About a year ago, my YouTube homepage was lit up with recommendations to watch several videos of someone or something called Cardi B. Since the YouTube algorithm was so persistent, I decided to finally watch a video. It turned out to be a brash, crass rap track from a woman with a heavy Bronx accent and a track suit covered in expletives.
As I remember this moment, I can’t believe I wasn’t immediately smitten. I mean, aren’t naughty track suits and rap songs the best? But at the time, I just thought it was too . . . basic. Sure, there’s some nice one-liners, but the rapping was too slow, and the beat wasn’t anything to get excited about.
But there was one thing that ultimately converted me and everyone else to Cardi B evangelism: that attitude. When she showed off her “money moves” in her “bloody shoes” in the 2017 summer smash “Bodak Yellow,” she became an instant sensation. With those bedazzled, claw-like fingernails and loud insults, the stripper turned rapper told the world she’s the baddest bitch, and we all listened.
This might sound like typical rap braggadocio, but her pride in her stripper past is anything but ordinary. Celebrities tend to hide any pasts as sex workers or exotic dancers in order to avoid the stigma associated with these careers, but Cardi B demands respect, not just for herself, but for everybody out there taking it all off to pursue their dreams.
When listening to her debut album Invasion of Privacy and checking out one of her earlier mixtapes, I realized there is far more to Cardi B than her badass persona. She reclaims the “basic bitch” stereotype, shamelessly haranguing women who wear “cheap-ass weaves” and calling herself a stripper hoe.
But she somehow manages to reclaim this stereotype while proving anything but basic. I couldn’t help but think of an old quote from Tupac: “I’m also really soft—I’m very sensitive—that’s why I’m so harsh, ’cause I’m so sensitive.”
She doesn’t hide that her journey was, and still is, a rough one. Invasion of Privacy begins with “Get Up 10,” a track that reveals her difficult journey from getting kicked out by her mother at age 18 to her recent stardom. Her boasts and insults eventually give way to a heartfelt rap-ballad, “Ring,” in which she struggles to reconcile her pride with her heartbreak. Her rawest moment comes in “The Woman’s Perspective” from Gangsta Bitch, Vol. 1. We don’t hear music or Cardi B’s voice—just the sound of a man slut-shaming, cursing and threatening a woman.
To endure these struggles, Cardi B had to develop a tough skin and even tougher attitude. She plays around with house music, R&B, spoken word and Latin pop to explore the depth of her experiences. Anyone who thinks Cardi B is just a basic rapper need not look far to find how true and false this assumption is.
Whereas I only became hip to Cardi B when YouTube recommended some of her music videos, others have been fans since her run on Love & Hip Hop: New York. Curious as to what she was like as a reality star and if this affected attitudes towards her music, I spoke to reality TV fanatic and my dear friend O’Kesha.
Q: When did you first learn of Cardi B’s existence?
A: I first saw her on Love & Hip Hop: New York. I believe it was season six.
Q: What was she like on Love & Hip Hop?
A: Pretty much exactly the same way she is now. I mean, maybe’s she a smidgen tamer, but only a smidgen. She’s been consistently crazy, the life of the party, hilarious. But what I always responded to the most was her ambition. She called herself an underdog, and nobody wanted to give her a chance, but she stayed true to herself and became the top dog, which is always a great thing to see. That’s why everyone loves her.
Q: Have you listened to her new album?
A: Well, not yet. I plan on listening to it this weekend. Just gotta make sure my daughter doesn’t hear it; she’s at that age when she’s starting to repeat things.
Q: Like most of the world, were you also jamming out to “Bodak Yellow” last summer?
A: Oh, I love it. But I was listening to her even before that when she released her mixtapes. I was so proud of her when “Bodak Yellow” came out. So many people go on these reality shows, especially Love & Hip Hop, saying they want to be musicians, but it’s rare for someone to really work hard and make it big. To see her become a sensation has been awesome.
Q: Do you follow her on Instagram?
A: I do. I think it might have been her Instagram fame that even got her on the reality show, but I started following her after she got on the show. Her Fashion Nova posts are probably my favorite.
Q: What was her greatest moment on Love & Hip Hop?
A: Ooh, one guy on there was just the dirtiest, froggiest pig ever. I mean, he married his sidechick behind his girlfriend’s back after being with her for 13 years and got both the sidechick and the girlfriend pregnant at the same time. On the reunion, Cardi B goes off on him, I mean reads him for filth. It’s the best, and it really speaks to her values. She’s always been outspoken about how men use her and is always proving that she’s more than just a dumb stripper. Sounding off on this man’s bullshit was very much in line with her character and her beliefs. She was crazy and got in fights, but in moments like this, she used the show well as a feminist platform.
Here are some of Cardi B’s most notorious shenanigans:
Q: Did she have any catchphrases?
A: Oh yeah, that’s kinda her thing. That “regular, degular, shmegular girl from the Bronx” quote was from her very first episode. And there’s also that time she said a girl who had beef with her would have beef with her foreva. All the sound effects she makes now were from Love & Hip Hop, too. She’s really stayed the same.
Listening to O’Kesha glowingly recount the awesomeness of Cardi B’s reality TV days had me loving her more, too. She just seems cool, fun and—dare I say it?—genuine. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t putting on any sort of act. Hip hop has always placed high capital on authenticity, whereas reality television has always been anything but real. That seemingly positions Cardi B in a contradictory position—celebrated for her authenticity but acting out on TV to build her career. In the compilation O’Kesha shared with me, Cardi B is pulling out all the most typical reality show antics: fights, one-liners, parties.
However, part of Cardi B’s authenticity is her refusal to hide the fact that she’s playing the game. She knows that in a sexist, celebrity-obsessed, always-online world, her best bet to go from Bronx to Billboard is to strip, get a boob job, sleep with a DJ, gain a lot of Instagram followers, do the most on a reality show and work hard on her music throughout these strategic moves. Celebrities hide the seedier or more embarrassing stops on their road to fame, but Cardi B is “real” in that her goals and her journey have been transparent all along. Sure, she’s revealing her personality, experiences and vulnerability, but always with her sights set on maximizing each moment to forward her career. That has and will continue to make her a compelling and entertaining figure. But ultimately it’s her music that really makes her a star—just as she had always planned.
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