‘The “secret” to her success is that she is able to simultaneously be and represent different things to different people’
Over Super Bowl weekend, Cardi B cheerfully eclipsed this year’s televised halftime show by appearing in Atlanta at a series of related events that only underscored her steadfast refusal to take the stage inside the stadium in protest of the NFL’s continued blackballing of Colin Kaepernick. Only Cardi B seems able to dominate a news cycle as much by what she doesn’t do as by what she does.
Online media celebrated Cardi performing a 45-minute set at Atlanta’s Bud Light Super Bowl Music Fest on Saturday night, and the Hollywood Reporter showed her joined onstage by Patriots owner Robert Kraft — who danced — while she performed Saturday afternoon during the Fanatics party at the College Football Hall of Fame. Cardi B exceptionalism strikes again! Yes, her fame seems predicated on walking an extremely fine line between moral righteousness and scandal. Millions saw her G-rated cameo in a Pepsi commercial during the game, while nearly as many have watched more R-rated cameos in videos like Rita Ora’s “Girls” and the City Girls’ “Twerk.” Although deep in the throes of resolving marital problems and a bitter multimillion-dollar lawsuit launched last year by her former manager Klenord “Shaft” Raphael, Cardi soldiers on in a labor-intensive career that gets both hotter and more controversial as time goes on.
Although you can find lots of bemused critical commentary about the fact that Cardi B’s pop crossover success was largely driven by cameo appearances on a cable-television series, there are clearly other factors at work among the P&J voter pool who’ve voted big for this scrappy hip-hop diva from the boogie down two years in a row, following up last year’s love for “Bodak Yellow” (2017’s number one single) with “I Like It” (2018’s number two single). Part of it is respect for her work ethic. Cardi stayed in the public eye through her pregnancy last year, appeared on Ellen and SNL, made top-quality music videos, and accepted a number of invitations to collaborate with other high-profile or rising artists on singles that also ended up on Pazz & Jop lists this year.
Yet, my own straw poll research reveals that different people like Cardi for different reasons. The “secret” to her success is that she is able to simultaneously be and represent different things to different people.
To her queer following, and to fifteen-year-old “urban” teens, Cardi B is a girl who beat an entire system of outdated stereotypes that limits what they can be. To twenty-year-old college girls, she is an oddly tantalizing symbol of the courage they still lack. To thirty-year-old career girls, she is living proof that identity is constructed, the future is unwritten, and that you can thrive in a world with no rules, and fewer certainties, as long as you are brave, funny, and focused. But perhaps most importantly, to all susceptible men she frames herself as La Belle Dame sans Merci: the visually compelling, elfin woman they desire but can’t control — and have been taught to fear. With a spontaneous sense of humor that veils a fierce intelligence, Cardi B comes across as the irresistible ballbusting femme fatale men hate to love.
Part of the intimidation factor is Cardi’s often brutally unsentimental entrepreneurial drive: She must be willing to take risks without the monetary safety nets inherited by female Hiltons and Kardashians. For all her cussing and playful self-deprecation, she can be as diplomatic as Ralph Bunche when she needs to be. Cardi also makes public mistakes, sometimes big ones, with more self-confidence than a career politician, even arriving for court appearances like visiting royalty. In her radio interviews and Instagram posts, Cardi B comes across as likably candid and “regular.” She’s the ultimate practical individualist (who nonetheless retains a ride-or-die streetwise posse and close connections with her extended family). When she gives people advice — as in the lyrics of “Be Careful” or on social media — her words are often confessional, slightly profane, and laden with the wry wisdom of personal experience.
As the daughter of a Trinidadian mom and a Dominican dad, Belcalis Marlenis Almanzár grew up internalizing both Bronx and Caribbean family values — a mix of social habits and assumptions that don’t always correlate with conservative WASP expectations. A self-avowed capitalist only because cash rules everything around her, Cardi B could teach a master class in respectful etiquette, only she won’t teach from a textbook written by Emily Post. Cardi’s personal creed is way too pre-Columbian and Old Testament for that.
The rapper’s half-Latino, half-West Indian bloodlines make her potentially heir to two islands’ musical traditions: Trinidad’s calypso, kaiso, and chutney-soca; and the merengue, bachata, and bachatón of the Dominican Republic. In the 1990s, young producers of Caribbean extraction began mixing and matching digitized rhythms and instrumentation to create dance music aggressive and edgy enough to compete with techno and hip-hop. When crunk and reggaetón upped the nightclub ante, artists like Pitbull and Erick Morillo stepped up with creative new fusions aimed at the bilingual crossover market. But the most successful singles were those that blended sex and humor in witty, memorable ways. Little wonder that a sassy mouth with no emotional filter became Cardi B’s biggest marketing asset. Long before the degendered term Latinx usurped Latino/a in the mouths of academic intersectionality advocates, explicit lyrics advertising a fluid, aggressive, or even a transgressive sexuality could win attention on a dance floor.
Published in: Village Voice, February 9, 2019