Good MCs copy, great MCs steal, but only Cardi B prances, left arm waving, to the front of the stage, leans arrogantly forward, elevates her medically enhanced booty heavenward, and boasts “Imma sound like all your favorite rappers, Imma take all they flows, and Imma body it, bitch.”
Conscientious law-abiding has not historically been high on hip-hop’s agenda, but rap still enforces its own rules. You can rhyme over someone’s beat for your mixtape, or sample somebody for your own track, but to jack another rapper’s style wholesale is corny as hell. Or was. Cardi’s breakthrough hit, “Bodak Yellow,” was an audacious scofflaw’s crime of badass bodysnatchery, openly pilfering cadences from the Florida rapper Kodak Black’s “No Flockin” to explore avenues of self-expression in that flow unbeknownst to its originator. Cardi’s like a prisoner who wakes up one day and realizes her cell door has never been locked: Every rap style is just sitting out there, waiting for you to take it, to flood with your personality and make it yours. After Cardi, everything is permitted.
You can tell a woman is truly famous when middle-aged dolts start boasting smugly how they’ve never heard of her, and by that standard (or any really) the stupefyingly gabtastic Trinidadian-Dominican born Belcalis Almanzar in the Bronx is a star. Just as Cardi has exhaustively documented her stay on every rung of the climb toward celebrity—from strip club to social media to reality TV to rap—she may also have already provided the best summation of her economical, expectation-leapfrogging 13-track debut album, Invasion of Privacy, in that same onstage monologue I already quoted: “One day Imma sound like Kodak, the next day Imma sound like Meek Mill, the next day Imma sound like Migos. I don’t give a fuck."
Still, there’s not giving a fuck, and there’s noooot giviiiiing aaaa fuuuuuckkkkkk, and constructing the opening cut for your make-or-break debut from the blueprint of Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares,” maybe the decade’s most celebrated rap album lead-off track, falls solidly into the latter category. In both flow and beat, Cardi’s “Get Up 10” alludes directly to Meek’s masterpiece. Her rhymes are an avalanche of inexhaustible self-assertion, hungry and headlong for verse after chorus-unimpeded verse, bounding between the sparsely placed piano chords entrusted with holding down the rhythm of a track that’s wholly drumless till nearly two minutes in, when a rickety trap cymbal sputters to life and stutters at her bloody heels. “Real bitch/ Only thing fake is the boobs”? “I was covered in dollars, now I’m dripping in jewels”? Who knew that there could ever be such a thing as a lead-off grand slam?
Cardi also excels at discovering new tributaries in that floodplain of tricky triplets commonly referred to in oversimplified shorthand as “the Migos flow.” When she bros down with her s.o. Offset’s multiplatinum rap trio on “Drip,” she essentially becomes the fourth Migo—you try to tell her “fingers” and “hangers” don’t rhyme. And on the chorus of “Bartier Cardi,” the follow-up hit that proved “Bodak” no fluke, girl puts the ass in assonance, deploying flamboyantly carnal Migosity in the service of claiming Offset as her trophy bae.
Though her consonants may be as Bronx-chafed as Pacino’s, Cardi’s vowels distend and bounce with in a dirty south fashion. On “Bickenhead,” she revamps Project Pat’s classic down souf bitch slap “Chickenhead” with nimbly laggard nursery-rhyme flows, and when she repeatedly makes the call to “pop that pussy,” she’s not just hauling out a rap cliché—she’s describing an act she’s got firsthand experience of, musing on the infinite variety of ways that one’s pussy might indeed be popped. She makes the act of being Cardi sound like such a blast that maybe for an hour or so you could enjoy being your own miserable damn self for a change too.
Cardi doesn’t necessarily improve on the flows she burrows into; she just makes them, well, Cardier. Rap’s a second language to her—third, really, since she claims Spanish as her first—and maybe it’s approaching both foreign tongues from the outside that allows her to luxuriate in possibilities its native speakers take for granted, like her fellow sensually phonic-besotted ESL student Nabokov crossing over from Russian. (A Cardi B Lolita audiobook would slay.) Even if she does lean on a ghostwriter, as has been predictably alleged, and some rap biz Cyrano is whispering lyrics like “These bitches, they salty/ They sodium/ They jelly/ Petroleum” and “Only time that I’m a lady’s when I lay dese hoes out” into Cardi’s ear, it’s still her voice that brings them to life.
But let’s look at whose flows Cardi’s coopting. Kodak, Meek, Migos, Pat—all of ’em dudes. That may be coincidental, but isn’t inconsequential. It suggests that she wants not just to rhyme well enough to hang with the guys, which gifted female MCs have been able to do since at least the days of Sha-Rock. She wants to compete, and to win. That is, after all, what rappers do. But it’s not how the few female MCs to become stars have defined themselves.
The only other woman this century to reach Cardi’s commercial heights as a rapper, after all, did so by accentuating her softness. Nicki Minaj is hardly one to back away from a battle, but in 2010 it was so jarring to hear the mean spitter drape herself in electronic gauze and rhyme over roller-rink EDM synth slabs that even admirers underrated Pink Friday at the time. Nicki embraced turn-of-the-decade megapop’s focus on self-esteem, inflecting her autobiography with the tenor of empowerment anthems like “Firework” and “Fuckin’ Perfect.” Since Cardi’s instincts in 2018 are as sharp as Nicki’s were eight years ago—an eternity in pop—her insistence on presenting herself as a rapper first may say more about this cultural moment than about either artist.
The commercial demands of 2010 meant Nicki had to establish her everywoman bona fides, to reach out and prove herself relatable to girls and young women. In her rare moments of insecurity on Invasion of Privacy, Cardi also connects with women. On “Be Careful” (“You even got me trippin', you got me lookin' in the mirror different/ Thinkin' I'm flawed because you inconsistent”) she interpolates Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor”; on “Ring,” about the fear of being ghosted, Kehlani contributes a hook. But overall the Cardi who emerges here is comparatively isolated in her invulnerability as she faces down those two timeless rap truths: Men are unreliable dogs and women are jealous hoes.
One woman does still loom large on Invasion of Privacy, though, and you can probably guess who She is. “I took pictures with Beyoncé, I met Mama Knowles,” Cardi rhymes on “Best Life,” still fannishly recalling that September afternoon in Philly that Ms. Carter deigned to pose for a snap with her. Yet last weekend, Cardi may even have one-upped her idol. Her pregnancy reveal on SNL wasn’t quite as regally staged as the record-setting 2017 Insta photo of Beyonce proudly displaying her twin-engorged belly. Then again, even Bey never managed to get knocked up as part of an album rollout. The moment when the camera pulled back mid-way through Cardi’s performance of “Be Careful” to reveal the bulge in her Christian Siriano gown was great TV and priceless PR. But it was also a fantastic metaphor for how Cardi reworks the raw material she takes from men, and why when it comes to pop stardom they can’t compete. She’s gonna turn Offset’s jizz into a real live human being. Your male fave could never.
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