Cardi B photographed on Nov. 7, 2017 at Carondelet House in Los Angeles. Styling by Kollin Carter. Cardi wears a Dsquared2 dress and Christian Louboutin shoes. 
Cardi B photographed on Nov. 7, 2017 at Carondelet House in Los Angeles. Styling by Kollin Carter. Cardi wears a Dsquared2 dress and Christian Louboutin shoes. 
Ramona Rosales 

2017 No. 1s: Cardi B on Her Rise to Hot 100 History

“BODAK YELLOW (MONEY MOVES)”
Billboard Hot 100 (three weeks), Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs (six weeks), R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay (10 weeks), Streaming Songs (two weeks)

Cardi B should be on top of the world. If her Instagram account, TV appearances and recent magazine profiles are to be believed, she should literally be on top of a pile of money on top of a table on top of a neon bearskin rug. It has been just over a month since her surprise hit, “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves),” gave up its three-week reign atop the Billboard Hot 100, and in that time she has turned 25; played the Barclays Center arena (twice) alongside rap’s biggest stars; taken home five BET awards, including best new hip-hop artist and Hustler of the Year; killed a verse alongside Nicki Minaj on Migos’ “MotorSport” (which cracked the top 10 on the Hot 100); and gotten engaged to Migos’ Offset, who gave her a $550,000 ring with an enormous custom-cut raindrop diamond. (A few weeks after this interview, she’ll also pick up two Grammy nods -- best rap performance and best rap song -- for “Bodak Yellow.”)

So when I find Cardi in a quiet, book- and brick-lined nook at Los Angeles’ Carondolet House -- an Italian villa-turned-events venue where she has been posing for photos all day -- I’m surprised to see that she looks, well, miserable. When I ask her how she’s doing, Cardi looks up from the sandwich she has been poking at and squints until I come into focus.

“Oh, terrible,” she says, her expressive face gone hangdog. “I have such a bad headache. Oh, my God. It’s pounding.”

For all of her social-media antics and quotable crudity, Cardi B is not a cartoon. She’s just really real. And whatever stress-induced, wages-of-fame pain she’s suffering from at the moment, Cardi’s eager to say how happy she is to be here and enthusiastically answers my questions (in between, that is, long pauses to knead her temples). She says topping the Hot 100 was “like winning the lottery.” She claims the strip club-themed surprise party her label Atlantic threw her was “more special than my birthday.” She’s so humbled by the fact that airport employees have been congratulating her that she mentions it twice. “And it’s not like a congratulation everybody has had,” adds Cardi. “Like, ‘Oh, you had a baby,’ or, ‘you graduated.’ It’s No. 1 in Billboard.”

The first solo female MC to top the chart since Lauryn Hill did with “Doo Wop (That Thing)” in 1998, Cardi is also quick to praise her predecessor: “Lauryn Hill is like a goddess. For me to be in the same sentence with her, and one day a new female rapper to be in the same sentence with me...” She throws her hands up and slaps them down on her chartreuse tuxedo dress. She’s also proud of “Bodak” unseating Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” though she flatters Swift as she expresses the sentiment. “I really like that song, but it do make me feel good because Taylor Swift is freaking Taylor Swift -- [being on top] is what she’s known for, and it felt like I was doing it for the culture.” (Swift, for her part, sent flowers to her conqueror.)

“Cardi is the people’s champion,” says Atlantic president of black music Michael Kyser. “She doesn't know how to play industry games -- she’s six months removed from the Bronx projects.”

Actually, Cardi has rented a condo in suburban Edgewater, N.J., for about the last two years. But she arrived there after a boot-strappy rise from those Bronx projects, parlaying a lucrative stripping career into social media fame, then reality-TV stardom, then club appearances where she could kick back with her clothes on and make far more than she did disrobing. (Hence the “Bodak” hook: “I don’t got to dance, I make money moves.”)

Cardi had trouble getting artists, DJs and labels to take her seriously as an MC when she left VH1’s Love & Hip Hop: New York at the end of 2016, but Atlantic’s executives were surprised, and thrilled, to learn her onscreen persona wasn't a front. “When I met her,” recalls Atlantic chairman/COO Julie Greenwald, “she was the same person you saw on social media and TV. There was no sugarcoating or ‘I’m taking a major meeting, let me become someone else.’ She walked in as Cardi B, completely in control of her own destiny, a definitive boss. As a woman who is also a boss of a big company, I was so impressed by her.”

Cardi’s gift of gab, combined with her Bronx accent, propelled her lingo into the meme mythosphere. (At one point during our interview, she seems to channel Popeye, drawling, “I yam who I yam; I’m not somebody, like, standard.”) But to paraphrase a Jezebel recap of Love & Hip Hop, she seemed real in not one, but two worlds -- social media and reality TV -- that are so often blatantly fabricated.

Even in a banner year for authenticity in hip-hop -- with rappers from Lil Uzi Vert to LogicJAY-Z and Kendrick Lamar speaking their individual truths -- Cardi B stands out. She’s a striver, diligently applying herself to get ahead, and giving herself full credit for it. “This is my work ethic: I do not want to raise my future kids where I was raised, and I know the only way to do it is working, working, working, working, working,” says Cardi. “I don’t want to live in a small Bronx apartment. I don’t want to have three kids that got to share one room. I don’t want my kids to go to school and get gang-affiliated. I don’t want to do welfare. I don’t.”

That’s a sentiment any proud 9-to-5-er can identify with, and “Bodak Yellow” gives it a glamorous sheen -- which is why, apart from it being a bona fide banger, it became so much more than just a novelty song. Cardi, who is of Dominican and Trinidadian descent, says she has never been a “YOLO person,” and that making a better future for her eventual children motivated her even at 19, when balancing community college with full-time employment at an Amish Market deli became untenable and she started dancing. Being an entertainer wasn't new to her. She went to the Renaissance High School for Musical Theater & Technology, where she did talent shows and was cast in musicals, though she’d get dropped for neglecting her grades in favor of socializing -- which is when she would rap over popular songs for laughs from her peers.

These days, one of her favorite things to do is check the Billboard charts with her fiance. Offset climbed a few with Migos in 2017, of course, but also scored a Billboard 200 top five with his 21 Savage-Metro Boomin collaboration, Without Warning. Along with “Bodak,” Cardi’s G-Eazy/A$AP Rocky team-up, “No Limit,” hit No. 7 on the Hot 100. (She’ll also be competing with Offset for best rap performance at the Grammys -- Migos were nominated for “Bad and Boujee.”)

Despite being an inveterate New Yorker -- “I have 100 percent Bronx pride, like it’s a country, like I am the Bronx” -- Cardi thinks she and Offset will move to Atlanta, because “guys from down south don’t move here.” And, besides, they want a “big crazy” house. And despite having washed her hands of reality TV, she’d consider the potentially bountiful offers from various cable channels to show their wedding: “Why not? Money talks.”

As for her longtime plan to have a baby at 25, the age that she is now, that will have to wait. She’s too addicted to making hits. After watching “Despacito” dominate this year, she feels emboldened to pursue a sound inspired by her background: hard-boiled East Coast hip-hop mixed with Caribbean rhythms and Spanish lyrics. She has a collaboration coming, “La Modelo,” with Puerto Rican singer Ozuna, a Latin trap luminary.

In the meantime, she’s still adjusting to stardom. She’s shocked, she says, “when women come up to me like, ‘I am a freaking senator,’ or, ‘I’m a doctor.’ It’s like, ‘Damn, y’all like me? I look up to y’all!’” Giving it some more thought, she adds, “It’s not that people want to be like me, but some want to say the things I say and can’t, because they’re afraid. I say it for them.”

For example, her take on the fashionable destination city of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, where she filmed the “Bodak” video in May: “Shit. America right now is a mess, but you still got to love it due to certain freedoms they give us. It be so strict in other countries. I had to be covered up all the time and...” Her thigh-high boots creak as she leans forward. “Do you know you can’t watch porn in Dubai?” How do they control that? “I don’t know, but they do,” she says in a whisper, as if Dubai itself might be listening.

As her headache rears up, Cardi’s thoughts turn to the “bad energy” that comes with fame: “a lot of fake people, a lot of people throwing you hate, trying to discredit your work, a lot of men always talking shit, the drama, the pain, the tears, the sweat, the stress. It’s annoying. I suck it up. I cry sometimes. I get very upset.”

When that happens, she visits her grandmother’s Washington Heights apartment, where the woman has lived for 30 years. She comes from a family of “jokesters,” and her humor carries her through frustrating moments. Like this afternoon’s press obligations -- when a friend in her entourage catches Cardi using her long, sparkling fingernails to pop a zit on her forehead, she makes as if she’s dropping it in her mouth, just to gross her girl out. How do you sum up a woman like Cardi? She, at least, has a fittingly original coinage to describe her brand: “genuine-tivity.”

Read Lil Uzi Vert's cover story here

Read Lana Del Rey's cover story here

Read Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee's cover story here

Billboard Year in Music 2017

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 30 issue of Billboard.

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