Growing up in the Bronx, a young Jennifer Lopez would dabble in anything that might one day make her famous: acting, dancing, choreography, even gymnastics and track. Oh, and singing—but it was Lopez’s least-pursued talent prior to her mid-twenties. As she rose to prominence during the 1990s, Lopez was, variously, a regional theater actress and choreographer; a backup dancer for the likes of New Kids on the Block and Janet Jackson; a televised backup dancer—a Fly Girl—on the Wayans Brothers’ sketch series In Living Color; and a well-regarded actress in midtier Hollywood fare or, in the case of Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, highly acclaimed Hollywood fare. It was only after she recorded a Spanish-language demo on a lark—after winning plaudits for her star turn in the 1997 musical biopic Selena, at age 27—that Lopez began seriously weighing a singing career. Even then, it took a bit of coaching from Sony Music executive Tommy Mottola, the man who discovered Mariah Carey, to convince the future J. Lo she could get over singing English-language pop with a Latin flavor. In 1999, she finally issued her debut album and single (the latter an immediate No. 1 hit) only after she’d tried, and succeeded at, everything else.
I offer this thumbnail history of Lopez—a woman who’s sold some 80 million records worldwide, and on whose Wikipedia page the word “singer” is now the first descriptor before “actress” and “dancer”—to offer some perspective on a fellow Bronx-born woman who takes over Billboard’s Hot 100 this week.
That would be Cardi B, the nearly 25-year-old woman who started as an exotic dancer and passed through phases as an Instagram celebrity and reality-show star before arriving as a late-blooming M.C. Barely two years after a manager told her she might have a good voice for rap, Cardi’s booming, braggadocious “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” completes a dozen-week climb to No. 1. In a head-to-head chart contest the whole music world was watching, Cardi rings the bell in grand fashion, ejecting a musical giant, Taylor Swift, whose presold “Look What You Made Me Do” succumbs after three weeks on top.
The fact that both Lopez and Cardi—born Belcalis Almanzar to a Dominican father and a Trinidadian mother—were raised by Latin parents in the Boogie-Down is a helpful coincidence, but it’s not why I make the above analogy. Rather, it’s their hungry (haters might say thirsty), by-any-means-necessary rise to fame. J. Lo fans might consider it insulting that I compare Lopez’s accomplished tour of the entertainment industry to the crass, lower-status rungs of millennial fame Cardi navigated. On the other hand, some might consider my comparison an insult, musically, to Cardi: Ever since Lopez stepped in front of the mic for real, she has been called a talent-free dilettante, given her acknowledged vocal limitations and overreliance on production. I am no great admirer of Lopez as a singer, but through perseverance and an actual jam or two over the last two decades, she long ago earned the right to be taken seriously. It’s early days for Cardi B, but she deserves at least as much consideration.
This bears declaring outright, because as “Bodak Yellow” scaled the charts this summer—hell, even before “Bodak” dropped—the question on the lips of many a critic, blogger, and tweeter has been akin to, She’s kidding, right? Can this rapper even rap? Perhaps, by the standards of bars-driven, technical rapping defined by men, Cardi’s mic-rocking isn’t exceptionally graceful. Nonetheless, I find her thrust, the tumble of her flow, infectious. (I particularly love the conversational vulgarity of “I’m like, ‘OK, I’ll let him get what he want,’ he buy me Yves Saint Laurent”; and “bloody shoes,” a euphemism for pricey red-bottomed Christian Louboutin pumps, is far wittier than anything in “My Humps” or “Gucci Gucci.”) But whatever your opinion of Cardi’s M.C. skills—and she absolutely has her fans—the rise of “Bodak Yellow” has to be regarded as organic, as democracy in action. The public has spoken, and they have declared this song a jam. It is the opposite of the Taylor Swift song it just tossed from the top of the charts: It was never a guaranteed hit.
Even Cardi herself doubted it at first. “I wanna play you this song—I think it’s good, but I’m not really sure,” she reportedly told The Fader’s Rawiya Kameir while riding in a car with her last spring, before the track dropped. “I don’t think she had any idea,” Kameir added, in a podcast conversation with the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica, who aptly calls “Bodak” a “genuine New York street-rap record.” This makes it akin to 2016’s own improbable New York–based street-rap No. 1 smash, Desiigner’s “Panda.” And like “Panda,” even before it topped the Hot 100, “Bodak” had become the consensus rap jam of the season, the sort of street-and-club hit that sounds ubiquitous in American cities even before the charts make it official. Clubgoers would shout out for “Bodak”—women, reportedly, loved its bravado.
In the modern music economy, movements like these are best tracked by streaming. Within days of its June launch, “Bodak” was commanding a huge audience on Soundcloud and in rap tastemaker playlists at Spotify and Apple Music. “Bodak” finally debuted on the Hot 100 in July near the bottom of the chart, driven largely by streaming, before beginning its steady, uninterrupted climb, 85 to 78 to 49 to 28 to 14 to 8 before hurtling into the top three by Labor Day. After a month at either No. 3 or No. 2, Cardi B finally supplanted Taylor Swift, whose hit didn’t even exist before August but was as front-loaded as I predicted—huge consumption early but then a fairly rapid falloff.
“Bodak Yellow” wasn’t Cardi’s first promoted single since signing a big-money deal with Atlantic Records—the venerable imprint that, under the leadership of such rap-savvy executives as Julie Greenwald, has capitalized on hip-hop in the streaming era better than any major label. At first Atlantic threw its promotional muscle and video budget behind “Lick,” a track from Cardi’s January 2017 indie mixtape Gangsta Bitch Vol. 2 that paired her with Atlanta rapper Offset of Migos and “Bad and Boujee” fame. (The two are now apparently dating, a detail that may well have factored into the label’s promotional calculus.) “Lick” made only a modest impact before “Bodak” was issued as a standalone single, untethered to one of Cardi’s pre-Atlantic mixtapes.
Which is funny, because between the glossy “Lick” and the scrappy “Bodak,” it’s the latter that sounds more like a mixtape track. Like many such street cuts, “Bodak Yellow” is basically another rapper’s track playfully turned sideways and reimagined. The song’s title is an homage to Florida rapper Kodak Black, because Cardi openly borrowed the laconic, triplet-based cadence of Black’s minor 2014 hit “No Flockin.” Black made his approval overt by jumping on a late-breaking “Bodak” remix, and under his real name, Dieuson Octave, he receives a writing credit. This, by the way, gives Cardi B and Taylor Swift something in common: back-to-back No. 1 songs whose authors were compelled to credit prior songwriters for borrowing, not a melody, but a cadence—Swift credited the writers of Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” for the chorus tempo of “Look What You Made Me Do.” (Personally, I wish these sorts of nonmelodic similarities qualified as accepted fair use and didn’t involve lawyers at all, but post–“Blurred Lines,” chart-topping stars can’t be too careful.)
A couple of weeks ago, when it looked like “Bodak” might have the momentum to reach No. 1, we in the media portrayed it, somewhat unfairly, as a woman-on-woman fight, with Cardi pitted against two superstars: Swift, of course, and reigning ’10s rap queen Nicki Minaj. The former scrape was driven by the magnitude of Swift’s profile and the deliciousness of the prospect that her heavily hyped hit might get toppled by a relative newcomer. The latter was driven by the fact that Minaj, in a decade of record-breaking hitmaking, has oddly never scored a No. 1 pop hit, only getting as high as No. 2 on the Hot 100 with 2014’s “Anaconda.” Mind, there’s no evidence Nicki bears Cardi any ill will for her chart-topping success. Indeed, this week Minaj took the occasion of Cardi’s rise to the top to tweet her congratulations, a gracious move from one rap queen to another. Now, as has been widely reported, “Bodak” is the first chart-topping solo-female rap hit since Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” in November 1998.
So while we’re taking the media to task for conjuring catfights, perhaps the better question is: What took so long? During those 19 years, female rappers have graced the top of the Hot 100 a scant three times: a Lil Kim teamup with three singers on “Lady Marmalade” (2001), Shawnna’s supporting role on Ludacris’ “Stand Up” (2003), and Iggy Azalea’s Charli XCX–supported “Fancy” (2014). In a survey I wrote earlier this year on the chart and sales history of female rappers, I concluded that with the exception of one glorious four-to-five-year period in the late ’90s when Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott, Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, and Eve were all minting platinum, the music business has shown a decided inability to support more than one rap queen at a time. (A 2010 documentary from director Ava DuVernay, My Mic Sounds Nice, came to the same overarching conclusion.) This sad reality was brought home just half a year ago by rapper Remy Ma reigniting a decade-old rap beef with Nicki Minaj—a battle that was fun on wax but depressing inasmuch as Remy didn’t think to go after any of rap’s many kings.
So, good for Minaj for not feeding into this narrative. (Taylor, too, sent flowers and good wishes this week after she was dethroned.) But it only makes Cardi B’s achievement more monumental and brings the odds she overcame into sharper relief. Not only is she pushing past haters who claim she can’t rap, she’s overcoming hardwired gender prejudice. Indeed, forget rap for a moment—just one month ago, there had been no songs by women, period, atop the Hot 100 in 2017 (as I have bemoaned many times in this Slate series this year). Now, there have been two in a row in the penthouse. They even locked down both the top two positions simultaneously for a couple of weeks, something that hadn’t happened since Swift and Meghan Trainor held both of the top spots with “Blank Space” and “All About That Bass” nearly three years ago. That was a very different time on the charts: the tail end of the early-’10s, digital-download–fueled rule of women over our then pure-pop Top 40. Now that we’re deep into the streaming era, how did we go from a nonstop sausage party—Migos to Ed Sheeran to Kendrick Lamar to DJ Khaled to Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, plus lots of supporting Bieber—to a sudden reclamation of the charts for women?
It’s possible to read too much into just a couple of chart hits. While it would be wrong to suggest these two songs mean nothing, I am skeptical of Billboard’s suggestion that a wholesale pendulum shift may be at hand. If, as they say in the media, two is a coincidence, and three is a trend, we’re at least one No. 1 hit away from concluding that women have righted the ship charts-wise. But I will go this far: What “Look What You Made Me Do” and “Bodak Yellow” have in common is women assuming the kind of take-no-shit posture that is regularly the province of male artists, particularly male rappers. Swift’s latest smash was basically the beefiest thing she’s ever done, which, given her track record, is saying something. Cardi’s current chart-topper is both something new and something old: a reinvention of the Jennifer Lopez model of striving multimedia fame for the Instagram age, coupled with an I’m-the-baddest lyrical boast that, with some mild censorship, could have worked coming from the first wave of male M.C.’s during rap’s first golden age. At the risk of suggesting that female artists in the late ’10s can only get over by behaving more like the men, let’s give props to both Taylor and Cardi for reading the room and spitting their truth as they see it.