Cardi B did not bite Beyoncé, not literally, but behold the way she sinks her teeth into the pronunciation of Queen Bey’s name on “Best Life,” the sixth song off her debut album, Invasion of Privacy. Like a lot of great rappers, there is an immediate, surface-level joy in hearing Cardi B say things, a culinary zest she can draw out of certain consonants and vowels. “I took pictures with Beyoncé,” she growls, “I met Mama Knowles / I’m the rose that came from the concrete in the Rolls.” It’s a memorable moment on an album overflowing with them, and it is endearing, how awestruck she sounds at the details of her own life. Making Chance the Rapper sound like the least animated person on a track is no easy feat, but Cardi bodies him on “Best Life”: A word, out of her mouth, is worth a thousand words. And so somehow it’s all there—the struggle, the triumph, the pitbull tenacity with which she is going to hold onto her moment—in the way she enunciates “Beyoncé.” She savors it the way Biggie did “Sega Genesissssss.” It’s the evidence of an arrival.
Instagram star turned rapper to be reckoned with Cardi B came up in such an unconventional, thoroughly modern way that I was not sure we needed something as old-fashioned as a major-label debut album from her—I was not sure this was a format in which someone so quintessentially of-the-moment would still need to thrive. What a delight, to be proved so wrong. Confident and bountiful, Invasion of Privacy makes a strong case for its own necessity. It is a victory lap for the things Cardi has already proved she can do (“Bodak Yellow” is here, as is its spiritual sequel, the exuberant “Bickenhead”). But just as thrillingly, it is also a first glimpse of muscles we didn’t even know Cardi could flex: She makes a convincing case that Migos need a fourth member on “Drip”; she recruits J Balvin and Bad Bunny for the irresistible “I Like It” (quite possibly a “Despacito” in the making, or at the very least the year’s first serious Song of the Summer contender); on songs like “Ring” and “Thru Your Phone,” she reinvents the rap ballad as something too forceful to be dismissed as fluff. Though it features a few too many guest stars, Invasion of Privacy squanders remarkably little of its runtime. It’s not a vibe or a mood so much as a relentless collection of bangers.
Cardi was able to translate her Instagram confessions into bars so seamlessly because the principle of her delivery is the same: She makes a convincing case that whatever she is saying is the most important thing that anyone is saying in the world at that moment. “Bodak Yellow” turned pettiness into something operatic, and her rhymes on Invasion of Privacy have that same urgency. The nudes found in a cheating man’s text history becomes a matter of life and death on “Thru Your Phone” (“I’ma make a bowl of cereal, with a teaspoon of BLEACH!”), while “Money Bag” becomes a frenzied fairy tale about the glory of being Cardi B. “He can tell from the front I got ass behind me,” she brags, emphatically, “and I park my Bentley truck on my Versace driveway.”
Much has been made of the scatological shamelessness with which Cardi talks about her own body. “I wanna fart [but] I’m around soo many people in a small room,” she tweeted to her 2.7 million followers a few weeks ago; I am not sure how many people were in that room, but I’m guessing the number was fewer than 2.7 million. An early Fader profile led with Cardi telling the journalist, in vivid terms, how much she needed to “take a shit”; the first line of her Rolling Stone cover story was “Cardi B is butt-naked in the doorway of her hotel room, yelling about her vagina.” When Cardi raps about her body, it is sometimes a profession of sexual prowess and desirability (“They remind me of my pussy, bitches mad tight,” she says on Invasion of Privacy’s opening track, “Get Up 10”). But what feels new and even radical about her perspective is the sense of humor she has about her own body—the kind, frankly, usually reserved for only male rappers talking about their dicks. I have not heard a funnier rap verse this year than the one in the middle of “Bickenhead,” which is basically an X-rated Green Eggs and Ham:
Pop that pussy while you work
Pop that pussy up at church …
Put your tongue out in the mirror
Pop that pussy while you drive
Spread them asscheeks open, make that pussy crack a smile
Especially within the pop universe, the (sexual) female body is still almost exclusively described by men, so there’s an immense power to the way Cardi boasts and jokes about her own existence within a female body that I don’t think we’ve quite heard since Missy Elliot. Even when she’s rapping about looking like a snack (or, more accurately, a whole entrée) it’s impossible to objectify Cardi because she is such a complex subject within her own rhymes, because she is so gloriously alive within her own skin.
“Ain’t no more beefin’, I’m just keepin’ to myself,” Cardi raps on “Best Life,” “I’m my own competition, I’m competin’ with myself.” Some might hear it as a swing at Nicki Minaj (who makes a similar claim on her 2012 single “Come on a Cone”), but if you’re not quite as quick to read everything one successful female rapper says as a shot at another successful rapper, it just as easily reads as an homage. Too many people have tried to manufacture beef between the two of them, but it’s impossible to deny that Nicki Minaj’s previous success has macheted a path for Cardi—and Cardi, to her credit, seems aware of that.
Still, Invasion of Privacy pulls off a few feats that none of Minaj’s three albums have been able to: It is able to fuse the soft and hard sides of Cardi into a coherent whole. On songs like, say, The Pinkprint’s “Grand Piano,” Minaj has a tendency to indulge in a mawkish sentimentality that gives fuel to her more sexist haters who believe, as Peter Rosenberg infamously said, that her softer, poppier songs mean she can’t also create “real hip-hop.” Given this, one of the most impressive things about Invasion of Privacy is how Cardi has found a way to make her ballads (the songs about heartbreak that would traditionally be interpreted, simplistically, as “softer” and more “feminine”) hit with a force that make them difficult to trivialize. “Thru Your Phone” crackles with visceral anger, while the Kehlani collaboration “Ring” wields its defiant vulnerability like a Louboutin heel to the neck.
It is a failure of imagination to assume that Cardi B’s triumph is necessarily a loss for Nicki Minaj, who is rumored to have new music coming out later this year. “Ain’t a bitch in my zone,” Minaj rapped six years ago, on her second record, “In the middle of nowhere, I just feel so alone.” Now, at last, she’s not. Cardi’s rise has forced us to recognize new trajectories of success, new stories—and so it feels unsuitably old-fashioned to assume that there can still be only one successful female rapper at a time. I am curious to hear the kind of music Minaj will make when she’s not the only female rapper in her zone; the challenge just might make her sharper than ever. And anyway, neither she nor Cardi should get too used to being the only female rapper in the pop world for very long. Invasion of Privacy is likely to inspire many more.
At the end of a whirlwind weekend during which everyone—from Oprah to Erykah Badu—seemed to be paying their respects to Cardi B, she appeared as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. During her second song, the bouncy, melancholy single “Be Careful,” the camera pulled out to reveal that, as it has been rumored for months, Cardi was indeed pregnant. It was an elegant, calculated reveal, reminiscent of Beyoncé herself, who famously announced her own pregnancy during her 2011 MTV Video Music Award performance. Cardi, as ever, has proved to be an astute student of televised spectacle.
On SNL, Cardi worked within her limitations. She is still a bit hesitant as a live performer (although it’s understandable why she would have been especially nervous that night, given what she was disclosing) and on stage her flow can sometimes feel over-practiced rather than instinctual. And yet, as she finally revealed her secret in her own time, it was hard not to be moved.
Back when the pregnancy was still just a rumor, plenty of armchair skeptics criticized Cardi’s decision to have a baby at such a “pivotal” moment in her career: Was she squandering her success? And yet there’s something quintessentially Cardi about it all, the blunt reminder of the facts of the female body, the yearning for traditional milestones (“I wanna get married, like the Currys, Steph and Ayesha shit,” she raps on “Be Careful”) even as she carves out her own unique path. It was a complicated image: There she stood alone in bridal white, as though marrying herself and her own ambition, glowing with the promise of a family even as she rapped a bitter song about a partner’s infidelity. Cardi B became famous by presenting herself as an open book, and yet her power in that moment came from how much control she had over it all, how carefully she’d orchestrated the timing and the staging of this reveal. Perhaps the best way to protect against invasions of privacy, Cardi B has taught us over the past year, is to become the writer, director, and star of one’s own life.