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Cardi B Is Already Everyone’s Favorite Pop Star—So What Does She Do Now?

The rapper’s Grammys appearance will be her highest-profile performance to date. Where does her career go next?

Cardi B AP Images/Ringer illustration

“What a year, what a year, everything you’re having,” raved Jimmy Fallon to his esteemed guest, ascendent superstar rapper Cardi B, who verily glowed in a lime-green ensemble with Muppet-furry arms. “I mean, there’s so much to talk about, congrats on everything, and thanks for being here.”

“Thank you!” replied Cardi B. “Aaaaaohhhhmmmmm!” she added, pursing her lips and shaking her shoulders. The crowd hooted, delighted; Fallon shifted seamlessly into awkward-pause mode, letting the moment breathe, letting the unicorn graze.

The whole interview, aired in late December, went like this. She discussed her newfound fame and fortune: “You know, once you start makin’ money, everybody wants you to be they kids’ godmother.” She gave both Fallon and the camera a close-up of the galactically large engagement ring she’d received from her fiancé, fellow young superstar rapper and Migos MVP Offset. “Don’t get too close,” she warned, “because I didn’t put no lotion on my hand. It’s wintertime.”

Fallon: “That is the biggest diamond I have ever seen. Did you have any idea he was gonna do it?”

Cardi B: “No, I mean, you know, I was, he always used to tell me, like, ‘I’m gonna marry you, I’m gonna marry you.’ And it’s just like, Mmmmmmmhhmmmm.” She cocked her head to the side and added, “It’s the right thing to do.” Her delivery was incredible—like, “$100 million opening-weekend romantic comedy”–type incredible.

The interview continued. She chirped, joyously, multiple times. Eventually, talk turned to her new single, “Bartier Cardi.” Fallon had the peacock-tattoo-flaunting cover art printed out and blown up to vinyl-album size, just so he could hide behind it, giggling, as Cardi undertook this promotion.

“Yeah, I named it ‘Bartier Cardi,’ you know what I’m saying, because I don’t want Cartier to sue me,” said Cardi B. “Featuring 21 Savage, OK? Eeeeeeyooowwwww.” She gestured to the audience. “Y’all go get that.”

And America, insofar as one can physically go and get a digital single, went and got that.

This Sunday at the Grammy Awards, the second phase of Cardi B’s pop-star-takeover bid reaches another inflection point with easily her highest-profile TV performance to date. In September, her supernova breakout single, “Bodak Yellow,” finally ascended to the top of the Hot 100, dethroning Taylor Swift and energizing a weary nation. It’s up for two Grammys, Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance, though as Cardi told Fallon, “You wanna know something? You wanna know something? I already feel like a winner.” Since “Bodak Yellow,” she has offered a slow but steady stream of guest verses, remixes, and the like, testing the boundaries of her newfound stardom, and expanding them.

Virtually every year-in-review piece published in the past few months posited Cardi as the year’s one true unsullied highlight, 2017’s one genuine burst of pure oxygen. She enters 2018 with as strong a tailwind, as large and boisterous a bandwagon as an aspiring pop star can possibly get. What does she want to be? What do the adoring masses want her to be? What’s the difference? Is she truly a unicorn? And is there any harm, as this loopy and delightful ascent continues, in treating her like one?

At times it can feel like the only human alive skeptical as to Cardi B’s long-term pop-stardom prospects is Cardi B herself. “They keep saying, like, ‘You got this,’ ‘You’re the one,’” she told New York magazine’s Allison P. Davis in a November feature. “Sometimes I get a little discouraged, and I wonder how it is going to be next year, but it seems like everybody already predicting where I’m gonna be next year, and it’s just like fucking farther than my asshole.” Around that time, she voiced the same doubts to Rolling Stone’s Brittany Spanos, who wrote, “There is a chorus of doubters in her head, she acknowledges, and it sounds something like this: ‘Can she make another hit, can she make another hit?’” Both pieces were cover stories.

In mid-January, Cardi became only the third artist—and first woman—to appear on five of the Top 10 entries on Billboard’s 60-year-old Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. “Bodak Yellow” is still hanging in there, a scowling sunburst destined to be forever beloved for making an unbearable year bearable. “Bartier Cardi”—her official, top-billed “Bodak” follow-up—aims to replicate that mean-mugging charisma, major charm delivered in a minor key. But it’s a touch too dour, too dead-eyed, too fixated on her fiancé.

Cardi took your man, you upset, uh
Cardi got rich, they upset, yeah
Cardi put the pussy on Offset
Cardi B brain on Offset

She repeats these lines several times. One issue is that it takes a transcendent song to showcase Cardi’s range more effectively than her Instagram account does on a daily basis. Shortly after “Bartier” dropped, it served as the perfect venue to both vividly defend her Offset-heavy lyrics (“If I wanna put my man name on all my songs sooooooooooooo Fuuuuuuckkiiiiiinnnng what !!”), and, in the very next panel of her Instagram Story, reiterate her profound hatred of raccoons. (“I hate them sooo much!!!!”) Her much-dissected “humble Bronx striver to stripper to reality-TV star to rapper” arc generates almost too much personality to distill into one track. She’s almost easier to digest as a guest star, with a quick verse that comes with much lower expectations, or at least the understanding that you’ll catch only a quick tinted-window glimpse of her as her diamond-encrusted limo rumbles by.

So it goes with her brief and modestly excellent spot on G-Eazy’s “No Limit,” a relatively brainless and low-stakes romp where the only source of irritation is that G-Eazy’s hook is “Fuck with me and get some money,” while Cardi’s is “Fuck him then I get some money.” (Admittedly, looking for progressive gender politics in a G-Eazy song is the literal definition of insanity.) If it’s pure rappity-rapping you’re after, though, her best work might be on “MotorSport,” joined by Migos and Nicki Minaj. Cardi’s verse is very rowdy and certainly, uh, vivid:

Ride the dick like a BMX
No nigga wanna be my ex
I love when he go on tour
Cause he cums more when I see him less

Furthermore:

Why would I hop in some beef
When I could just hop in a Porsche
You heard she gon’ do what from who?
That’s not a reliable source

This is followed by a typically long, bendy, multi-phase Nicki Minaj verse that, in this context, serves as somewhat of a warning, or maybe just a reminder. The most impressive fact about “Bodak Yellow”—that it made Cardi the first solo female rapper to top the Hot 100 since Lauryn Hill did so in 1998—also underscores the injustice that Minaj has never done it. As a fellow New York City emcee with Trinidadian roots who now has a decade’s worth of experience now negotiating the perilous Pop Star vs. Rap Star divide, Nicki expertly laid the, uh, pinkprint for that sort of crossover success.

But the differences here might be more fascinating than the similarities. As, from the onset, the far better rapper, Minaj was more apt to take heat from NYC rap-radio tough guys when she went, in their view, too pop. (See: her prolonged 2012 battle with Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg over her unabashedly saccharine hit “Starships.”) By fighting and winning that war, Minaj has given Cardi a little more freedom, whether that means Cardi singing breathily in Spanish alongside sugary Puerto Rican singer Ozuna on his recent hit “La Modelo,” or grunting alongside Offset some more on the extended-Migos-universe deeper cut “Um Yea.” As with Nicki’s split-personality approach to stardom, the message here is: Let her live. Let the various hers live.

Which brings us to this:

The Cardi-featuring remix of “Finesse,” the fifth single from Bruno Mars’s year-old 24K Magic, currently sits at no. 2 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, and might soon hit no. 1 on the Hot 100 itself. This video certainly delivers Maximum Joy, a sweet and vibrant In Living Color tribute (Jim Carrey is on board) that showcases Cardi at her sunniest and also, somehow, her rowdiest. This is the song she’ll be doing at the Grammys, and rightfully so: More than anything she’s done post-“Bodak,” it’s the surest proof that the notion of bars doesn’t matter half as much as her verse-capping aaaaaaoooow.

She’s gonna do great. She’s gonna be fine. The more worrisome variable, in the months ahead, might be her ever-growing and less-familiar public. Playing and replaying her Jimmy Fallon appearance, the one dissonant note, oddly enough, is the laughter, the sense that a typical late-night-talk-show studio audience has very little experience with where Cardi B came from, both the physical places and the seedier pop-culture realms in which she first made a name for herself. She is, indeed, a unicorn to these people, and a delight, which is lovely, so long as they recognize her as a very, very singular human, and not a caricature of someone or something they can barely understand.

What does a full-length, major-label project from this person sound like? One possible answer is overkill. If anyone on earth might be considered “post-album,” it’s Cardi B, who can conjure up an extended applause break simply by humming contentedly, and land multiple magazine covers on the basis of one transcendent song. It’s exhausting to even contemplate how much ground her official debut album will have to cover, the tone shifting from raunchy goofiness to trunk-rattling menace to lovelorn Offset worship, the constituency stretching from flighty pop-star bandwagoneers to grouchy NYC rap purists. She is everything to everybody at this precise moment, and fatigue is unavoidable, a certain level of backlash inevitable.

It is tempting to wish she’d just go on like this forever, tossing off a steady cascade of modest singles and remixes and unlikely collaborations that slowly coalesces into a fearsome body of work that never feels the need to announce itself as such. What her post-“Bodak” escapades thus far have proved is that her next hit could be anything and come from anywhere, alongside anyone. She has found a better way to do this. What makes Cardi so thrilling is a surface rawness that belies something far more shrewd, far more knowing. The trick is to make sure the people gawking at her don’t also underestimate her.

Fallon had asked Cardi if the Grammys made her nervous. She told him she already felt like a winner because even a nomination was an incredible and unlikely feat, in the grand scheme of things. “I never thought me,” she muttered, her voice dropping an octave as she trailed off and traced the air with one immaculately manicured fingernail. The crowd laughed, of course, because they knew what Cardi B was talking about, and on a deeper level, knew that they had no idea whatsoever.