It’s not difficult to know exactly what Cardi B was doing one year ago. That’s part of the nature of her fame. Her massively popular Instagram account (9.9 million followers and counting) leaves a robust bread-crumb trail from September 2016: She was hustling to promote club appearances in cities like Houston and Kansas City; she was basking in modest milestones like seeing one of her tracks playing on the Music Choice channel at a hotel; she was posting the few clippings that had acknowledged her presence at New York Fashion Week, like a small sidebar in an issue of the New York Post. No matter that the piece identified her as the “breakout” star of Love & Hip Hop: New York and mentioned only a few paragraphs down that she also happened to rap—she still captioned it “How cool is this,” followed by several flex emoji. But scroll up a few dozen flicks and, in mere seconds, you will be transported into the surreal daydream that is Cardi B’s present reality.
September 2017: a video of Janet Jackson covering one of Cardi’s songs on her current tour. A Vogue headline reading “Cardi B Was New York Fashion Week’s Undisputed (and Uncensored) Front Row Queen.” A tweet indicating that Cardi’s song “Bodak Yellow” was the most-streamed single in America last week, played a total of 40.8 million times. For the past two weeks, the catchy, diamond-tough anthem has been sitting steadily at no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, second to only Taylor Swift. If it hits no. 1, Cardi will become the first female rapper in 19 years to top the chart with a solo single, a feat last achieved by Lauryn Hill.
Cardi B’s come-up has been quick, dramatic, and, above all things, transparent. When recording artists achieve the kind of mainstream success she has now suddenly attained, they sometimes have a tendency to erase or at least separate themselves from the less-than-illustrious parts of their past. But Cardi B presents her past as a crucial part of her present. She has worked her way up through several of the most stereotypically derided professions in American society (stripper, social media personality, reality TV star) without denying or diminishing any of those former selves in her process of becoming a formidable rapper. Actually, she’s found a way to put their hustle into her music. In the span of less than a year, the people who still do not take her seriously have become the punch lines.
“I remember walkin’ in the stores, I couldn’t buy nothin’ / They look at me stank,” she spits on her recent single, “Lick.” “Now I just walk in the stores, I like it, I cop it / I don’t even think.” It’s like rap game Pretty Woman, except she didn’t need Richard Gere’s credit card, because she’s got her own. You could call the Come-up of Cardi B a Cinderella story, but that wouldn’t be quite right: The Cinderella myth relies on some sort of ruse, a shamed secrecy about the truth of a woman’s past, and the outside agency of both a fairy godmother and a prince. Cardi B trimmed all that extra stuff from the story. She restructured the fairy tale into a one-woman show.
Or maybe a 10 million–person show, which is in its own way a thoroughly modern story. As is so often the case, Cardi B said it best herself, in a video she posted to Instagram about a year ago. She is addressing a criticism that so often trails powerful and sexually forthright women, that she “fucked her way to the top.” Lounging on a couch, she scrunches up her immaculately made-up face. “It’s like, do y’all know how I got put on? I got put on doing videos and people following me. Did I fuck my followers?”
She continues, staring defiantly into the camera. “Shit, I wish I fucked myself to where I’m at right now, that shit would have been easy. Fuck who? Who’s that powerful that I gotta fuck to get to where I’m at?”
Cardi (a proud Libra, just about to turn 25) was born Belcalis Almanzar, but at a certain point people just started calling her Bacardi. She is, to quote one of her most famous catchphrases, a “regula degula schmegula girl from the Bronx.” Her father is Dominican, her mother is Trinidadian, and her oversize attitude is classic New Yawk. She graduated from a performing arts high school in the Bronx, enrolled in a community college in Manhattan, and took a low-paying job at an Amish market to try to pay for her studies. When she realized she had to work much too hard to support herself through school—and, at the suggestion of a former boss at the market—she got a job at a strip club. Although she hid her profession from her family (“I told them I was babysitting for some real rich white people”), dancing in strip clubs gave her the funds to take control over many aspects of her life, like leaving an abusive relationship. “It really saved me from a lot of things,” she said later. “When I started stripping I went back to school.”
Around this time, in 2013, she started posting videos of herself on Instagram and Vine. Her vibe was a bait-and-switch combination of sexy and deeply goofy. “At this time of night, you know what I’m thinking about?” she asks seductively in one of the early videos. “I’m thinking about … if I left the stove on after I light up that cigarette. You know what, lemme check on that before I go to schleep.” Her most iconic Vine, though, was a several-second ode to wearing next-to-nothing to the club in the middle of the winter. “It’s cold outside,” she says in the hallway of a hotel, “but I’m still looking like a thotty because a hoe never gets cold!”
What made Cardi stand out, among the millions of aspiring microcelebrities clogging your Instagram feed, was quite simple: In a world overloaded with the artifice of personal branding, she was incredibly good at being herself. She’s funny as hell. She seems genuinely off-the-cuff. (In a Fader cover story from this past summer, the writer Rawiya Kameir correctly dubbed Cardi a “stream-of-consciousness genius.”) Her timing—a crucial superpower for both comedians and rappers—is immaculate, and her shtick feels as indebted to Lucille Ball as it does to Lil’ Kim.
After a few years, Cardi made the first of several career transitions that would have sounded like gibberish a decade ago: Thanks to sponsored posts and paid appearances, she started making enough money being Instagram famous to quit her job as a stripper. Around this time she was also cast on Love & Hip-Hop: New York, though within two seasons she’d grow to a level of fame that eclipsed the show. She hired management, too, and one of them suggested that she would make a great rapper; her voice was, already, its own kind of music. In that Fader story, Kameir noted that before Cardi even considered herself a rapper, “her speaking style in certain scenarios—like when she yelled at a dude on the phone, for example—were proof of a unique voice.”
Her debut single, released during her first season on Love & Hip-Hop, was “Cheap Ass Weave,” a “remake” of Lady Leshurr’s viral freestyle “Queen’s Speech Ep. 4 (Brush Your Teeth).” Some were understandably skeptical that a social media celebrity–reality TV star could actually have bars, but the YouTube comments on the video were dotted with the word “actually.” As in, “cardi b actually sounds good” and “She can actually rap better than a lot of people” and “this sh!t actually sounds better than some of the dude rapping these days …”
It may have seemed like sacrilege to purists, the idea that Cardi B was able to translate being good at social media into being a good rapper, rather than the other way around. But it makes sense. Vine and Instagram and Twitter taught her concision and what resonates with an audience. What is a viral phrase if not a spoken-word hook? Why wait for someone else to sample an idea as funny as “a hoe never gets cold”? Why not just turn it into a song yourself? Which is exactly what she did, when a particularly memorable Love & Hip-Hop sound bite of hers went viral. “If a girl have beef with me,” Cardi said with dramatic flair, “she gon’ have beef with me … foreva.” Months later, she flipped that phrase into the chorus of one of the songs on her first mixtape, Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 1.
Once, at a party, an older white man told me he’d read something I wrote about Nicki Minaj, and had a question he wanted to ask me about it. For some reason, I prepared myself for an intellectually stimulating inquiry. “So, her tits have to be fake, right?” he asked me, calmly taking another sip of his drink. In response, I briefly considered emptying my glass onto this man’s shoes, or perhaps reaching over to one of the decorative candles on the table and lighting his shirt on fire, but instead I lacquered on a big, fake smile, said, I don’t know! Maybe!!!! and silently vowed to get back at him by someday putting this charming exchange in a piece of published writing.
Still, his question got under my skin; I thought about it for days. Nicki Minaj was at that moment the most successful female rapper in the world, and yet tipsy, random men at cocktail parties still believed they could assert some sort of power over the body she so joyfully showcased on Instagram and in music videos, simply by questioning its “realness.” It made me sick, and sad. This was around the time of Nicki’s third studio album, The Pinkprint, when the bold cover art for “Anaconda” caused such a controversy that—like most female-body-related controversies—will probably seem even more ridiculous and alarmist a few years from now. “Anaconda” (which, before “Bodak Yellow,” was the most recent song by a solo female rapper to reach no. 2 on the Hot 100) is not Minaj’s best song, but it was her most public and forceful assertion of agency over her too-often-scrutinized body. Which is why I always found it odd, and even a little disappointing, that she felt the need to follow “Anaconda” with a single like “Only,” a murkier statement of purpose. Flanked by her mentor and former Twitter husband, Minaj opened the song, “I never fucked Wayne, I never fucked Drake / On my life, man, fuck’s sake,” and then invited those two artists on the track to rap about exactly how much they wanted to fuck her. This song didn’t bother me as much as it did some people, but if anything it exposed the razor-wire tightrope Nicki Minaj has had—or felt the need—to walk between power and submission, between desirability and “respectability,” between the real and the fake.
Almost exactly 10 years younger than Minaj, Cardi B got her teeth fixed on reality television, mentioned it in her most famous song, and even tagged her dentist on Instagram. She has been open about getting her boobs done when she was 19, and she is still so pleased with how they turned out that last year she posted an Instagram video claiming that one of her greatest disappointments in life is that she cannot “suck [her] own titties.” When asked about her ass implants, earlier this month on The Breakfast Club, she stopped to correct the interviewer—she gets ass injections, not implants. If you’re going to talk about Cardi’s body, her imperative is that you at least get the facts right. I’m not saying Cardi is an inspiration for getting plastic surgery (live your truth, whatever that means to you), but the finesse with which she has defanged the real-vs.-fake conversation is admirable and might make things slightly easier for some of the female artists who come up after her.
The more successful Cardi becomes, the more people ask her if (or simply assume that) she and Nicki have beef. People have speculated whether Nicki’s verse on Katy Perry’s “Swish Swish” is about Cardi; people have speculated whether Cardi’s verse on G-Eazy’s “No Limit” (“Can you stop with all the subs? Bitch I ain’t Jared”) is about Nicki. Both artists exist in a culture that takes delight in pitting women against each other, or in asserting the false idea that there can be only one successful female rapper at any given time. (As if Supa Dupa Fly and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill weren’t released in consecutive years.) In this environment, it seems almost inevitable that Nicki and Cardi will fall short of the impossible ideal of performative hashtag-sisterhood, and just as inevitable that they will be blamed for their failings, rather than the larger patriarchal culture that set them up to fail in the first place. Still, just as it was hard to imagine Nicki’s ascent without her predecessor and eventual sparring partner Lil’ Kim, it’s hard to imagine Cardi B becoming so mainstream successful so fast without the trail that Nicki blazed. Progress is odd that way, and Cardi’s come-up is making me think with renewed tenderness about the things that, at the time, seemed to be Nicki Minaj’s flaws or mixed messages. I often think of something Courtney Love told the journalist Simon Reynolds, when she was interviewed in 1992. “It’s too bad that I have to bleach my hair and look good to get my anger accepted,” she said. “But then I’m part of an evolutionary process. I’m not the fully evolved end.”
“Bodak Yellow” wasn’t even supposed to be The Hit. Shortly after she signed to Atlantic, Cardi’s new label put its promotional weight behind “Lick,” a hypnotic single featuring Migos member Offset (who’s now Cardi’s boyfriend) that appeared on her second full-length mixtape, Gangsta Bitch Vol. 2. But in keeping with the serendipitous and user-driven magic that has fueled Cardi B’s rise, it was this afterthought of a freestyle, riffing on Kodak Black’s “No Flockin,” that catapulted her to superstardom. Now, still without a proper album to her name, the woman who only just realized two years ago that she could actually rap is one of the most popular rappers in the country. A woman who, one year ago, was better known as an ex-stripper reality star than a rapper, is nominated for as many BET Awards as DJ Khaled and for more than Kendrick Lamar.
It is cosmically appropriate that as unlikely a pop hit as “Bodak” is, it must also contend on the charts with one of the most inevitable, by-default hit songs in recent history, Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do.” It’s a titan clash of new and old guard. Although Cardi, to her credit, seems to be one of the only people on the internet who has nothing bad to say about her rival’s song. On Thursday, she replied to one of Swift’s fans saying that Swifties sent their support and that “if anyone takes the number one spot from Taylor, we want it to be Cardi!” (She replied, “Awww that’s sooo sweet, I love me some Taylor Swift my freaking self.”) These are vertiginous heights for an artist like Cardi to find herself in this early in her career, and overnight success can easily evaporate in the morning. But Cardi’s come-up was never a Cinderella story. Glass slippers shatter, disappear, get left behind at the ball. Bloody shoes have yet to go out of style.