Admit it: You thought she’d be gone by now. Or much diminished, at least. Fun while it lasted. A falling star plummeting back toward the Instagram-striver and reality-TV muck from whence she came. Maybe you feared it; maybe you hoped for it. However you feel about her, Cardi B knows you doubted her staying power. And she’s just delighted to have proved you wrong. “My little 15 minutes lasting long as hell, ehh?” she snaps, on a swaggering and punch-drunk song called “I Do,” which also features the line, “Only real shit comes out my mouth, and only real niggas go in it.” It’s the last track on the best album of the year.
It’s OK to be shocked, even if you adore her, even if her fluke-seeming street-rap megahit “Bodak Yellow” was the highlight of your 2017. “What does a full-length, major-label project from this person sound like?” I wrote in January, marveling at her initial, chart-raiding run of follow-up singles and guest spots alongside the likes of Migos, G-Eazy, Ozuna, and, most splendidly, Bruno Mars. “One possible answer is overkill.” A ferocious backlash was inevitable, and anyway, she sure didn’t seem to need anything as prosaic and obsolete as a whole album. How boring. How unnecessary.
And so, in early April, Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy got to shock everyone, haters and devotees alike, all over again. It is vulnerable and ferocious, lewd and hilarious, with yet more genuine pop hits, yet more blunt-force charisma bombs, and yet more range than anyone had any right to expect. It kicks off with “Get Up 10,” a personal-history lesson turned victory lap (“I was covered in dollars, now I’m drippin’ in jewels”) that brashly echoes, from its melancholy piano to its monstrous slow-motion crescendo, Meek Mill’s canonical “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro).” The closest thing to a chorus is Cardi’s climactic chant of “Look myself in the mirror, I say we gon’ win / Knock me down nine times but I get up 10,” delivered with such infectious force that even half a year later, it might still inspire you to bench-press her $200,000 Lamborghini Urus SUV.
There is a spectacular alternate universe in which the New York Jets, a few months from now, use this song to pump themselves up before winning Super Bowl LIII, just as the Eagles did with Meek this year. It is not this universe, mind you. But Cardi B, in her infinite benevolence, permits you to imagine it, and many more wondrous and improbable universes besides.
Most big-ticket rap albums in 2018 were defined by either their colossal bloat or their lethal austerity. Cardi’s husband, Offset, and his Migos pals set the tone in January with Culture II, which (good news) features “Stir Fry” and (bad news) runs six and a half hours. Rae Sremmurd dropped a triple album. Lil Wayne’s long-threatened Tha Carter V is a mere 12 minutes shorter than To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Drake’s much-feared Scorpion ushered many a gargantuan single and/or amusing meme into the world, but ingesting all 90 minutes in one sitting is like trying to swallow a crying hippopotamus. Both Travis Scott and Cardi archrival Nicki Minaj, battling it out on the same misbegotten mid-August release date, kept their respective records to an hour or so, but Travis’s pulverizing haze and Nicki’s erratic fury made both projects seem much longer and far less bearable.
The alternative was to quit while you were ahead—to quit almost immediately. Pusha T’s magnificent Daytona, running just 21 minutes, was the first salvo in Kanye West’s turbulent and occasionally hellacious month-long run of seven-track GOOD Music releases, and by oceans of magnitude the best. Vince Staples’s bracingly volatile FM! stretches out all the way to 22 minutes; Beyoncé and Jay-Z kept their slight and summery Everything Is Love to a relatively trim 38. And Tierra Whack’s flamboyantly twee rap-R&B hybrid Whack World, a fearsome Rookie of the Year contender and one of the few 2018 endeavors to rival Cardi B’s in terms of pure galaxy-brain outlandishness, gets in and out in 15 minutes flat, which is to say 15 tracks running precisely 60 seconds apiece, each with more wit and ingenuity than yet another feature-length Migos solo album.
That sort of focus and brevity—vivid and startling and hell-bent on not wasting even a second of your time—is well represented on The Ringer’s own top 10 records of 2018. What makes Invasion of Privacy even more impressive is that at 13 tracks and 48 minutes, it has the Spotify-stats-conscious heft expected of a top-tier rap album nowadays, but never drags, never settles, never dilutes Cardi’s delirious absurdity. Every track on Invasion of Privacy matters, the way every track on even a boldface-name rap record never matters anymore and rarely ever did. It feels like a throwback to an idealized album-oriented past—a tribute to the way that hip-hop of a certain vintage would like to remember itself, anyway. It also feels like the best possible version of the future. And not just her own.
The biggest revelation—the moment you knew Cardi B was evolving, and would outlast all of the would-be viral sensations already vying to replace her—was “Be Careful.”
When “Bodak Yellow” first hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in September 2017, Cardi became the first solo female rapper to top that chart since Lauryn Hill, almost 19 years ago. “Be Careful,” brash and heartbroken and insidiously catchy, proved Cardi was worthy of the momentousness of the occasion and also aware of it. It was one of two songs released in spring 2018 to interpolate Hill’s beloved “Ex-Factor,” and while it did not itself top the Hot 100 for eight weeks the way Drake’s inescapable and quite condescending “Nice for What” did, “Be Careful” is far truer to Hill’s vision, wounded and wounding in equally ferocious measure.
It’s also a perfect pop song, the way it ping-pongs from well-worn clichés to razor-sharp status-update darts: “Between a rock and a hard place, the mud and the dirt / It’s gon’ hurt me to hate you, but lovin’ you’s worse.” The mood is deceptively feather-light, but as Cardi chastises an unfaithful lover—not the guy who bought her the $200,000 Lamborghini, she insists—her anger is a visceral thing even when her voice is at its frailest. Invasion of Privacy features hooks from the likes of Chance the Rapper, SZA, Kehlani, Migos, and YG doing some sort of X-rated ASMR routine, but the way Cardi herself handles the chorus of “Be Careful” is what sticks with you, the gentle sing-song fury of “I want you to live your life, of course / But I hope you get what you dyin’ for.” It was yet another moment when her pop-cultural lane felt more like an eight-car-wide superhighway.
Part of what made the “Bodak Yellow” march to glory so sublime was how pop-averse that song seemed, how disinterested in typical viral-anthem structure, how little Cardi herself seemed to be even trying. (That she swiped the no. 1 spot from Taylor Swift, who was, as usual, trying incredibly hard, made Cardi’s victory all the more delicious.) One nervous question hovering over Invasion of Privacy was what kind of songs she’d make when she knew everyone expected that sort of outsize chart success. For plenty of nascent pop stars, the element of surprise turns out to be all they have.
Cardi needn’t have worried, in the unlikely event she was even worrying. Her second Hot 100 no. 1, of course, was the bombastic “I Like It”—that first concussive bass hit was the sonic highlight of every summer pool party nationwide. Teaming Cardi with J. Balvin and Bad Bunny, it’s the 2018 single that came closest to rivaling “Despacito” for forward-thinking, cross-cultural ubiquity and proof that fewer major pop stars than you’d imagined (or hoped) actually have that kind of versatility. “Ring,” her far more subdued collaboration with Kehlani, stalled in the Top 30 but proved Cardi could do sad-sack, left-on-read R&B melancholia, too, and do it her way: “Learn to text with your nose if your thumb broke.”
The back-to-back-to-back whoosh of “Be Careful,” “I Like It,” and “Ring” is the best three-song run on any 2018 pop album by far, whether your personal champion is Camila Cabello or Ariana Grande, Ella Mai or Robyn, Charlie Puth (!!) or (OK, sure) Nicki Minaj. Her closest competitor might be Janelle Monáe, the sci-fi polymath whose fantastic Dirty Computer caps off three dizzying, surrealist sex jams (“Pynk,” “Make Me Feel,” and “I Got the Juice”) with a towering self-affirmation anthem called “I Like That.” When Monáe, in a nonchalantly half-rapped interlude, flashes back to her awkward adolescence—“I remember when you laughed when I cut my perm off and you rated me a six / I was like, damn”—her pop-star revenge tastes sweet even though it’s not yours. Invasion of Privacy offers the same thrill, with Cardi reveling in proving every last doubter wrong, then and now, honoring her past lives on “Best Life” and exorcising even her own past self-doubt:
I said I never had a problem showin’ y’all the real me
Hair when it’s fucked up
Crib when it’s filthy
’Fore I fixed my teeth, man, those comments used to kill me
Only Ariana Grande, meanwhile, rivals Cardi in being the 2018 pop star with the surest hand on social media and the shrewdest sense of how a pop song, and even a full pop album, is a living, breathing document. For all the swooning command Grande flaunted on August’s Sweetener, her year peaked in early November with the surprise post-album single “thank u, next,” which dismantles, with breezy aplomb, the failed love affair with Pete Davidson that animated most of the discourse around Sweetener in the first place. It was a coup from both an artistic and a marketing perspective; it is the no. 1 song in America as I type.
Cardi, naturally, rose to power by expertly mingling her public and private selves, if there’s even any separation there at all. As her feud with Nicki Minaj escalated this year to the Fashion Week Brawl stage, she took to Instagram to manage the fallout and thrived there, as she always has and always will. In earlier, happier news, recall that her live debut of “Be Careful” came in late April on Saturday Night Live and doubled as the long-awaited acknowledgement of her pregnancy. (Oh, right: In July, she gave birth to her daughter, Kulture Kiari Cephus.) Invasion of Privacy stands on its own as a pop monument, as a wily and thoughtful work of art. But Cardi B is owning her moment—and extending it indefinitely—by keeping in mind that no song, and no mere collection of songs, stands on its own anymore.
The best you can ask—and the least likely thing you can expect—from a major album in 2018 is that it leaves you wanting more. Remember willing the bone-chilling outro of Pusha T’s “Infared” to go on forever? Remember when Vince Staples’s eerie “Tweakin’” dead-ended into silence when you assumed the record was half-over, if that? Invasion of Privacy is like that, except it’s longer than Daytona and FM! combined.
Cardi B, it turns out, is strikingly filler-averse, even in her record’s weirder corners, whether she’s doing Migos-style outré earworms like “Drip” or “Money Bag,” or indulging in the whimsically vicious infidelity revenge fantasy “Thru Your Phone.” (“Smash your TV from Best Buy / You gon’ turn me into Left Eye.”) Simply put, there are enough trick mirrors and trap doors in this person’s multimedia fun house that we’re still not tired of her, a full year after skeptics and superfans alike assumed that getting tired of her was a foregone conclusion.
It takes an awful lot of nuclear-grade personality, and a whole hell of a lot of ever-replenishing new ideas, to stave off encroaching public indifference like that. My cynical assumption is that plenty of young artists with transcendent outta-nowhere appeal have no hope of keeping that same energy throughout a full-length project, ever. Even something as wonderful and bizarre as Tierra Whack’s Whack World works far, far better in 15 minutes than in 45, right? It’s all downhill from there, no? Of all the pop-cultural pitfalls Cardi B has deftly sidestepped in the past two years, the long-threatened cultural obsolescence of The Album might be the most impressive. First, she invented a whole new way to become a pop star. And now she’s helping keep a few of the old ways alive.