How Cardi B Achieved Stardom as an Old-School Hitmaker for New-School Hip-Hop

Cardi B, 2017
Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

Cardi B arrives at the MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on Aug. 27, 2017 in Inglewood, Calif. 

Over the new jack swing beat of Bruno Mars’ “Finesse (Remix),” Cardi B brags a pinnacle truth of her fresh career: “Bossed up and I changed the game.” It's an accurate descriptor for someone whose debut single topped the Billboard Hot 100 -- a first for a solo female rapper since 1998 -- and now sits alongside two other hits with her name on them in the top 10 simultaneously, placing Cardi in an elite club.

The hip-hop underdog is now living the dream as the people’s champ. And \ she’s done it with an old-school spirit that satisfies today’s hunger for relevance and authenticity.  

To understand the traditional hip-hop dream -- and the career arc Cardi B now finds herself at the top of -- flash back to the Notorious B.I.G.’s 1994 single “Juicy.” That year had marked a pivotal turning point for commercial hip-hop, as the genre gained more clout for the uncensored lenses it placed on society, shape-shifting sonically with a fresh crop of predominantly East Coast talent. As the market began to slightly tire of the G-funk-swayed records of the West Coast, Sean “Puffy” Combs’ Bad Boy Records saw the opportunity for New York City to reclaim the hip-hop crown.

The label’s answer was B.I.G., an authentic, larger-than-life personality who had already built a reputation, from his drug-dealing past and Mafioso rapping talent in local neighborhoods and hip-hop radio. "Juicy" celebrated Biggie's transition from "a common thief to up close and personal with Robin Leach," almost becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy in the process, as the song became his first Hot 100 top 40 hit and established the Brooklyn rapper as one of the brightest (and most successful) young stars in hip-hop.  

Two decades later, a “regular, degular, shmegular girl from the Bronx" named Cardi B would provide her own rags-to-red-bottoms anthem, “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)." On her Grammy-nominated debut statement, Cardi makes it clear she no longer has to exotic dance or partake in reality TV stints; she can “pay [her] momma’s bills,” and red-bottom Louboutins and BAPE outfits are her closet’s norm.

Cardi’s historic journey to the top also comes at three pivotal points in hip-hop history. First, the genre became the most-consumed among Americans in 2017 -- thanks primarily to trap’s streaming stranglehold. Consequently, ongoing debates about the credibility of mumble rap and its new generation of viral stars have amplified to a new high. And in early 2017, Remy Ma’s explosive diss track “SHEther” spotlighted hip-hop’s failure to embrace more female MCs, while arguably calling Nicki Minaj's genre pre-eminence into question. Meanwhile, on the broader music spectrum, female artists dominating the upper rungs of the Hot 100 in 2017 seemed like a foreign concept in Trump’s America. 

During the unexpected (and meteoric) rise of "Bodak Yellow" up the charts -- and in the nation's hearts -- members of Cardi’s fan base, #BardiGang, expressed a sense of “we saw this coming.” Mass promotional text messages to her A1 affiliates -- who supported since her independent mixtape days with KSR Records -- helped that momentum. So did constant and joyful career updates on social media. Always forecasting her visions, the then-reality star featured the DJs of Power 105’s The Breakfast Club show -- the first to play her starter, 2015’s “Cheap Ass Weave” -- on the “Intro Skit” of her Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 1 mixtape. In the mock interview, she highlights “writing rhymes” since high school, falling in love with music, and “dreams of becoming a big star.”

Promoting her “two mixtapes in six months,” Cardi spelled out an everyperson hustler trajectory for her rapper persona, while also gaining radio loyalty and community support -- something that had a hand in the early success of earlier New York greats like JAY-Z. In today’s age of SoundCloud, YouTube and multiple streaming platforms, it’s easier for the music of the Lil Uzi Verts and Post Malones to gain an online presence first, before their creators step forth to truly introduce themselves and finish the job commercially. Instead, Cardi utilized radio and interviews more than those platforms to bring a tangible face and voice to the masses. 

Her breakout role in Love and Hip-Hop -- a reality soap that includes a quasi-X Factor sensibility of breaking the aspiring, to millions of viewers -- also contributed to the bubbling success of Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 1 & 2. In a total of 27 tracks, Cardi tells her personal tale of an autonomous “stripper hoe” all about chasing paper and her industry dreams. Cardi’s hilarious skits and rambunctious punchlines about fighting, tricking out suitors, and the consequences of newfound fame added to her already raw street cred.

On the flip side, signature cuts “Foreva,” “Washpoppin” and “Lick” referenced her must-watch catchphrases -- bringing more viewers to VH1, and more listeners to her music. This pay-off exchange for soundtracking primetime TV is very reminiscent of the essential relationships new rappers of the '90s had with introducing their music, and artistic brand, on hip-hop-geared programs such as Yo! MTV Raps. But eventually, Cardi made her wisest career decision: signing to Atlantic, and leaving Love and Hip-Hop -- and its ultimately poor track record of sustaining long musical careers -- behind. 

Before (and during) the release of "Bodak," the rapper jumpstarted a grassroots campaign, touring with The LOX and appearing in clubs all over the nation, including smaller towns. The momentum she carried was again of an older kind, one where fans flocked to see the flamboyant rapper from VH1, DJ Vlad interviews, and (now) social media. This would all be magnified by the electrifying roars of New Jersey's MetLife Stadium -- five days before “Bodak Yellow” was released -- as Cardi B stormed out to perform “Foreva” in the middle of Remy Ma’s Queens of Hip-Hop set at Hot 97’s Summer Jam. For most newcomers, it’s great press to be asked to perform at one of hip-hop’s grandest festivals right before your commercial debut. For Cardi, it was more significant to stand among the respected originators she grew up on, as they anointed her the future of hip-hop, with the audience providing a gleeful co-sign.

While sipping champagne and declaring “If [your song is] not on the Billboards, then it really don’t matter” at her Atlantic Records celebration party for the chart triumph of "Bodak," Cardi faced one-hit wonder hypotheticals. Listeners in the hip-hop community, unfamiliar with her previous work, also questioned her ability to keep up with the game. Rather than using the common technique of quickly dropping more projects and freestyles to convince otherwise, Cardi waited and let the hype grow, teasing the public with her insecurities, just to set up future knockouts. 

As “Bodak” was hovering in the top five region of the Hot 100, G-Eazy released his The Beautiful & Damned lead single “No Limit,” featuring Cardi B and A$AP Rocky. Cardi’s hyperactive verse -- which would go on to be enhanced by a video remix featuring French Montana, Belly and the song's hook originator Juicy J -- recalled Lil’ Kim’s show-stealing moment on “Get Money,” the 1995 breakout hit for Biggie-featuring supergroup Junior M.A.F.I.A. In many ways -- with her stacks of magazine covers, front-row tickets, fashion influencing and endorsements, controversy courting and vivacious personality -- Cardi B follows in the footsteps of the Queen Bee, a credited blueprint for today’s female hip-hop stars and their feminist hypersexuality.

Through “No Limit,” a song that repeats “f--- with me and get some money” ad nauseam, the rapper furthers her agenda while hanging with the fellas. Tapping into her Gangsta Bitch days and altering the hook, Cardi spits “f--- him, then I get some money,” before explaining her oral sex needs and commanding, “concentrate.” This resembles Lil’ Kim’s -- and a legion of other female MCs’ -- mission to regain control of their pleasures and flip the script on the men who usually dominate the field. Cardi then salutes her chart presence and clarifies, “My career taking off, these hoes jogging in place.” 

Her next challenge would be conquered in follow-up single “Motorsport.” Rumors continue to run rampant about a speculated feud between Nicki Minaj and Cardi B, despite joint denials. However, for the sake of hip-hop as a sport, their defining features on MigosCulture II lead single meant a David versus Goliath scenario -- one that could easily be tabloid fodder if any party lost their decorum. It also meant more pressure for Cardi to avoid replicating or being “sonned” by the rapper who lyrically notarized the term in the public consciousness. Although it’s debatable who had the better verse, Cardi at least proved -- in a very short amount of time -- she could hold her own against a reigning queen who addresses herself as “Iron Mike in a bout.” 

Constantly pressed about alleged drama behind the scenes of the collab, Cardi B humbly walked away from any negative implications, instead promoting the song’s bigger picture. This business-savvy move showed that even if there was any drama going on, she understood the significance of not maligning the possible positive reinforcement of female unity in hip-hop. It also highlighted, for the first time in a very long time, that two of the best female rappers in the game could co-exist on a hit without being pitted against each other personally -- hopefully setting an example for the future. 

At this stage, Cardi transformed into a witty pop culture wordsmith who engages the public’s taste and interests. The rapstress has been abundantly clear that hip-hop influences society -- a commandment any true artist follows. As '90s babies stumble into adulthood, the entertainment industry has seen a pronounced surge in that decade’s nostalgia. Cardi exemplified this aesthetically in the “Motorsport” music video, wearing a diamond necklace of Buttercup from The Powerpuff Girls and an haute-couture BMX jumpsuit channeling the combative energy of Kim Possible villain Shego. Lyrically, she referenced what the media is hungry for: her engagement to Offset and “the beef.”

The most telling (and endorsed) line of “Motorsport” is “I’m the trap Selena” -- a small attention to detail on Cardi’s hitmaking success and Hispanic heritage. Having grown up in the Bronx under her real name Belcalis Almanzar, Cardi B identifies as a proud Afro-Latina of Dominican and Trinidadian descents. Along with most Americans living in the '90s, one of the market’s first Hispanic icons she would grow up witnessing was Tejano music legend Selena. Like the “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” singer, Cardi has been unapologetic about her heritage -- even using it to make a sonic change in the pop industry. The hip-hop market had not only been lacking mainstream support for female MCs; those voices had subsequently been absent in the trap circuit. Meanwhile, the idea of successful Afro-Latina rappers was even more underheard of. Rounded out by her "Bodak" flip of Kodak Black’s oft-mumbling “No Flockin” flow, and a breathy wordplay of sazón seasoning in “No Limit,” Cardi B organically grew into the musical Trap Queen she sought to be.

Fitting this role, Cardi’s drive meant eventually catering to the thriving and visibly present Latin music scene. Singing and rapping in Spanglish on Ozuna collab “La Modelo," the rapper genuinely flexed her Dominican and Trinidadian roots, while also displaying more range in her artistry. The reggaeton track -- which debuted at No. 52 on the Hot 100 and No. 3 on the Hot Latin Songs chart -- underscored Cardi’s ear for what’s hot on the streets of the Bronx and her family’s current Washington Heights residence, while also reflecting her newfound worldly outlook. The rapper had been a fan of Ozuna’s previous work -- but while she and the rest of her Hispanic community were familiar with the Puerto Rican’s talents, American top 40 wasn’t. 2017 saw a sweltering amount of A-listers hopping on Spanglish remixes and collabs, but none truly captured the culture’s essence from all involved parties quite like “La Modelo,” which helped Ozuna capture his biggest crossover hit to date.

Today’s age of hip-hop sometimes gives the impression that a rapper must continually be dropping singles and features to stay relevant, even in the midst of their dominance. Cardi B’s more slow-burning approach places her in boss mode over her career’s destiny and development, her listeners forced to follow along. She's previously acknowledged studying her influential collaborators, as a means to expand her own arsenal -- a tactic used by the greats throughout rap history. Her heavily anticipated second single as a lead artist, “Bartier Cardi,” adopted the style of 21 Savage’s menacing trap with her own sensibility. Dropped during the last holiday week-end of 2017 and right in time for New Year’s celebrations, the track honed in on Cardi’s knack for party starting. This would aid the song’s No. 14 debut on the Hot 100 -- with subsequent criticisms about its rhyme scheme just making for an added promotional bonus. 

;Cardi’s starring moment in "Finesse," her latest single, draws attention to how the MC eased her way into the company of pop royalty -- even receiving their daily shout-outs and good graces. Bruno Mars is one of today’s leading pop stars, as well as an integral player in some of this generation’s biggest R&B and hip-hop hits. His pending album of the year contender at the Grammys, 24K Magic, takes a trip down R&B’s memory lane, and "Finesse,” in particular, pays homage to the new jack swing era -- a time of feel-good party songs and flashy fashion that helped fuel black and minority empowerment. These “jamz” were the result of record label networking, as the flyest R&B artists co-signed the hottest rappers in the game through remixes. New jack swing would also be the musical backbone for black media in the early '90s, none more important than the gangsta flick New Jack City and the primetime comedy In Living Color

Who from the newer generations of hip-hop would be up for paying homage to that era alongside Bruno Mars? While the answer could be other iconic figures -- Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Nicki Minaj, even Kodak -- it’s ultimately Belcalis Almanzar, the “regular, degular, shmegular girl from the Bronx,” a spunky natural for the camera she always dreamed of being in front of. As a product of '90s hip-hop and its code of hustling, Cardi B embodies how the OGs branded themselves to get into the spotlight, and that once they were in the industry, they remained true to their origins and influenced the entire soundscape. As long as she keeps all this intact for the future, the streets of hip-hop will continue to support her, while 2018 pop will be an exponentially more fun place for her presence. 


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