, mixed-race, Pan-American social movement is inherent to most salsa, boogaloo, jazz fusion, and reggaetón music. The intentional combination of the implicitly political and the explicitly sexy is also part of Cardi B’s persona. Let’s face it, the loud, outrageous, sexy Latin girl has been a marketing staple in American pop entertainment since Carmen Miranda, La Lupe, and Charo. Cardi B just seems to be taking the trope in a slightly different direction. It remains to be seen if that direction stays political.
The ongoing synergy between TV, film, social media, and music industry representations of proactive, politicized Latinos is important here because that seems to be the catalytic combination we are noticing most today. Artists from the labels Fania, Tico, and Alegre were huge in the 1970s, but they didn’t cross into mainstream consciousness quite as much as Cardi B has. Throughout the last twenty years there have been dozens of smooth crooners making sexy Latin pop music, but usually only one per year would break big in the United States. We might notice Nuyorican tyro Marc Anthony one year, Ricky Martin the next; then a sultry soccer anthem recorded by Brazilian Michel Teló would catch fire, then Puerto Rico’s Luis Fonsi, now perhaps Colombia’s J Balvin. But these days, what seems to give such contenders more crossover mileage is hybridization between the many reggae and rap subgenres that have emerged from Central, South, and Caribbean American countries with each new generation of aspirational youth.
In the 1960s, Latin boogaloo was funk and soul blended with big band Afro-Cuban dance musics during the political tumult of the civil rights decade. Today, bachatón and reggaetón similarly fuse soul, salsa, reggae, and rap inspired by the revolutionary legacies of Simón Bolívar, Marcus Garvey, and Bob Marley. “I Like It,” voted the second-best single of the year by our P&J electorate, shows Cardi reworking a famous Latin boogaloo hit. By reformulating the tune around looped samples, Cardi, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin take advantage of a radio atmosphere in which (thanks to the global success of the Afro-Latino-soundtracked Fast and Furious films) bachata-flavored pop, Latin trap, and reggaetón singles have been infiltrating the global charts. European pop stars have been collaborating like mad with bachata and reggaetón acts since around the same time that Justin Bieber decided to hop on the “Despacito” bandwagon. In other words, critical mass for the multilingual crossover sound of “I Like It” has been building for a while.
Cardi B and her production crew may not have invented the loops and rhythms that make every track on Invasion of Privacy vibrate with dance floor potential, yet as a co-writer and performer, Cardi innovates within every art form she adopts. On that score, never accuse Pazz & Jop voters of being late to the Cardi party. If Invasion of Privacy (which beautifully blends so many hybridized trends and musical styles into one tight female-fronted package) wins Album of the Year at the Grammys this Sunday, will it be the triumph of personality, trend-mongering, or musical talent? In the current media moment, this question may be moot. But as the unofficial soundtrack of post-AOC America, such a win makes all such questions a bit beside the point.