Reality Rap: How Cardi B Reinvented Herself

Harold Bingo takes a look at the phenomenon that is Cardi B.
By    July 20, 2017

Art by Chris Allmeid

Harold Bingo wanted New York to steal Flavor Flav’s heart.

Cardi B’s a star. She’s also a rapper. But is she a rap star? Will she become one? Is this a survey? These and other questions answered within…

“I’m just into making money, I ain’t into making love.
When you hear that stripper hoe, I’m the one you thinking of.”

Cardi B’s career has followed a fairly distinctive theme so far. Her “I can do that, so why don’t I?” ethos is as simple as it is effective. Now, her self-actualization methods have led her to the brink of rap stardom.

She’s carved out a niche as an engaging entertainer ever since she burst onto the scene as an Instagram celebrity/de facto life coach. Her brash method of delivering her various insightful musings showcased her comedic chops and gave us an early sense for her big picture point of view.

She’s since utilized the VH1’s Love and Hip Hop franchise to increase her visibility and seems destined to join K Michelle among those who’ve successfully transcended…whatever they have going on over there at VH1. No slander to reality television, Flavor of Love Season 1 is still a masterclass of the art form. Those of us who are currently less inclined to consume such shows (*very Seinfeld voice* not that there’s anything wrong with them) started to become aware of her musical ambitions around this time as well.

One of her more widely circulated motivational speeches made its way onto Tink’s (underrated) “Drama Queen” track from Timbaland’s 2015 mixtape King Stays King. Shaggy’s Boom Boom remix during the same year enlisted Popcaan and Cardi, and while the verse itself was nothing to write home about, her confident flow and recognizable voice allowed her performance to exceed expectations. The song stealthily made its way into my regular rotation, but I’d be lying if I said I was refreshing her Instagram feed for news about upcoming projects.

When the cover art for Gangsta Bitch Music Volume 1 was leaked, there was an initial sense that her music career was going to be an extension of her Instagram. Some fun punchlines, some trendy production, and then we’d collectively move on, right? In that cover’s casual rejoinder to typical rap tropes lies the answer. It’s a clear indication that Cardi is far more canny and intuitive than she will ever let on.

Gangsta Bitch Volume 1 isn’t without moments of brilliance (“When you take me out to eat, after that day, you can’t see me for the week” is a wonderful rule to live by), but it struggles to showcase Cardi’s own musical ambitions. A “B.O.N.” freestyle allows yet another rapper to try on King Louie’s casually laconic flow for size to no avail. Her take on Young Thug’s “With That” comes across as Jeffrey karaoke.

The tape does serve as a microcosm of her career to date, however. For every “Wash Poppin” or “Foreva” that hints towards an artistic direction that allows the same personality that made Instagram users and reality television aficionados fall in love with her to shine through, there are another two attempts to mine the current zeitgeist.

Cardi’s self awareness extends to her musical exploits and she acknowledges the influence of artists like Migos and Kodak Black on her music. She’s also candid about the need to assimilate to the sounds of the moment. Her willingness to soberly address her place in the landscape is commendable, but the resulting music offers a sense that she’s leaving something on the table.

Gangsta Bitch Music 2 is far less scattershot than its predecessor. “Bronx Season” and “Leave That Bitch Alone” come across as true extensions of Cardi’s persona, while “Hectic,” “Pull Up,” and “Rollin” feel like songs that were recorded as a means of checking off items on a to do list. The last thing that a Cardi B record should ever do is sound listless and she finds herself keeping up with the Joneses far too often.

Meanwhile, “Red Barz” and “Bodak Yellow” are currently gobbling up YouTube views at a rapid clip, with the former on the verge of 11 million and the latter garnering over 9 million in its first three weeks. While “Red Barz” finds an agreeable midpoint between Chicago and New York and “Bodak Yellow” is “No Flocking Pt. 2,” they showcase an infectious Cardi whose love for rapping is audible. On these missives, she sounds like someone who is operating at the peak of their current powers while showing obvious room for improvement.

Because the music industry now moves at the speed of light and Cardi’s own pre-obtained celebrity places her on a different plane of visibility, she’s already at a tipping point. The sort of tipping point that wins her a nomination for best female hip-hop artist at the BET Awards, which was notable both for the predictable griping about the deservedness of her nomination and the fact that her name drew louder cheers than all of the others announced during the actual telecast.

Will she end up as some sort of bizarre cross between Angie Martinez and Kid Ink, a well liked rap adjacent personality who parlays their ability to credibly adapt to current production and stylistic trends into a surprisingly productive career? Or can she harness the force of personality that has carried her to this point and release a project that finally silences all skeptics?

This is the million dollar question (multimillion if the reports about her Atlantic contract are to be believed) that should keep her competitors awake at night. The hardest part of being a successful artist in the current climate is creating a cult of personality that makes people care after the stream is over and she had that part mastered before she even stepped into a recording booth.

Now that the curio sheen has worn off and she’s become an established artist with strengths and weaknesses, Cardi’s talent level is evident. In time, one would expect the Offset and Kodak Black influences to wane, in much the same way Kodak’s own Boosie influence has receded on more recent projects.

Even after dropping two mixtapes in nine months, Cardi has not rested on her laurels, with follow up singles and remixes that showcase a willingness to expedite her own growth process. It’s not difficult to envision a lasting career and a well regarded discography in her future if she continues to strike while the iron is hot.

None of us can predict how this story will turn out. Most endings tend to be far more anticlimactic than the grandiose ones that we dream up upon initial exposure to an artist. No one heard “Beam Me Up Scotty” and assumed that Nicki was going to skip to the self-awarded lifetime achievement stage of her career without bothering to make a resonant album first.

One theme has remained constant throughout Cardi’s progression. She’s been able to use any available avenue for self promotion as a springboard to an even greater one. Prepare for all outcomes. Whether this story ends with rap superstardom, an agreeable network sitcom where she plays the wise and fun-loving babysitter to a group of spoiled and socially maladjusted misfits or a successful run for political office, her track record speaks for itself.

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