Cardi B at five years old, posing hand-on-hip. Cardi courtside, bopping to “Bodak Yellow” with popcorn in hand. Cardi done up like a Disney princess on the Grammys red carpet, looking all kinds of confused opposite E! News’ Giuliana Rancic. Orange-haired Cardi, sitting on a couch, acrylic-tipped finger stabbing the air as she delivers a now-iconic line to 37.5 million Instagram followers: “How convenient is that?”
If any — or all — of these images conjure an instant mental image, consider this: In 2018, Cardi B didn’t just dominate the airwaves (with her debut album, Invasion of Privacy) or awards shows (she took home three AMAs, three VMAs and a BBMA); she also owned the internet, from memes to GIFs and everything in between.
According to GIF database GIPHY, a clip of Cardi B rolling off her signature “okurrrrr” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon late last year was the top GIF of 2018, with 378.5 million views and counting. She’s a similar star on Twitter, where she drops TMI tidbits about everything from pregnancy weight gain to flatulence and has recently been shouted-out by the likes of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Bernie Sanders. (According to Twitter, she’s the seventh-most-tweeted-about celebrity on the platform, just behind Ariana Grande.) Her likeness has also inspired some of the biggest memes of the year, like that sassy baby photo, which sparked a seemingly endless stream of captions over the summer.
Of course, Cardi’s bubbly charisma and unfiltered honesty make her a prime candidate to go viral — as she did when she told a fan questioning her weight to “let me fat in peace,” or when she told Ranic about feeling “butterflies in my stomach and vagina.” It’s the same qualities that make her captivating as a rapper, as demonstrated on lyrical gems like “real bitch, only thing fake is the boobs” and “I like those Balenciagas, the ones that look like socks!” Yet her superstar presence on the internet goes deeper than personality quirks alone, and all those likes and follows have become essential building blocks in her empire.
Brad Kim, who has spent the past decade studying internet trends as editor-in-chief of encyclopedic site Know Your Meme, attributes Cardi’s web savvy to her “cohesive timeline of character.” In other words: Her personal brand online has been consistent since the start of her career. Even before she was on the reality show Love & Hip Hop: New York, her viral posts — like the one about how “a hoe never gets cold,” still a top Cardi clip on GIPHY four years later — showcased a penchant for one-liners and memorable catchphrases. She also frequently references her New York upbringing, famously describing herself as “just a regular degular shmegular girl from the Bronx,” and that hometown loyalty carries extra weight in hip-hop circles. “Your true-ness to the roots has higher value than, say, Hollywood A-list actresses who have a poker face,” Kim says.
Cardi’s relatively open-book approach to celebrity, including her willingness to embrace the unglamorous as much as the glamorous, also helps her shake off negative publicity with ease. In October, Cardi posted a 10-part video series on Instagram accusing Nicki Minaj of spreading lies about their altercation at a Harper’s Bazaar party, among other grievances. Yet she emerged from the drama relatively unscathed — and as the face of another meme — because she didn’t try to downplay it or dismiss it; she dug in, and in a way that happened to also be also hilarious. “That approach is a slippery slope, where it could’ve been perceived in the media as ‘Cardi B goes on a rant,’ and some headlines did go that way,” Kim says of the takedown, which Minaj tried to brush off as “nonsense.” “But she’s leveraged it in her best light.”
The same was true in September, when a transphobic meme appeared on her official Facebook account. The post, which included the words “I hope nobody see this tr—y leave my house,” drew instant criticism, but the incident blew over quickly after Cardi blamed the post on a former team member in a tweet. For the most part, fans seem to have taken her word for it: If she keeps it real about everything from having co-writers (“I never called myself the greatest lyrical person,” she’s told The Breakfast Club) to her legal woes (she recently poked fun at herself for learning about her Grammy nominations while leaving court), why wouldn’t she be telling the truth about who runs her accounts?
What’s striking about Cardi’s online popularity, though, is how much of it doesn’t involve words at all. Cardi’s facial expressions alone have made her the star of many a reaction GIF, and Danny Chang, manager of music partnerships at GIPHY, says he wasn’t surprised to see that clip from Cardi’s The Tonight Show appearance top the site’s annual list of most-viewed GIFs. “Her facial reactions represent the feelings that most people have on the inside but are too afraid to express, which makes them perfect to use with GIFs,” he explains. Kim shares similar awe: “One thing that sets her apart is the spectrum of facial expressions that she really just…gifts us.”
It’s worth pointing out, Chang adds, that most of those GIFs are sourced from relatively unplanned moments caught on camera, like this priceless reaction at the VMAs. That’s unique compared to other A-list artists, like Drake, whose most GIF-able moments come from official music videos like “God’s Plan” and “Hotline Bling.”
Like Drake, though, Cardi understands that social media is a two-way street. Just as Drake is attuned to fan feedback — he embraced the viral dance challenge that emerged around Scorpion track “In My Feelings,” for example — Cardi B loves Cardi B memes just as much as the rest of us. While other artists might understandably disengage from meme culture, where the subject is usually the butt of the joke, Cardi leans in, reposting and replying to meme posts with emojis as if she’s texting a friend. In this way, Kim calls Cardi a “native user” of social media — someone who uses the platform as it was originally intended. And in an era of music when a “meme is the golden ticket” to mainstream breakthrough, he says, being fluent in the internet is more valuable to artists than ever.
Who did this ? I hate yaaaa————– pic.twitter.com/QOhU7P8gA4
— iamcardib (@iamcardib) May 19, 2018
No one could agree more than Kevin O’Donnell, who helps artists strategize about the ways to promote their work on Twitter in his role as manager of music partnerships. For the release of Invasion of Privacy, for example, he worked with Cardi’s team to develop a custom emoji — a replica of her face on the album cover — to appear alongside the album hashtag. But O’Donnell says Cardi understands that some of the best social media strategies aren’t strategies at all. “People always say, ‘We want this to go viral,’ or, ‘We want to have this moment on Twitter,’” he explains. “But it’s not a science, it’s an art. And I think Cardi B just gets it.”
Already, O’Donnell says, he’s noticing a shift in music conversations online as more and more artists follow in Cardi’s red-bottomed footsteps. He points to Ariana Grande, a longtime social media user who has in recent months honed a distinct, authentic voice on Twitter, replying to fan tweets about about her turbulent year with casual candor; or Billie Eilish, the alt-pop teen sensation whose informally captioned, often brooding posts under the Instagram handle @wherearetheavocados seem refreshingly real compared to other stars’ more curated timelines. Chang, too, takes these examples as a prophecy: “There’s going to be a lot more Cardi Bs to come in the future.”