She isn’t perfect, nor does she claim to be, but the rapper is learning, growing, and proving with her sophomore album that she and her powerful voice are here to stay.
BY MARJON CARLOS AND PHOTOGRAPHED BY STEVEN KLEIN AND STYLED BY KOLLIN CARTER
It feels like a lifetime ago, given the breakneck pace of the news and the steady erosion of our political system, but it has only been a year since rap lightning rod Cardi B sat down with Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders in a Detroit nail salon in the summer of 2019. The polymathic force—former stripper/onetime reality star/raptress/ wife/mother/hellion—converted the salon into a backdrop for an earnest conversation around the most urgent issues facing Americans today: job creation, police brutality, a livable minimum wage, and workers’ rights. The scene was full of obvious asymmetry—Cardi’s glamour-puss persona played irreverently off Sanders’s mensch—but in many ways, it was just two New Yorkers talking about the issues of the day, with all the camaraderie of the politicking found at any Dominican bodega that dots Cardi’s native South Bronx neighborhood.
This wasn’t the first time that Cardi, born Belcalis Marlenis Almánzar, had spoken out about politics; in fact, the voluble rapper, who experienced meteoric fame after the release of 2017’s chart-topping “Bodak Yellow,” can’t keep herself from doing so. Whether imploring fellow celebrities and influencers in unprompted Instagram videos to use their platforms to speak out against President Donald Trump’s draconian rule, or expressing her infatuation with the New Deal in a 2018 GQ interview, Cardi never minces words. She is a lifelong history buff—a gangsta with a thing for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Still, her decision to sit down with the senator immediately courted controversy, turning the comments section of her Instagram into a battleground of dissent. Nearly every time she speaks on such topics, a rush of online naysayers balk at the self-described “regular degular schmegular girl from the Bronx” making a foray into politics: “You need to stick to rapping, sis, you obviously don’t know what you’re talking about,” one commenter wrote. Fox News panned Cardi’s and Sanders’s meeting of the minds, slut-shaming her for her former work as a stripper while ignoring the fact that the current resident of the White House was once embroiled in an alleged affair with a porn star. But as Cardi declared in the 2019 song “Clout,” “Public opinions from private accounts / You not a check, then you gotta bounce,” referring to the verified check marks on social media platforms. Which is to say, Cardi will not be quieted by bots, avatars, critics, or trolls.
Nearly a year later, in early July, I’m on the phone with the rapper, who is in L.A. prepping the first video of her long-awaited sophomore album. The topics covered in her prescient heart-to-heart with Sanders are now playing out in real time. COVID-19 has sent the U.S. economy into a recession and triggered mass unemployment (“A lot of my family caught COVID. A lot of people around me lost their jobs,” Cardi says). The Republican-controlled Senate’s response has left millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet with a mere onetime $1,200 stimulus check. All while unarmed Black men and women are being killed by the police in the streets and in their homes with impunity. Oh, and the presidential election has been whittled down to just two candidates, with “Uncle Bernie,” Cardi’s nickname for Sanders, having conceded to former vice president Joe Biden in April.
Of course, the rapper never could have foreseen a global pandemic, nor its fallout, but she recognized early on the value in remaining politically engaged and the significance of the upcoming presidential election. While she may be disappointed that Sanders has dropped out of the race, she assures me she is committed to doing anything to get Joe Biden elected. She wants Trump out of office, describing him as an ineffectual leader. “Those people that he caters [to], he’s not going to do anything for them. It’s not like Republicans are getting better housing. It’s not like Republicans are getting better benefits. They’re not. He’s not doing anything for anybody. He’s just saying things that appease the same people.” Cardi has a different vision. “I want a president who makes me feel secure. I want a president who understands the pain of the people. I want a president who is going to give us answers,” she says, wistfully. “That’s why I like [New York governor Andrew] Cuomo. I like him because he makes me feel like he’s listening to me.” She’s been rallying her loyal Bardi Gang fan base to become more active in their electoral system, voting in elections at all levels: “You can vote for DAs. You can vote for mayors. You can vote for your district. Not everything is the president. You know what I’m saying?”
Cardi’s message is piercing, and unlike many of her celebrity peers, she seems to be able to get through to her millions-strong online community, using diaristic Instagram Lives as a brand of rogue daily press briefings. On a recent standout episode, she launched into a seething, unedited soliloquy on how carelessly she saw the public responding to COVID, all while balancing a towel on her head, a robe around her waist, and clicking and clacking her trademark talons for added effect. “Y’all not taking it motherfuckin’ serious!” Pounding her fist against a takeout container, she was both the picture of a wisecracking, concerned mother and a New Age political savant. In recent weeks, Cardi has put out forceful statements on current events that bear no resemblance to canned press releases or performative activism. After participating in a call that gun control advocate Tamika Mallory arranged with Breonna Taylor’s mom, Tamika Palmer, and other celebrities, Cardi became wholly invested in the wrongful death of the 26-year-old Black EMT, who was fatally shot eight times in her home by plainclothes police officers in Louisville, Kentucky. The officers justified entering with a so-called no-knock warrant. “That is so insane to me. [I saw] Breonna Taylor’s name everywhere, but I didn’t really know her story,” Cardi says. “What they did to her is really fucked up. Really fucked up.” She is enraged about the lack of justice: “What’s the excuse? Why is the cop not in jail? Wasn’t what he did a crime? It’s a crime! And no apology. No apology. No video of the cop coming out crying, ‘I fucked up. I don’t this. I don’t that.’ Nothing. It’s nothing. I don’t even know how her mom still holds her head up. Unbelievable.”
Cardi became incensed upon hearing Palmer, who filed a lawsuit against the officers involved in May, recount the painful and confusing treatment she received from the police department in the hours after her daughter’s murder. Officers sent Palmer to the hospital despite knowing Breonna’s body remained in her home; she told Cardi and the other celebs on the call that the police gave her the runaround for hours when she asked questions about Breonna’s fate. “Imagine how frustrated her mom was, crying, probably hysterical. The cops call her saying her daughter is in the hospital, and her daughter is not even there. Then the person who’s supposed to protect her is asking her mom, ‘Do you know anybody who [would] want to hurt Breonna Taylor?’ when you guys know who killed her!”
The harrowing account reminded Cardi of when her own cousin was murdered: “I remember everybody waking up at 3 a.m. and driving all the way to New Jersey, to the hospital. And through all that driving, you’re crying and scared and everything.” The experience inspired her to join a growing cadre of notable women (Beyoncé, Oprah, Senator Kamala Harris) who have pleaded for charges to be brought against the offending officers involved in Taylor’s murder: Jon Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove. “Don’t let Kentucky Police Department get away with this shit!!!!!” Cardi wrote in a paragraph-long Instagram caption detailing Taylor’s case that she posted in early June. Cardi would go on to change her IG avatar to simply “Breonna Taylor” to pay homage and bring continued awareness to the issue.
She says she wishes she saw more male rappers speaking out about Taylor’s killing. “A woman like Breonna Taylor, she was young. She looked like she was listening to your music. She looked like she was your fan. You should stick up for her,” she says. While some would hesitate to call Cardi a “conscious rapper,” her words speak to a larger conversation currently being waged within the rap community around the political responsibility of top-tier male hip-hop artists. Chance the Rapper and J.Cole, two rappers who are often lauded for their introspective body of work, noticeably waded into the debate around the state of America’s political unrest this past summer, but both clumsily responded and were chastised publicly for their polarizing stances. Cardi’s advocacy for progressive social policies like Social Security and other public safety nets often puts her in a league of her own.
Of course, Cardi’s politics are not above reproach. The rapper has been “canceled” many times (there were at least four attempts in 2019 alone) for incendiary comments that were viewed as glorifying crime, and guilty of colorism and racism. The list of offenses is lengthy, and includes years-old footage of Cardi admitting to drugging and robbing men during her stripper days, as well as resurfaced tweets of Cardi using the word cockroach to allegedly describe dark-skinned Black women. More recently, Cardi was accused of keeping a ghost Instagram account in which she allegedly commented on other celebrities, including Megan Thee Stallion, Ariana Grande, and eternal foe Nicki Minaj. “I saw I was trending on Twitter, and I’m like, ‘What the fuck?’ ” Cardi says of seeing the hashtag #CardiBIsOver. “I’m like, ‘Jesus Christ, what did I do now? Like what?’ ” In response, she posted a video on Instagram, seemingly unfazed, showing off what she was wearing to her own “cancel party” (a white slip dress and matching Christian Louboutin heels) before jumping into a pool, fully clothed. “If I haven’t been posting on Instagram and eating food and that still bothers y’all, that just means I’m really that important in your heart and my press is really part of your soul. And guess what? I don’t give a damn. Bye!” she ranted in the footage.
Speaking with her now, the IDGAF facade seems to have worn thin. “I cannot believe 73 people are trying to cancel me over a lie. Can you imagine me having a fake Instagram account to talk shit about different artists that I don’t even think about?” she says. “I’m 27 years old, you know what I’m saying? I’m 27 years old and I have big bills, big responsibilities, and a kid who’s on my ass a lot.” Besides, as Cardi explains, she has never been one to hide her feelings, so a ghost account feels antithetical to who she is. “If I don’t fucking like somebody, I am going to let them know I don’t fucking like them, or I don’t fuck with them, or I’m not feeling their energy. I’m not going to make a fake Instagram trolling artists, talking shit about artists. Are you crazy?”
But even before the dust could settle on that turmoil, Cardi was trending again, weeks later, for using the term chinky eyes to describe her two-year-old daughter Kulture’s eyes. The internet’s response to her using the racial slur—an insult that originated in the late nineteenth century to describe the monolids of many Asian people—was swift, especially considering the rise of anti-Asian racism in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The rapper quickly responded, explaining that she never knew the racist origins of the term. “Never in my life, my 27 years, I never even knew that was a racial slur,” she tells me. “I was describing my husband’s and my sister’s eyes, and my daughter’s eyes…. I don’t even know how to describe their eyes anymore because that’s how I used to describe their eyes. I don’t even know the word. That they’re almond shaped? But it’s like, I never knew that. And for people to be like, ‘She’s using a racial slur. She’s disgusting.’ And it’s like, ‘Bro, I didn’t even know that was a racial slur…. I didn’t say it…with no bad ill intention.’ ”
After each failing, Cardi undergoes a very public unlearning process, which seems to be in line with her evolution from her impoverished background to international superstardom. Rewatching Love & Hip Hop New York, which she starred in from 2015 to 2016, it’s clear her worldview has broadened in the years since. She has worked to shake off old habits and outdated ways of thinking. She acknowledges what she knows and what she doesn’t. And laments the shortcomings of her upbringing, while never apologizing for where she came from. As she’s said in the past, “I made the choices that I did at the time because I had very limited options. I was blessed to have been able to rise from that, but so many women have not. Whether or not they were poor choices at the time, I did what I had to do to survive.”
But cancel culture doesn’t often allow for such a learning curve. The public shaming of public figures over offensive behavior or remarks is often an attempt to right systemic issues in a single firing or career-ending takedown. Except that Cardi’s “cancellations” have hardly been the end of her—it is her unedited style and delivery that have made her famous, to begin with, and almost immune to such outcry. The public can certainly be mad or disappointed in the rapper, but she’s a populist artist, a woman of the people. If anything, Cardi’s foibles have made her more accessible—someone flawed who is looking to address and repair her blind spots.
Still, she remains genuinely perplexed by her constant cancellations. “It’s like I have a target on my back, but it’s not because of my music. Because I haven’t done music for eight months, and people still try to attack me,” she says. “I feel like people are attacking me because they want me to feel the pressure of bullying, and they want me to give up, and they want me to say, ‘Oh, I quit music’ or ‘I’ll delete my Instagram, delete my Twitter,’ and I’m not willing to do that. No one will ever have that much power [over] me.” One has to wonder, given her recent musings, if her new album will be her Lemonade—a pointedly political body of work that infuses her notoriously bombastic lyrics with feminist and social justice mantras. “My music is always going to make a woman feel like a bad bitch. When you make a woman feel like she’s the baddest bitch in the room, to me, that’s female empowerment,” she explains. “But this album is going to be really different. Of course, it’s going to have my Lemonade moments, my personal relationship moments.”
The separation of church and state within her artistry is crystal clear once the rattling bass of Cardi’s newest song, “WAP” (read: Wet Ass Pussy), springs forth. Sampling Frank Ski’s “Whores in This House,” it’s a jaw-dropping take on the classic that finds Cardi paying homage to the power between her thighs. Brimming with clever innuendos, swag, and BDE (Big Dick Energy), the rapper ticks off a list of sexual demands for her lover, from being tied up to erotic asphyxiation. Featuring Megan Thee Stallion, the Houston-based “cognac queen” raptress, the new track is a mash-up of chart-topping, sex-positive female rap powerhouses that is bound to start Instagram dance challenges, as well as chatter around Cardi’s musicology and the state of female rap.
Other tracks that talk about love and her relationship with her husband, Offset, of rap supergroup Migos, will also prove controversial. Audibly emotional, she says, “I don’t really like talking about love much, but I feel like I have to do it, just because I want people to know a little bit. There’s always rumors about me and my husband, and I feel like people would rather start rumors because they want me to be heartbroken. They want me to be hurt.” A woman’s man, she reasons, is her weakness, leaving her vulnerable to both her enemies within the music business and her truest feelings. She may not blink an eye at bleaching her body hair on camera, but Cardi clams up when discussing her inner emotional world. And she has good reason: Her marriage has made excellent tabloid fodder, with reports of cheating hounding the hip-hop power couple ever since they said “I do” in a 2017 secret ceremony. Whispers allegedly came to a roar with a 2018 dustup at a Queens, New York, strip club between Cardi and two bartending sisters, one of whom the rapper reportedly accused of cheating with her husband; Cardi has been tied up in a legal brouhaha ever since. She has been charged with assault and has pleaded not guilty; the case is pending in Queens Supreme Court. The couple’s subsequent breakup played out across social media and the news. Offset wanted her back, Cardi was unfazed, and her rapper husband issued a public mea culpa by surprising her onstage during her Rolling Loud festival performance in the winter of 2018. The public was outraged by the grand gesture, describing his stunt as “toxic masculinity” at its finest: Offset crashing a major moment in his estranged wife’s ascending career to redeem himself.
But Cardi took him back, and the couple’s effusive displays of love never seem to stop—nor do people’s judgments. “I do know that my relationship has a lot of drama and everything. But there’s a lot of love there’s a lot of passion, there’s a lot of trust, there’s a big friendship. It’s always us against the world.” Rather than continuing to defend her love online, she has saved it for her album, which she says will include a track with Offset. “If you all are so curious to know about my relationship and blah, blah, blah, I’m going to put it in the fuckin’ music, and you can buy it, too,” she says. “I’m not going to give it to you all for free.”
There is much riding on the success of this second album—a project that has stalled for months given COVID and the rapper’s need to simply sit with the work. “People haven’t seen a music video from me for like eight months, so they’re expecting greatness,” Cardi says. “And I have to deliver.” The lackluster response to her last single, 2019’s “Press,” rattled her, and she didn’t want to put out another video if the creativity had to be hindered due to quarantine. “I didn’t really like how my last song performed, so I just got my creativity back,” she confesses. “I don’t want to just put out a single and have people buy it because I’m Cardi. I want to put out really good music.” Referencing Rihanna and Bruno Mars, the rapper explains she finds the value in not rushing the creative process, and tries to ignore the chatter that her spark has fizzled after just three years. Then there’s the matter that she’s also reentering music at a time when female rappers are making history by topping the Billboard Hot 100. Doja Cat’s “Say So” remix featuring Nicki Minaj shot straight to the top of the charts in May, while Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage (Remix)” featuring Beyoncé quickly followed at number two. Does that inspire a healthy sense of competition in her—or worry that she may not be able to follow suit?
Referencing and applying the lessons she learned from the competitive world of stripping, she says she’s never been one to compare herself with other artists. “I bring something different. I am me, and that’s how I’ve been since the club,” she says. “I know when I get on the stage, I don’t give a fuck if the next bitch, or the bitch before me, was better than me. I know I’m going to get my coins. I know I’m bad because I’m different. I do different moves. I got a different bod. So, when these women are teasing everything, it’s expected. Don’t think that you’re going to have all the money in the strip club. Don’t think that every man is going to only give you the money. So don’t expect you to be the only one who’s going to hold number one on the Billboard [charts]. You’ve got to be confident in your own craft.”
Despite her self-awareness, with the world in flux due to the coronavirus and continued social isolation, the path for her next album is uncertain. She’s dying to do a tour, but, she wonders, when will the assembly of large crowds be a possibility? Cardi’s not quitting, though, that much is for sure. “Ain’t no way that I’m going to quit. I don’t give a fuck if the whole world picks on me. I don’t give a fuck if people make up lies about me every single day. I want to make it really clear that nobody can ever make me quit.” Come at her all you want, Cardi refuses to be canceled.
Fashion direction by Alex White; Hair by Tokyo Stylez; Makeup by Erika La’Pearl; Manicure by Jenny Bui; Set design by Mary Howard and Kyle Hagemeier at MHS Artists; Produced by Travis Kiewel and Roberto Javier Sosa for That One Production.
This story appears in the September 2020 issue.
Cardi B Breaks Houston Rodeo Attendance Record, Cites Selena Quintanilla as Inspiration
Cardi B recently broke the attendance a record at the Houston Rodeo, and she’s thanking the late Selena Quintanilla for giving her courage to make it happen.
Wearing a pink and blue sequence cowgirl outfit, the “Please Me” rapper performed at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo at NRG Stadium Friday (March 1), breaking an attendance record once held by Garth Brooks. Cardi’s performance drew a record 75,580 fans — only three more concert-goers than Brooks’ previous record.
On Saturday, Cardi posted a video on Instagram from backstage at the rodeo, where she credited the success of her performance to the late Queen of Tejano.
“I was so nervous to perform in front of 70,000-plus people, but when i saw this picture, like, out of all the outfits that she wore, for me to see this picture with this outfit — this was the inspiration for ‘Please Me’ — I knew I was going to be alright,” the rapper said, pointing to a photo of Quintanilla hanging on the wall.
Cardi concluded the IG clip by shouting out her love Quintanilla before singing and dancing along to the singer’s hit song “Como La Flor.”
Cardi’s record-setting Houston Rodeo performance coincided with the release of “Please Me” music video with Bruno Mars, where she and the crooner meet up at an after-hours taco spot in Los Angeles.
In the “Please Me” video, Cardi is wearing a revealing black and purple outfit resembling the one Quintanilla donned during her iconic performance at the Memorial Coliseum in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1993.
Cardi B Explains the Midterm Election Results and the Best Jeans for Your Ass
“I could buy designer, but this Fashion Nova fit.”
Cardi B is telling me about her new collaboration with Fashion Nova, but the phrase she uses most often during our interview is: “Get away from the baby!” It’s hard to explain exactly how that relates to the rapper’s new collection with the urban fast-fashion brand, but here goes. Cardi is working hard for us. “The audience, the general public, they don’t hush, they don’t sleep, they always want to see something,” she says. So Cardi doesn’t sleep either. She’s a new mom, she’s released or appeared on two song-of-next-summer worthy singles in the last month, and, as of midnight on November 15, she’s releasing a collection of clothing for “bitches with ass like me,” says Cardi.
So while we talk, Cardi is multitasking. She’s watching her nieces, nephews, and four-month-old baby Kulture Kiari Cephus. It’s 3 p.m. and she explains in between bites that she hasn’t eaten since 7. “I’m sorry,” she says, “I’m so fucking hungry.” Even over the phone, I can see the woman who’s charmed the pants off late-night hosts, has ascended to superstardom in the span of a couple years, and who Frank Ocean recently called a “symbol of women all around.” She makes a point to apologize and explains the disturbances as her “germy” nieces and nephews try to get close to her baby before barreling back into the answer she was giving to a question.
Cardi sees her debut Fashion Nova collection as an opportunity to represent women of color in fashion. “I feel like a lot a high-end clothing companies, they don’t cater to women like me,” she says. It’s also expected to sell out in minutes. But that’s not the only reason for Cardi to celebrate. She’s also celebrating that the Democrats took back the house in last week’s midterm elections. “Now we taking over, baby, you already know what’s good!”
So much is good when you talk to Cardi B. Below, you’ll find out why budgeting for taxes is the key to staying rich, come to terms with lackadaisical Obama-era Democratic voters, and find the perfect jean jacket, leather jacket, snakeskin jacket, and suiting that’s Belcalis Almanzar-approved.
Cardi B Gets Candid
Even if you’re among Cardi B’s 34 million Instagram followers, and have tuned in daily for your fix of her raucous, unfiltered videos on social media, you might want to pause for a second to consider the number of life-changing events she’s cycled through in the year or so since becoming hip-hop’s breakout female star. It was “Bodak Yellow,” the single she released in June 2017, that, within three months, made Cardi the first solo female rapper to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart since Lauryn Hill, in 1998. That same summer, Drake invited her onstage during his OVO Fest, in Toronto, and then in September, she married the rapper Offset, of Migos, whose own career was in overdrive. Pregnant with her first child by October, she threw herself into recording the songs and videos for her debut album, Invasion of Privacy. This past April, she launched the album and revealed her baby bump on Saturday Night Live; in July, she gave birth to her daughter, Kulture Kiari. Meanwhile, Invasion of Privacy topped the charts, and she and Drake tied for the most nominations at the 2018 American Music Awards. She has movie offers on tap and a 2019 tour in the works, and is a contender for the next Super Bowl halftime show. At 25, Cardi is not only the first female rapper in history with three Hot 100 No. 1 singles but she’s likely the first to juggle sudden global fame with a newborn.
“When I got pregnant, I was fucking freaking out,” Cardi, born Belcalis Almanzar, told me recently. “Everybody around me was like, ‘No, this never happened before. Every artist that had a baby, they already put in years in the game. This is your first year. You’re going to mess it up. How are you going to make it?’ ” She was sitting on a brown suede sofa in her grandparents’ modest walk-up apartment in the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, polishing off a salad that her abuelito, as she calls her grandfather, soon cleared from the wooden stool she was using as a table. Nestled against the velvet pillows, she tucked her bare feet under her and slid her ever-present phone beneath her thigh. “While I was pregnant, I kept telling myself, I can’t wait till I’m back out there. I’m going to look hot, and I’m going to be that bitch.”
In 2013, while working as a stripper, Cardi began posting funny, off-the-cuff monologues to social media that soon led to a spot on the VH1 reality series Love & Hip Hop. Her candor, then as now, is her secret weapon. She speaks her mind, in a thick New York Latina accent; on platforms known for their artifice, she comes across as hyper-authentic. Recently, demonstrating that her post-baby breasts had been lifted with tape for an event, she announced via Instagram that she would be getting them done, for the second time. “I’m not even going to call it surgery, I’m just going to say a ‘titty renovation,’ ” she declared. In both her songs and posts, Cardi rolls out several facets of herself. In some, she’s the snarling vixen, taking to task her naysayers and the truant men in her life; in others, she’s every woman’s ballsy BFF, dispensing tips on how to game the system and make money moves.
On this rainy September afternoon, however, that brash, braggadocious Cardi was on a break, while new mama Belcalis was in the bosom of her family. In a few hours, she would head into the studio to work on “Money,” the single she was struggling to finish, and, in two days, she would fly to Milan Fashion Week, where she’d sit front row at Dolce & Gabbana in head-to-toe animal print and matching furry sunglasses. (Cardi’s stylistic interests run the gamut: In November, she’s releasing the first of several modestly priced clothing lines for Fashion Nova.)
But today, Cardi’s face was makeup free, and her short tousled black wig a touch askew. She was dressed in a striped T-shirt halter dress and appeared delicate and tinier than her enhanced Jessica Rabbit–like curves might suggest. Save for occasional gurgling sounds and the car seat leaning against a wall, there was little sign of Kulture; a diaphanous curtain divided the public space from the bedroom where Cardi’s grandmother was minding the baby. While Cardi and Offset have teased the appearance of their daughter in videos showing them FaceTiming with her from a club or whispering to her in bed, their own pictures of the tot had yet to surface. Still, she was very much the topic of conversation. “Four weeks after giving birth, I was supposed to start rehearsals for a fall tour with Bruno Mars, and I couldn’t even squat down,” Cardi said, explaining why she decided to drop out. “People don’t really talk about what you go through after pregnancy. Like, they don’t tell you that you get stitches down there or that your first two weeks you’re constipated. Or that you get contractions because of breastfeeding. I wasn’t expecting that. When Kulture was born, I felt like I was a kid again; everything was making me cry, and I needed a lot of love. I be feeling like, Do babies know who’s they mom? I feel like babies love whoever is giving them the milk, and I want to give the milk the whole time. I want her to know me.” She paused to let this sink in. “I feel better now, but sometimes I just feel so vulnerable, like I’m not ready for the world yet. It’s weird.”
She and Offset plan to raise Kulture in Atlanta, his home base, where he has a house and they keep their matching Lamborghinis, plus Cardi’s new Lamborghini SUV, though the New York City girl that she is, Cardi has never learned to drive. “When I got married with my dude, we still had a lot of doubts, because our relationship is not like everybody’s,” she said. “He was always traveling, and I was always traveling. We’re artists. So I used to see him, like, twice a week, and, you know, he’s known for having different women, and I’m known for, like, not taking shit from guys. But we really loved each other, and we was scared to lose each other.” As she tells it, they had talked about marriage, and one day, in the middle of an argument, she suggested they go ahead and do it. “And he’s like, ‘You’re playing around.’ And I said, ‘I’m for real.’ ” So they got the license and had a secret ceremony in Offset’s bedroom, dressed in sweatsuits. And yet, without a ring, it didn’t feel real, she recalled, and anyhow, it had been her dream “for a guy to get on his knees and ask me to marry him. And he was just like, ‘I will never get on my knees. Fuck outta here.’ ” But he did, surprising her onstage during a concert in Philadelphia a few weeks later, with the eight-carat teardrop diamond that now adorns a hand bedecked in rhinestone-encrusted nail extensions.
The baby wasn’t planned, and Cardi asked Offset what she should do. “You think my career’s going to be over?” she wanted to know. “And he kept saying, ‘I don’t know how you don’t see it, but you so hot right now, nothing could get in your way. You just have to work hard and put out a poppin’ album. I think you should keep the baby.’ ” Offset has had three other children with three different women, and, as Cardi is the first to tell you, Internet trolls are hungry to feed her worries with rumors of his infidelity. “Every single day there’s rumors about me and my dude. And it almost drives me crazy, because I start to believe them. I don’t have no proof. I don’t have receipts. But I just got to know my man. We practically on the phone 24 hours a day. If I can’t find him, I’m going to find his friend. Somebody going to answer the phone. But I cannot be feeling insecure, to a point that I would drive my dude away, because these people want that to happen.”
On the subject of social media, she’s received seasoned advice from none other than Kris Jenner. Though Cardi is naturally shy and prefers the familiarity of old friends and family members, she accepted Jenner’s invitation to come over one night in August. “I said I’d go there for an hour,” she recalled. She stayed for seven, finding it easy to talk to Jenner, her boyfriend, Corey Gamble, and Kim and Kanye West. “Kris told me, ‘People are going to talk badly about you, but it doesn’t really matter as long as you’re making money,’ ” Cardi recounted. “And it’s true. If you read the online comments, it seems like everybody hates the Kardashians. Each and every one of them. But how can that be true if everything they sell sells out?”
I asked if she feared losing street cred once she became a mother. “You don’t lose street cred,” she said, “but people want an illusion that female artists are available. They fantasize less when they know they actually somebody’s wife. And then imagine having a baby.” Cardi, however, continues to be outspoken about her sexuality. On her anniversary, in September, she complained on camera about not getting any action (though not in those words) as the shot panned to Offset asleep on the bed. A week later, she captioned another Instagram post, of her performance at the French lingerie brand Etam’s runway show in Paris: “Your lingerie collection was sooo sexy i wanna fuck my man in all the pieces!” And yet, according to Cardi, she’s begun censoring herself in ways she’d never considered before. “I can’t rap about certain things, because I don’t want to insult my husband. And when I want to do a music video, I can’t use a male model and do crazy things.” The same goes for Offset, though: “He knows better than to do certain things in music videos. I’ll beat his ass.”
That’s likely not just bluster, as Nicki Minaj learned during their now-infamous New York Fashion Week dustup at a party—just nine days after Cardi’s scrap in a Queens strip club with two sister bartenders, one of whom may or may not have had an affair with Offset. “The shoe heard around the world” is how one celebrity site dubbed the Minaj episode after Cardi threw her platform sandal at the fellow rapper, following a shoving match that left her with a noticeable bump on her forehead. The Internet exploded. Fashion insiders tsk-tsked; a few designers privately distanced themselves. Women lamented that females were still being pitted against each other. Meanwhile, Cardi’s fans, the #BardiGang, went to battle with Minaj’s, and each rapper took to her own social media channels to make her case. Their beef will no doubt have new chapters by the time you’re reading this, but the encounter was not even two weeks old when I broached it with Cardi. “For a while now she’s been taking a lot of shots at me,” she said of Minaj, jiggling her leg. “I spoke to her twice before, and we came to an understanding. But she kept it going.” Her breaking point came when she saw that Minaj had liked, and then unliked, a tweet disparaging Cardi’s mothering skills, something Minaj has denied. “I was going to make millions off my Bruno Mars tour, and I sacrificed that to stay with my daughter,” Cardi went on. “I love my daughter. I’m a good-ass fucking mom. So for somebody that don’t have a child to like that comment? So many people want to say that party wasn’t the time or the place, but I’m not going to catch another artist in the grocery store or down the block.”
We were interrupted by the sounds of Kulture fussing before she entered the room in the arms of Cardi’s grandmother. Spying Mama, Kulture wriggled and kicked her squishy legs, and smiled as Cardi planted slurpy kisses on her lips. “She just want milk!” Cardi exclaimed. “Let me tell you. It’s like, whenever she wants, she has to get it.” Soon her grandfather joined the scene, and Cardi wrapped herself in a fuzzy baby blanket. Since Migos has been on tour with Drake, she prefers to spend time at her grandparents’ home, surrounded by doting relatives. “My baby. That’s all I give a fuck about right now,” she continued. “I’m thinking about how my money’s going to last so this girl is 21 and put in college. I’m thinking about investments. I’m thinking about five years from now and about the craziest shit like, How am I going to discipline this girl?” She pulled up the nursery music video “Baby Shark” on her phone and handed it to her grandmother. “See, that’s why I like to be here, instead of out there by myself in Atlanta. Because it’s everybody around her.”
Cardi remains close to both of her parents and to her sister, Hennessy, a burgeoning influencer. (Cardi’s name comes from her nickname, Bacardi.) She was born in the Bronx, to a Dominican dad who drove a cab and a Trinidadian mother who worked as a cashier. In middle school, when everyone else was into Pepe Jeans and Rocawear, Cardi wore lots of hot pink and furry jackets, just like the title character in the Disney Channel show she loved, That’s So Raven. Her mother was strict, forbidding Cardi from sleepovers at friends’ houses, so Cardi rebelled, skipping afternoon classes to party. She also joined the Bloods. “My mom tried to stop me from all of that,” she recalled, “but I still did it. I joined a gang. If she had let me out as often as I wanted to, I probably would be dead or got my face cut up. Or been a teenage mom.” She plans to follow her mother’s example with Kulture. “Really, no sleepovers?” I asked her. “I’m going to be very strict,” she insisted. “Like, you can have whatever you want, but you can’t do whatever you want.”
By 19, Cardi was living with a boyfriend and enrolled at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. She took courses in political science and history, subjects she still keeps up with by watching the news and documentaries. “For some reason, I’m really fascinated with the Holocaust. People were so naive back then to believe certain things. But then, we in 2018, and there’s people that believe that our problems come from a certain group of people. It just baffles my mind.” To pay for school, she worked as a cashier at Amish Market in TriBeCa; her manager advised her that she could earn much more stripping at the New York Dolls Gentlemen’s Club across the street. She taught herself pole tricks by practicing in empty uptown subway cars on her way home from work at 4 a.m. At first, she recalled, she would cry with shame whenever the faces of her parents would “pop up in my head, watching me when I danced.” But the money freed her to get her own apartment and ditch the boyfriend, who she has said was abusive. Soon, she was remaking herself. Noticing that Russian girls with fake boobs drew the most customers, she augmented her own; ditto her butt, after she switched to a club favoring women with “huge, humongous asses,” the likes of which she’d never seen, and learned that the new boyfriend she was in love with had cheated on her with a woman who was similarly enhanced.
At the same time, Cardi started developing a fan base on Instagram that, in 2015, she leveraged into a scene-stealing Season 6 on Love & Hip Hop as the bawdy comic relief. Singing had always been a passion, since her days at the Renaissance High School for Musical Theater & Technology, in the Bronx, but she had never had the means to pursue it. “I was just, like, over my dreams,” she said. “To me, it’s all about money. I gave it a try when I could afford it.” She’d released one of two mixtapes, Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 1, before she signed to Atlantic Records in October 2016. Then came “Bodak Yellow,” followed by Invasion of Privacy. In her fifth month of pregnancy, Cardi was in the studio every single day, fighting off intense bouts of drowsiness. “She was a ferocious worker, unreal,” recalls Craig Kallman, the chairman and CEO of Atlantic Records. “I think she wanted to show women around the world that you can have it all. And I think she’s showing that.”
Over the album’s 13 tracks, with guest appearances by the likes of Migos, Chance the Rapper, and SZA, Cardi flaunted her range, from urgent street hip-hop to vulnerable ballads to swaggering Latin pop. Pitchfork called her “a born star who’s grown accustomed to being told to dim her light for the sake of others. Each new triumph rejects such a ridiculous premise, and each naysayer has seemingly only granted her more power.” On the opener, “Get Up 10,” she raps, “Look, they gave a bitch two options: strippin’ or lose/Used to dance in a club right across from my school/I said ‘dance’ not ‘fuck,’ don’t get it confused.” Going back to her roots, she collaborated with the Latin trap king Bad Bunny and the reggaeton star J Balvin on “I Like It,” an update of Pete Rodriguez’s 1967 hit song, which quickly became a beach-party anthem. “What is magical about Cardi B is her dexterity and her temerity to push the boundaries of how you perceive a hip-hop artist,” Kallman told me. “She is from the streets, and she’s going to continue to make great street records for her core fans. But at the same time, she can rock at the top of the pop field with the best of them.” To wit: her pulsing verses on Maroon 5’s chart-topping single “Girls Like You,” and her recent collaboration with Selena Gomez, Ozuna, and DJ Snake on “Taki Taki.”
“I have to take a shit!” In a former mansion on the Upper East Side, Cardi, standing in a bathrobe, was getting ready for her W shoot. At this, the room cracked up. She had come straight to the set from Philadelphia, where, the night before, she and Kulture had gone to visit Offset on tour. Cardi was being photographed by the artist Mickalene Thomas, channeling Latina glamour queens of a bygone Hollywood era such as Maria Montez, Chelo Alonso, and Rita Moreno. Like Cardi, said Thomas, “They were all powerful women who claimed a space for themselves, in an industry that wasn’t exactly inclusionary.” In photographs, collage-based paintings, and domestic interiors, Thomas has drawn on art history and popular culture to explore black female sexuality and power. She wanted to reveal Cardi in an unexpected way. “On many levels, she portrays herself through a male gaze,” said Thomas, whose first major solo museum show in Canada opens November 29 at the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto. “I wanted to see if she could transform herself and go beyond the prescribed notion that’s expected within an industry that wants to only perceive and present you as one dimensional.” Cardi, as it turned out, was surprised to realize that she had never been shot by a black photographer.
Nearly two weeks later, Cardi had her first public solo concert since giving birth, for an audience of 60,000 in Central Park. The occasion was the Global Citizen Festival, a musical event aimed at ending world poverty, and Cardi was brimming with energy from the moment she exploded onto the stage. Dressed in a red bra and red fringed pants, with long blonde tresses that fell to her knees, she twerked and strutted confidently as she ran through several of her hits. She was nervous, she admitted, and out of breath because it was asthma season. “That was a lot of energy—we need to tone this down, for my health,” she said in the middle of her set, dispensing with the teleprompter to give a short speech about active citizenship. While there had been numerous calls to action by the politicians and celebrities who had preceded her, Cardi stood out for the humor and spontaneity of her delivery. “I’ll keep it real. We Americans, we’re spoiled. We have the right to vote and nobody can take that right from us—unless you’re a criminal!” She ended with “Bodak Yellow,” but not before introducing a video message from one of her icons—former First Lady Michelle Obama. As I watched her jab her arm at the screen to focus attention on Obama, I couldn’t square the person I was seeing onstage with the Cardi who had told me, “I’m the person who has to prove everyone wrong, constantly. Constantly.” Clearly not for much longer.
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