On Her Debut Album, Cardi B Takes Rap History, Flips It, and Reverses It

Where others see contradictions, she sees only opportunities.

Photo illustration: Cardi B.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Andrew Kelly/Reuters.

Last weekend, the past year’s breakout rap star Cardi B segued between segments of her highest-profile broadcast performance yet by calling out, “What’s poppin’, Saturday Night Live? We sinnin’ tonight, and we goin’ to church tomorrow. Hallelujah!” In that moment, Cardi invoked one of the oldest dialectics in black music. It’s the divide between R&B and gospel, the bifurcated roots of rock and soul. Between Lindy Hop swing-dancing and holy-ghost jazz transcendence. Between slick disco and cosmic funk. Between dirty club rap and conscious hip-hop. Between body and soul, and radicalism and respectability. And at the hinge between Saturday and Sunday, the midnight hour, comes the time of the hookup and of the gunfight, of the encore and of the riot. As well as the time of the weekly first SNL music break.

Cardi B, as the newly canonized patron saint of shamelessly “ratchet” working-class black womanhood in the late 2010s—an ex-stripper, ex–reality TV personality, and Instagram star inclined to posting foul-mouthed rants from her bedroom, half-undressed—knows she’s expected to stick to the profane and to leave the sacred alone. But her shoutout to the pulpit was another sign, matching the surprising variety of sounds on her just-released debut album Invasion of Privacy, that there are no boundaries she will not cross.

She makes these moves cannily. On SNL, Cardi first appeared in a version of the checkerboard black-and-white outfit from her album cover, with all the yin-and-yang dualities of that color scheme, except that here the ensemble was all puffed out and befeathered, like a cross between a panda and a kiwi bird. (That whiff of post-human pageantry located her in the genome of black-diva fabulosity alongside Grace Jones, Labelle, Missy Elliott, and her closest antecedent Nicki Minaj.) This daughter of rap’s crucible—the Bronx, born to a Dominican father and a Trinidadian mother—then started off briefly in her first language from the Spanish remix of her 2017-destroying single, “Bodak Yellow,” before switching to the much more widely known English words of the first No. 1 for a solo female rapper since Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” in 1998.

Next, she jumped into the section of “Bartier Cardi” (her second legit hit) that finds her doling out way too much information (mostly muted out on the broadcast) about her sex life with fiancé Offset, of the even more successful group Migos. On record, it’s Cardi claiming Offset as a conquest and status symbol, just as any male rapper might brag about bagging a celebrity. But it became another Saturday-night-and-Sunday-morning dualism on-air when Cardi then came out to do her second number in a clinging ivory dress that clearly revealed a baby bump: It seems all her and Offset’s vigorous sinning resulted in a saving grace.

Even then there was another layer, though. The song she was singing was Invasion of Privacy’s most fraught and touching track, “Be Careful,” which fans have interpreted as Cardi’s reaction to leaked videos allegedly showing Offset having sex with another woman. (In it, she directly quotes from Hill’s “Ex-Factor,” which was similarly rumored to be about Hill’s betrayal by then-paramour Wyclef Jean.) When fans and interviewers have asked why Cardi didn’t dump Offset then, she’s snapped back that she’s hardly the only person who’s ever had issues to work out with her partner. And she’s spoken in dozens of interviews about her desire to start a family, and how much of her financial ambition is motivated by wanting her kids to have the security she never had.

Pairing the bruising vulnerability of “Be Careful” with the pregnancy reveal last weekend was her way of thumbing her nose at the doubters, and another example of her comfort with letting her dualities all hang out. In an American moment that’s so polarized around morality and identity, Cardi’s refusal to be typecast resounds. She can be both a cartoonish sexpot and an earnest mom-to-be. She can be a “bad” feminist who gets called out for incorrect language and still have the passionate female solidarity to refuse to be lured by fan armies and media into catfights and rivalries (particularly with Minaj). She can verbally assassinate untold numbers of unnamed haters and “bitches” (a go-to mode that does become a bit exhausting), then virtuosically run through an uproarious list of manifestations of pussy power (“Bickenhead”), inviting every woman to seize that level of sexual agency.

Her work ethic is equaled by her conspicuous consumption. She bought herself a $240,000 orange Bentley even though, like a typical young New Yorker, she doesn’t know how to drive—because it’s the kind of ride a rapper should have. On “Drip,” her collaboration with Migos on the album, Cardi is symbolically blanketed in ice (i.e., jewelry) by the vocalists chanting “drip” or “drippin’ ” a cumulative 120 times. Like her extensive and openly advertised cosmetic surgery—on Invasion of Privacy’s opener, Get Up 10,” she laughs that she’s the “real bitch, only thing fake is the boobs”—the whip and the baubles are strategic loss leaders on long-term security, part of the false front that makes it possible for her to expose her inmost feelings just as boldly on songs such as “Be Careful” or “Ring.” She’s a populist pragmatist but an emotional anarchist, the rap riot grrl to Minaj’s rap Madonna, the ratchet trickster of the contemporary charts.

The lodestone of her power is sheer brazen personality, a loudmouthed and wide-eyed charisma that proved unstoppably phone-o-genic well before she started setting it to music. It’s made her the first full-blown social-media star to turn online monologuing into RIAA-certified gold and platinum. While she comes from New York, the cradle of complicated rap wordplay, her style’s better suited to the Southern-forged trap beats that dominate rap playlists today (though she’ll still catch more flack for her lack of technical bars than guests such as her fiancé or 21 Savage). It makes sense that her songs are often directly about the smartphone—on “Ring” here, with its onomatopoeic R&B hook from Kehlani, as well as on the techno-jealousy confessional about going “Thru Your Phone”—because that’s her native medium.

The title Invasion of Privacy is of-the-moment in a week when Mark Zuckerberg is facing congressional questions about Facebook’s carelessness with customers’ personal data. Cardi herself isn’t immune from fits of pique about gossip bloggers and Twitter natterers getting up in her business. But she’s mostly a one-woman manifesto for transparency, using her own private life as the vehicle to catapult herself into everybody else’s heads. She’s a visitor from the present, which (at least to those of us who are a little older) always seems like the future. It felt fitting to me that on SNL she was introduced by Chadwick Boseman, star of Black Panther, the movie that converted Afrofuturism from cultural theory and fringe culture into the blockbuster common tongue of 2018. Cardi B, hip-hop’s special agent from Instagram, wears Afrofuturism as naturally as if she’d just pulled it off the rack at her beloved Fashion Nova.

Never content to stay in even such an expansive lane, though, Cardi insists on making listeners aware that she’s a real-world person and not just an online persona. Her streets-to-stripping-to-stardom story may have moved through digital channels, but it’s also the oldest dream in American entertainment, like Fanny Brice going from tenements to penthouses via the burlesque stage, or starlets in old Hollywood being discovered at drugstore counters. Why did Cardi need to make a full-length album when continuing to produce singles and online mixtapes could have seemed a perfectly viable career plan? Because this way, rather than try to re-bottle the lightning of “Bodak Yellow” a dozen times over, she’s able to put across a more well-rounded version of her biography, over an ever-changing variety of musical backdrops.

She does it off the top with “Get Up 10,” whose skittering piano and effects recall Meek Mill’s already classic album opener “Dreams and Nightmares,” a song that fulfills the same function. The curtain raiser explains the economics of her choice to take the strip-club stage (“Mama couldn’t give it to me, so I got it at Sue’s”) and how it helped get her where she is today (“I was covered in dollars, now I’m covered in jewels”). In interviews, Cardi has complained about the way the #MeToo movement has overlooked women like her, such as dancers and “video vixens,” telling Cosmopolitan, “People say, ‘Why do you always got to say that you used to be a stripper? We get it.’ Because y’all don’t respect me because of it, and y’all going to respect these strippers from now on.” Her advocacy there seems especially crucial right now, with Washington enacting a law against online sex advertising while ignoring sex workers’ protests that it will make their lives more dangerous.

Having grounded the album in that reality, Cardi can run through styles and tones at will. There’s a brief sag in the second half with “Money Bag” (the most blatant attempt to rehash “Bodak Yellow”), “Bartier Cardi” itself (which 21 Savage spoils for me), and the YG collaboration “She Bad,” where his verse is weak and she seems low on ideas, aside from the one to ignite social media by proposing a threesome with Chrissy Teigen and Rihanna. But otherwise she’s ablaze with couplets and one-liners, and while some listeners might complain that none of the musical variations are especially original, that would be missing the point. It’s not about doing it first, or even necessarily about having written the verse. It’s about being the first and only to do it her way.

Cardi is in command of herself as a living meme, stamping her Impact-font, impact-calibrated syllables on all kinds of given templates, as provided by her producers and guests. The most delightful fusion for me is her reach back to the 1960s boogaloo of Pete Rodriguez’s “I Like It Like That” to give a horn-driven and horny bounce to “I Like It.” It’s her contribution to the Latin-pop wave of “Despacito,” “Havana,” and all of that ooh-na-na, with Cardi gleefully diving into her own Caribbean bloodline—helped out with Spanish feature vocals from J. Balvin and Bad Bunny, of the Colombian reggaeton and Puerto Rican trap scenes, respectively. Finally, after its various excursions, the record circles around to a thematic close on “I Do,” with last year’s album-artist queen, SZA, backing up Cardi’s assertion that she can do whatever she likes, as much as any male rap star.

That’s the ultimate method to Cardi’s madcappedness, to re-insert the woman’s view, the voice of the “bitch” or the “ho” or the “pussy” as she usually puts it, into a hip-hop history she loves in spite of its attempt to confine her to those zones—to transform it, but on and through its own terms. She won’t spar with Minaj because she won’t bend to the myth that there’s only room for one major female rapper at a time. And she returns to iconic but sexist moments in rap history to reinterpret them to her advantage—to, as Missy Elliott would say, “flip it and reverse it.” On “Drip,” she raps, “Anna Mae, got cake by the pound/ Go down, eat it up, don’t drown,” invoking Jay-Z’s “Drunk in Love” line “Eat the cake, Anna Mae,” which itself alluded to a scene of domestic abuse from an Ike-and–Tina Turner biopic.* Instead of a man violently shoving a woman’s face in cake, it becomes about Cardi pulling a man’s face into her crotch, with just a playful hint of a threat in “don’t drown.”

The finest example, though, is the way she quotes and samples Three 6 Mafia associate Project Pat in “Bickenhead,” a twist on his Southern rap classic “Chickenhead” from 2001. That song was full of contempt for empty-headed “hoes” (aside from a brief moment of pushback from female rapper La Chat), taking its name and chorus from an old derogatory image for women giving oral sex. Cardi turns it around into women using sexuality to manipulate weak-minded men—“pussy so good, make a nigga invest”—and not just for financial gain: “Make him give your ass a child,” she raps, and as we’ve now learned, that’s exactly what’s happened.

Cardi’s way of talking back to rap recalls Roxanne Shanté, her fellow New Yorker and the subject of a new biopic on Netflix, making one of the earliest womanist impacts on hip-hop in 1984, by biting back against the slur of “Roxanne, Roxanne” with “Roxanne’s Revenge.” “Bickenhead” is Cardi’s revenge, the moment, as Joan Morgan put it in the title of her landmark 1990s book on women and hip-hop, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost. “Truth,” Morgan wrote, “is what happens when your cumulative voices fill in the breaks, provide the remixes, and rework the chorus.” This is what you hear on Invasion of Privacy. It’s what happens when a woman’s spirit lifts her from the bottom of the pole to the heights of the altar, and she stands her ground to testify, “I can get ’em both, I don’t wanna choose.”

*Correction, April 11, 2018: This article originally misidentified the Ike–and–Tina Turner biopic that Jay-Z and Cardi B reference as a TV movie. What’s Love Got to Do With It was a theatrical release.