Hi. It’s Shea. This has become my favorite tradition: I write a book every two years, and then right before the book comes out, The Ringer runs an excerpt from it, and then as part of that I write a little note like this one. That’s what this is right now. Below this note, you’ll find an essay about Cardi B. Really, though, it’s one of the chapters from my newest book, Hip-Hop (and Other Things). The book has a very simple format: Every chapter is a different rap question that I spend 3,000 or so words writing about. Sometimes those chapters are serious, sometimes they’re silly, but always they’re written from a place of admiration and love and respect. You should go buy the book. That’s what I think you should do. You honestly don’t even have to read it if you don’t want to. Just buy it. (It’d be cool if you eventually read it, though.) (I think you’d like it.) (Thanks.) (If you don’t like it, please don’t tell me.) (Thanks again.)
This is a Good Cop/Bad Cop argument about whether or not anyone had a better 2018 than Cardi B. Good Cop is arguing that Cardi had the best 2018. Bad Cop is arguing she didn’t.
Good Cop: Here’s how massive and influential Cardi B was during her 2018 campaign: In January of that year, the band Maroon 5 put out a single called “Wait.” And it w—
Bad Cop, interrupting: Awesome. Great start. You’re supposed to be talking about Cardi B, and here you are talking about the guy who used to be on The Voice. Not even somebody who’s currently on The Voice. You picked someone who used to be on there.
Good Cop: Relax. I’m gonna get there.
Bad Cop: Was there a video for the song you’re talking about?
Good Cop: For Maroon 5’s “Wait”? Yes.
Bad Cop: Did Adam Levine take his shirt off in it?
Good Cop: You know that he did. That’s actually how the video opens. He’s at a funeral, standing in front of a casket. And he’s shirtless for some reason. And he places a scorpion on the stomach of the woman who’s in the casket (Alexandra Daddario, whom you maybe remember from San Andreas or Baywatch). And the scorpion stings her. And then she comes back to life.
Bad Cop: That’s terrible funeral etiquette. Or ... wait. Maybe it’s really good funeral etiquette, what with him bringing her back to life and all? I’m not sure. I don’t know the rules there. Scorpions are a no-go at funerals, right?
Good Cop: Here’s the point I was making: Maroon 5 put out that song “Wait.” And it’s pretty clear it was designed to be one of those earworm songs built to dominate the radio. Except it didn’t. It never really grabbed on like they were hoping it would. The highest it charted was the twenty-fourth spot. And their single before that (“What Lovers Do”) never got past the ninth spot on the chart. And the one before that (“Cold”) only got up to sixteenth. At that particular moment, it had been six years since Maroon 5 had a number one hit. And then they tagged Cardi B in for a song. And that was the end of that.
Bad Cop: What do you mean?
Good Cop: What I mean is Maroon 5, one of the biggest and most successful bands of the modern era, went well over half a decade without scoring a number one hit. That’s how hard it is to score one of those. And then Cardi B gave them a verse for a song in 2018 (“Girls Like You”). And then, just like that, they finally got another number one hit. Because of Cardi B. And what’s more: their single with Cardi B sold more copies by itself than their previous seven songs combined. And what’s double more: Cardi B has not given them any more verses for songs since then, and Maroon 5 has not had any more number one hits since then. That was the 2018 Cardi B effect.
Bad Cop: If this is the best argument you could think of for why Cardi B had the best 2018 of anyone, then I have some bad news for you, buddy: this isn’t gonna turn out that great for you.
Good Cop: I’m just getting started. There’s honestly so much ammo here for this argument that I don’t even really know what gun to shoot at you with first. Let’s do this. Let’s start with 2017. Let’s start with “Bodak Yellow.”
Bad Cop: Cool. You started your Nobody Had a Better 2018 than Cardi B argument by talking about a musical act that wasn’t Cardi B, and now you’re gonna talk about a year that wasn’t 2018. Awesome. You’re doing a wonderful job right now.
Good Cop: Just listen, dummy. Because you need the pre-2018 context to fully understand why (or how) her 2018 was so impactful. Here’s the shortest possible version of Cardi B’s backstory: around 2013, she started making a tiny name for herself on the internet through videos that she was posting on social media.
Bad Cop: 2013?!
Good Cop: And she was so charming and so funny and so sharp in those that she flipped those videos into a two-season run as a cast member on Love & Hip Hop: New York. And she was so charming and so funny and so sharp on there that she flipped that into a career in rap.
And of course in the beginning there was a crowd of people who were like, “Take it easy, Cardi. Sure, you were great on the show, but that doesn’t mean you can rap.” But then she started rapping. And pretty much instantly, those same people were like, “Oh, fuck. She’s good at this, too.”
Bad Cop, sarcastically: What year are you up to? Did you jump back again? I feel like I’m in a fucking Christopher Nolan movie.
Good Cop, ignoring Bad Cop’s comment: And all of the stuff that made her feel so special in her social-media videos and on Love & Hip Hop—how open she was, how insightful she was, how bombastic she was, how she managed to make you feel like some of her confidence might somehow work its way into your spirit—translated perfectly over to rap. It was immediately clear that she was a star. She was just someone you wanted to see on your TV or phone screen as much as possible.
So Cardi worked through the early parts of her rap career, and she just kept getting better and better. And her voice—this big, imposing, undeniable weapon—just kept getting more and more deadly, and more and more accurate.
So in January of 2017 she puts out a mixtape. And then in February of 2017 she signs her first major deal. And when the BET Awards announced their nominations that May, Cardi, despite the fact that she’d not even put out a proper album yet, got two of them. And then that’s when Atlantic Records officially released “Bodak Yellow.” And it was fucking over after that.
It was the exact right song at the exact right moment. The New York Times called it “the rap anthem of the summer.” Pitchfork and The Washington Post both picked it as the best song of the year. The Grammys nominated it for two different awards. By October, “Bodak Yellow” had climbed its way to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, making Cardi the first woman who was a rapper to put a song up there by herself since Lauryn Hill did it in 1998.
Bad Cop: Okay. So clearly, 2017 was a great year for Cardi. But, again, WE’RE SUPPOSED TO BE TALKING ABOUT 2018. You’re supposed to be arguing that she had the best 2018 of anyone, not the best 2017. So I’m still winning this argument right now just by default.
Good Cop: I know what I’m supposed to be arguing. But you need all of that information to get to the next section of information.
Bad Cop: Which is what? Are you gonna tell me about something that happened in 2007 now? And then maybe tell me something about a movie from 2014 that doesn’t have anything to do with anything? You’re the worst Good Cop I’ve ever seen. You’re in the interrogation room, talking about everything except what you’re supposed to be talking about.
Good Cop: I hate you so much.
Bad Cop: Before you blather on, can I say some stuff for a second now? Can I say some names to you of other people who were big in 2018? Because I would like to do that.
Good Cop: Sure.
Bad Cop: How about this, then? You want a big impact? How about Pusha T puts out his album Daytona, which eventually leads to his big rap battle with Drake? That was a huge moment. That was a Stop the Internet for a Few Minutes moment. That was a great year for Pusha.
Or how about just Drake in general? He put out an album that was 5× platinum and had seven singles that all placed in the top twenty on Billboard’s Hot 100. That’s not light work.
Good Cop: I mean, it feels like you gotta pick one person or the other there, man.
Bad Cop: Jay-Z and Beyoncé put out a tape in 2018, too. Are we just discarding them? And there was an Eminem album, too. It wasn’t that great, but I feel like I should say his name here since he’s Eminem. And Travis Scott had a nice little stretch in there. Vince Staples was really exciting on his FM! album. Don’t forget Tierra Whack. Mac Miller had Swimming. There’s a bunch.
Good Cop: Without looking it up, can you name two songs off the Jay-Z and Beyoncé tape?
Bad Cop: I don’t suppose I can.
Good Cop: Listen: I don’t want to make it seem like I’m saying that everyone else had a bad year and that only Cardi B had a good year. That’s not the case at all. In fact, it’s the opposite. There was a lot of cool stuff that happened in 2018, and certainly some people had great years. It’s just that Cardi’s was bigger. Because let me run you through some of the stuff that she did now that you know how she teed herself up for 2018.
Bad Cop: Cool. Can’t wait to hear more about Maroon 5.
Good Cop: So, like I was saying, Cardi has this breakout year in 2017. She announces herself as a star in rap. But 2018 is when she became a full-on galactic superstar.
First, right there in January, she shows up on the remix of Bruno Mars’s “Finesse.” And that’s where her crossover into that top, Top, TOP level officially starts. So she does that. And then, because of some other guest features she’s done, she becomes only the third person ever in the then-sixty-year history of the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart to have five songs in the top 10 at the same time (and the first woman to do it). And that’s before January is even over.
Bad Cop: That’s a solid start to the year.
Good Cop: I know.
Bad Cop: Keep going.
Good Cop: By the time April rolled around, which is when Invasion of Privacy came out, everyone was so crazy for Cardi that it was an immediate success. It debuted in the top spot on both the Billboard 200 chart and Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. And everything just kept getting bigger and wilder. The album eventually went triple platinum. EVERY SINGLE SONG on there eventually charted on the Billboard Hot 100 chart (she was the first woman ever to do that). It became the most streamed album by a woman in a single week in the history of Apple Music. It was the best-performing rap album of the decade by a woman per Billboard’s decade-end chart. It seemed like every day there was some new record or accomplishment she’d pulled off. And that’s nothing to say of the actual quality of the actual album.
Bad Cop: Was it good?
Good Cop: Was it good?! It fucking ruled. It was consistently listed among the best albums of the year by every major publication. Rolling Stone picked it as the best of the year. So did The Ringer. So did Time. So did Entertainment Tonight. Billboard, Esquire, and Entertainment Weekly had it second. And this is across all genres, not just rap. It was on all of the lists.
And Cardi was incredible on it. The opening track, “Get Up 10,” was her just Godzilla-ing her way through one four-minute-long verse. It was masterful. And she leaned into that momentum all the way through the rest of the album. She was affecting (“Be Careful”), and she was funny (the second verse on “Bickenhead” is great), and she proved to have an ear for hits (“I Like It” is an obvious winner here), and she proved to have the kind of talent required to skate across even the most complicated beats (“Money Bag”).
Bad Cop: Okay. Well, if I can interje—
Good Cop: Oh, no, no, no. I’m not done yet. We’re still in April. There’s a bunch more stuff to hit. She also announced that she was pregnant during a performance on Saturday Night Live. And it was really wonderful. She performed “Be Careful,” perhaps the most tender track on Invasion of Privacy. And the camera was in on her real tight. And she was wearing a white dress and holding a mic and rapping into it in a way that felt different than what we’d seen from her before. And then, near the end of the song, the camera pulled back to reveal her belly, and everyone went wild.
She also performed at Coachella and it was a mega-party. Then she went on Ellen and talked about both performances. She also co-hosted an episode of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. She also popped up at the Met Gala. She was everywhere, at all times, for the entirety of the year. Every month. In July, she had her baby. In August, she pulled up to the MTV Video Music Awards to see how many of the twelve nominations she’d received were going to end in victory. In September, there were rumors that she’d thrown a shoe at Nicki Minaj during an altercation. On and on and on.
Meanwhile, during all of that, she was still putting out singles and still breaking records. She put out that “I Like It” song with Bad Bunny and J Balvin, and there she was again up on top of the Hot 100 chart. “I Like It” eventually became the first song led by a woman rapper to get a billion streams on Spotify. And then there was that song she did with DJ Snake (“Taki Taki”) that put her at the top of the Spotify Global Top 50 chart. More and more and more shit just kept happening.
And then in December, Invasion of Privacy got nominated for four (!!!) Grammys, including Album of the Year. I can keep going, but I don’t think I should have to. I don’t know how anyone could argue that someone had a better 2018 than Cardi. It was a twelve-month-long victory lap.
Bad Cop: I didn’t know most of that stuff.
Good Cop: That seems to be usually what it is. I’ve had versions of this same conversation with other Bad Cops, and each time I find out the only reason they were arguing against the idea that Cardi B owned 2018 is because they just didn’t know what type of year she’d put together.
Bad Cop: Yeah.
Good Cop: Really, the question here shouldn’t be “Did anyone have a better 2018 than Cardi B?” but rather “Where does Cardi B’s 2018 rank in the Best Single Year for a Rapper conversation?” That’s the level at which she was operating. Her 2018, if we’re measuring impact and success, is up there in that top ten or fifteen ever. You can mention her 2018 alongside, say, Snoop’s 1994 or, say, Kendrick’s 2012.
Bad Cop: Yeah. You’re probably right. But I’m supposed to be the Bad Cop. So I’m just gonna argue with you, because that’s what I’m supposed to do, like in that old fable where the frog agrees to carry the scorpion across the river, and halfway there the scorpion stings the frog because that’s what scorpions do.
Good Cop: I think you might’ve missed the whole point of that story.
Bad Cop: I wonder if that scorpion was related to the one from the Maroon 5 video you mentioned earlier?
Good Cop: Gah, you’re the worst.
Excerpted from Hip-Hop (and Other Things) ©2021 Shea Serrano and reprinted by permission from Twelve Books/Hachette Book Group.