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Cardi B Doesn’t Need Jimmy Fallon As Much As He Needs Her

Despite the occasional awkward moment, rap’s indomitable new queen maintained her dignity while cohosting ‘The Tonight Show’

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The only true way to win Box of Lies is not to play, but give it up for Cardi B, who survived her slightly awkward and very charming gig cohosting The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on Monday night by refusing to take the game, or at least Jimmy Fallon himself, seriously. Actual exchange:

Fallon: “What is in your box?”

Cardi B: “Not a penis.”

Yes, that’s cohosting, meaning that Cardi was on camera for practically the whole show. Sitting regally in Fallon’s chair. Standing serenely alongside him during the monologue. (Cardi on Donald Trump’s too-small coat: “I didn’t know Spanx made jackets, ahahahahaha.”) Recording the outgoing voicemail message for an audience-member superfan named Angel. (Cardi perked up when Angel mentioned that he managed a Dunkin Donuts.) Performing the minimal-electro Invasion of Privacy jam “Money Bag,” backed by the Roots. Gamely suffering through a segment in which she was made to overexplain her famous birdsong catchphrases. Chirping on command. Even, yes, interviewing John Mulaney. Actual exchange:

Cardi B: “You look British.”

Mulaney: “I think, thank you?”

Cardi B: “Like the Pet Shop Boys.”

As we approach the inevitable Peak Cardi B moment, with its attendant backlash and think piece barrage, let us revel in these simpler, sillier times. Her debut album, Invasion of Privacy, came out Friday, already went gold, and is quite stupendous; her Saturday Night Live performance climaxed with the somewhat anticlimactic but still quite elegant reveal of her pregnancy. Monday’s Tonight Show stunt was a victory lap within a victory lap within a victory lap, born of her oddball chemistry with Fallon, honed in a psychedelic December Tonight Show interview that mostly consisted of her chirping and him pulling befuddled faces as the audience roared.

The idea was to expand on that goofy viral moment, which is to say belabor it, which is to say slightly sour it. “Backstage, Cardi was doing some breathing exercises, and it sounded like the bird section of a PetSmart,” Fallon cracked in the monologue, and Cardi dutifully cooed and purred and whatnot. She’s far too shrewd and charismatic to let him exoticize her, but it was still not quiet comfortable watching later as she was made to clarify what, exactly, “EEEEOOOWWW!” means. (She began her explanation by describing it as “like a sad cat sound—like a cat that’s going through pain.”)

The interview with Mulaney, the night’s only other guest, was pleasingly anarchic, especially when he and Fallon pressed her to reveal the sordid details of her prom night. (“Forget it,” Cardi demurred. “Kids watch me now.”) Mulaney also brought her the gift of a baby-sized cardigan, which Cardi held up with something approaching genuine wonder. “It feels weird!” she exclaimed. “Babies are so little!”

Soon, she was keeping her dignity through a deconstructed edition of Box of Lies in which she not so much didn’t know the rules as refused to respect them. She picked a box first. “I don’t know what it is,” she kept saying. “I don’t know what it is.” (It was two of those jittery motorized furballs you see at tourist-trap toy stores; goaded into describing them in some way, she settled on “pussy balls,” which was actually reasonably accurate.) Then Fallon legitimately frightened her with a stuffed dog dressed like Freddy Krueger, bringing the game to a perhaps premature and most definitely welcome end. “If I give birth here,” Cardi noted, “I will sue you.”

Throughout, Cardi hammered Fallon’s various trademark how-cool-is-it-being-you softball questions, revelling in her absurdly overstuffed promotion schedule. “I don’t know if it’s the strength of the fetus,” she proclaimed, “but I have never felt so hungry to succeed.” Her most striking and beguiling moment, though, was also her quietest and least guarded, and it happened right before Fallon asked her to read a page from the 2011 children’s book Go the Fuck to Sleep.

“You know what? OK, I’m getting nervous now,” Cardi murmured, a flash of genuine anxiety both darkening and somehow also further brightening her face as she gripped the book and the house lights dimmed and Roots keyboardist James Poyser started tapping out a dainty lullaby. “I’m getting close to the—I’m getting close to the date. Oh my God. Oh, man. I’m gonna be a mom. OK. Alright.” Then she got back to business, which as always, required her to be herself in as exaggerated and Fallon-delighting a manner as possible. But for that quick second, she either let her guard down or perfected the art of pretending to let her guard down. Either way, it suggests that she’s a rich enough tapestry that Fallon should maybe give her the whole hour to herself next time, so she can do whatever the hell she wants, and only explain whatever the hell she wants to.