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How Cardi B became the un-Beyoncé

Cardi B performing "Finesse" at the Grammys Sunday night.

Cardi B performing "Finesse" at the Grammys Sunday night. Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

Something happens when black women reach the pinnacle of their field, the highest perches of popular culture, like Beyoncé or Serena Williams or Michelle Obama.

They all fall in line with a popular school of thought: The bottom-feeders are always gonna pester you, so you gotta keep your head and heart out of the muck. Sure, Beyoncé might occasionally make a statement or release a song that lowers her stoic guard without lowering her standards, but even she has to bank years of pleasant dignity to cash in when she decides to snap. Our culture, which typically degrades everyday black women, goes too far the other way with our icons, stripping them of their humanity and imposing unrealistic expectations.

But Cardi B is breaking that mold, and her glow up is complete. The former stripper and reality star is shining now, a pop phenom whose singles and features are instant hits, setting the charts a-twinkle like some new constellation an astronomer should name after her. She’s a good rapper already and she’s verging on greatness.

Cardi’s introduction to the general public, of course, was the blistering, head-banging number one hit “Bodak Yellow.” Since then “Bartier Cardi” made the top 20, while G-Eazy’s “No Limit” and Migos’ “MotorSport” and Bruno Mars’ “Finesse” all soared into the top 10 thanks in part to Cardi features.

The 25-year-old star hasn’t even yet released a proper debut album and she’s already ascending ever closer to other black women who rock their respective fields. That’s why the picture of her next to Beyoncé at the Made in America festival had everyone geeking last summer, why she was spotlighted at the Grammys this year, and why she's commanding a $200 general admission ticket price at Myth (and making two other big appearances in town during Super Bowl weekend).

But if Cardi is well on her way to joining our culture’s pantheon of prominent black woman, she’s risen according to her own design. All through an often dire Grammy night, she displayed the unapologetic personality of a sensual, confident woman in pursuit of the simple pleasures she’s not embarrassed to admit she craves: hot sex and piles of money. That personality doesn’t just drive her music—it’s inseparable from it.

Like any true star, Cardi’s now half of a celebrity relationship. Since she agreed to marry Offset of Migos to great fanfare last October, real or rumored intimate-bordering-on-salacious details of infidelity and the like have reached the intrusive levels any pop star can expect. “Bodak” was released only last June, and she hasn't even spent a full year as a super-celebrity, but a Cardi pregnancy would be as big a deal, at the very least, of a similar display of fertility from any of the lesser Kardashians.

Cardi has really only been a public commodity at all for about four years. In 2013 she popped up as an Instagram savage guaranteed to flame your feed with snarling bravado, piercing cultural criticism, and a self-aware introspection yielding lessons that felt universally applicable. And this has not changed or slowed any.

From there, it was a natural step for Cardi to transform those social media takes into reality show confessionals, as Mona Scott recognized when she cast Cardi on Love & Hip Hop. But no one could have predicted the ease with which Cardi then navigated the beginnings of her rap career, blossoming into a chart topping contender and slicing through the competition with light speed and lightsaber heat.

A year ago, last January, Cardi had just dropped her second mixtape, Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 2, to minimal attention relative to what she demands now, Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 1, her first earnest foray into hip hop, was released the March before that. And now she's drippin’ in finesse, such a fierce and sudden pop force that fans of other established pop champs seemed shook, as Nicki Minaj fans began to insecurely belittle Cardi’s rise.

From the moment rumors crept online that Cardi would appear alongside Nicki on “MotorSport,” the collaboration and competition between these two prominent women overshadowed Migos themselves. It was already rare enough for a woman to become as big a name in rap as Nicki had, and there were whispers that Cardi’s come up threatened Nicki’s fame. But the two rappers have been perfectly diplomatic, and Nicki has graciously welcomed Cardi to the upper crust.

With so few black women in the upper reaches of pop, Cardi’s unflinching dismissal of the typical and tired shame that threatens to follow a black or Afro-Latina woman everywhere she goes—from the Grammys to the workplace—is refreshing. Cardi is at once raunchy and poignant, sexy yet with a strength derived from something beyond her bold sensuality. She’s just a bundle of fun, but her very existence as an unruffled, successful woman of color is an accidental form of social commentary.

Cardi is a pop star, someone who colors outside the lines and someone whose color is outside the lines. She has reached the mountaintop without ever having to apologize for her black womanhood or feign some kind of purity.

Any day now, she'll be dunking on Quavo.

Cardi B
With: Future
Where: Myth Nightclub
When: 9 p.m. Fri. Feb. 2
Tickets: $195-$20,000 (not a typo); more info here