I wasn’t always sold on Cardi B. But in 2014, when she came through my Instagram feed with her viral clip “a hoe never gets cold,” it made me snicker; no one wants to pay for coat check at the club. A year later, when Cardi joined the cast of “Love & Hip Hop,” I tuned in because you didn’t have to like her to know she was a reality star in the making. Her Dominican accent fusing with New York slang can border on comic gibberish at times, but this did not stop her catchphrases—”washpoppin’” and “…foreva”—from quickly permeating the everyday speech of hip-hop culture. Like the rest of her castmates, Cardi spent time in the studio but one thing separated her from them: her music was actually good, though it took time for her skills to be taken seriously.
After two mixtapes searching more for herself than a hit, Cardi released her debut major label single, “Bodak Yellow,” back in June. As of today (Sept. 25), that brash flip of Kodak Black’s “No Flockin”has overtaken the top spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart from Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do.” With it, Cardi has become the first female rapper to hit No. 1 on her own since Lauryn Hill did it in 1998 with “Doo Wop (That Thing).”
Others have grazed the Hot 100 throne with No. 2s—Nicki Minaj with “Anaconda,” Eve (and Gwen Stefani) with “Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” Lil’ Kim (and 50 Cent) with “Magic Stick”—but Cardi’s chart dominance feels different. Though her rise is closely tied to her extremely candid social media approach, “Bodak Yellow” wasn’t propelled by a specific meme. It doesn’t make a play for pop listeners via cameos. And with Cardi being one of the very few female rappers to not play the role of the token woman in a respected rap crew, the immense mainstream success of “Bodak Yellow” could mark a turning point amid mounting frustration over hip-hop’s boys club.
Simply, the listening public invested in the visible arc of Cardi B. The “regular, degular, shmegular girl from the Bronx,” born Belcalis Almanzar to Dominican and Trinidadian parents. The 24 year old who was working as an exotic dancer just two years ago, who donned a crooked smile before her “Love & Hip Hop” checks cleared, who bought a burnt-orange Bentley when “Bodak” blew up (even though she doesn’t have a driver’s license). Seeing Cardi’s own honest surprise unfold across social media, week by week as “Bodak Yellow” made gains, illuminated why she became a rallying point for listeners—particularly women who live for hip-hop but aren’t always considered when picturing rap fans. Women like me.
I see myself in Cardi. We’re both proficient in the language of petty, and her dirty jokes could be lifted from my group chats. It’s easy to want her to win, but it’s something more than that. Cardi B suggests a new lane for female rappers—one that has little to do with seeking permission from male gatekeepers, pandering to white culture, or criticizing other women for their sexuality. It is about finding an audience on your own terms.
In 1998, when Lauryn Hill became the first woman in nearly a decade to write and produce her own No. 1 single, the hip-hop world was more accustomed to Lil’ Kim’s raunchy Hard Core squat and Foxy Brown’s Ill Na Na euphemisms than the egalitarianism called for by “Doo Wop (That Thing).” “I’m not dissing them—I’m dissing their mindset,” Hill told Details of her sexuality-embracing peers. “…I knew girls like [Lil’] Kim growing up—I might have even been one at a certain age—and there’s a huge lack of self-esteem behind that thinking.” Reading this passage now, nearly two decades later, it seems judgy as hell; it also captures the kind of “I’m not like them” attitude that helped make Hill a favorite among staid institutions like the Grammys, which isn’t to suggest her immense talent isn’t deserving of her accolades. But Cardi being unashamed of her near-death experience from butt injections or the way her breast implants look—that doesn’t invalidate her, or make her any less woke.
Unlike so many of the women who came before her (including Lauryn with the Fugees), Cardi’s ascent did not require an initial male cosign. Lil’ Kim had Biggie and Junior M.A.F.I.A, Eve had DMX and Ruff Ryders, and Nicki Minaj had Lil Wayne and YMCMB. In terms of their skills, these women absolutely did not need these men; but in the eyes of a largely thought-to-be-male rap audience, these big-ups proved their bona fides early on. That’s partially why, when T.I. showed his approval of Iggy Azalea, the world took notice, eventually leading her to that rarified No. 1 spot with “Fancy.” At its core, “Fancy” isn’t exactly rap, but rather a white, hip-hop-adjacent artist remaking herself in the image of black women—an approach that also has proved successful for major pop stars.
And so, a No. 1 record for Cardi B is bigger than “Bodak Yellow”—and not necessarily even for the reasons people have been saying, which involve her facing off against the Aryan nation’s pop idol of choice. A rapper like Cardi sitting atop the Hot 100 redefines the type of woman who is afforded mainstream rap success. Black women are not a monolith; we have the ability to shapeshift from Lauryn to Cardi whenever we see fit. Maybe the music industry, always looking to replicate what’s worked in the past, will start to consider that.
Originally Posted on Pitchfork