Cardi B: Unfiltered, Unapologetic, Unbowed

ALTHOUGH CARDI B COULD NEVER BE ACCUSED OF MINCING WORDS, it’s hard to imagine a Twitter rant as frank on the subject of fame and its discontents as her video for “Press,” the tense, defiant track she released in the spring of this year. In it, a steamy ménage à trois culminates in a gunshot, which in turn gives way to a defiantly glamorous perp walk, a police interrogation complicated by very high heels, a trial that ends in a bloodbath, and, for good measure, a prison-cell toilet-bowl drowning. “Press, press, press, press, press / Cardi don’t need more press,” she raps over a frantic beat. “Walk in, bulletproof vest. . . . Murder scene, Cardi made a mess.” She’s the antihero of this ambivalent revenge fantasy; as the bodies pile up, her tearful fans begin to look foolish, and the haters—the press, presumably?—are proven right.

The video was released a day after Cardi Bpleaded not guilty to charges emanating from a brawl at the Angels NYC gentlemen’s club in Queens the previous August. If there was a point to the timing, perhaps it was to assert that Cardi was already on trial. “I thought ‘Press’ was fun and it was gangsta, and then because it didn’t perform as good as my other songs, people was like, Oh, she’s a flop; oh, she’s dying out,” she explains. “This whole year has just been a lot for me. I feel like people are just so tired of me winning. I will look for my name on Twitter, and it’s like hate tweets, hate tweets, hate tweets.”

It’s the middle of an early-autumn afternoon, and Cardi is stretched out on the green modular sofa in the living room of her grandmother’s apartment in Washington Heights. She has just woken up, having come home at close to 3 a.m. after shooting a video with the rapper Fat Joe for his track “Yes,” on which she guests. The song is a paean to a certain rough New York—perhaps the Bronx, where both Fat Joe and Cardi grew up—fueled by violence and greed. (“My palm and my trigger finger itch, bitch,” Cardi raps.) She is wearing nothing but an oversize white T-shirt and underpants, a reprieve from the daily slog of hair and nails and zippers and heels. A giant peacock tattoo stretches over her buttock and down around her thigh. Lately her style has hewed toward the quiet and refined. She loves suits, in part because she loves the idea of surprising people by wearing suits. But for the video, she wanted to deliver early-aughts J. Lo vibes: white fur coat, white fur Tarzan miniskirt, white bikini top. A white Yankees cap was rejected, since she is a Red Sox fan. (“The underdog thing,” she explains.) Only her long, silver Targaryen wig remains from last night’s costuming.

Cardi was born at NewYork-Presbyterian, not far from this walkup whose hallways are saturated with the warm smells of Dominican cooking. Her father’s mother has lived here for 34 years, and it’s the longtime family gathering place. She has 10 aunts and uncles on her father’s side alone, and 36 cousins, and she can remember so many nights when these narrow floors were crowded with sleeping bodies. Neighbors in the building, who have known her since she was a baby, barely seem to register her fame. The clamor itself feels protective: Her own apartment, in New Jersey, is spacious and quiet, an incubator for worry. “When I’m there by myself, a lot of thoughts go to my head, and when the thoughts go to my head, it just overwhelms me, and it puts me down, and it puts me on social media, and that drives me insane. So I just like to be where there’s a lot of people so I won’t be watching my phone.” At this point her 16-month-old daughter, Kulture, grinning widely, walks through after her bath, accompanied by Cardi’s aunt and her niece. Cardi squeals and gives her baby a hug, and the trio disappear behind a curtain that divides the living room from the sleeping areas. “Being a mom—how can I say it? Things are a little bit harder to balance, but it’s good for the mental. Like, if I’m playing with my daughter, I forget about the issues.”

Perhaps the central question dogging Cardi at the moment is how to sustain the breathtaking momentum that carried her from stripper to social-media phenom to reality-television star to world-beating rapper in less than five years. “Bodak Yellow,” her breakout single from 2017, became the first number-one hit by a solo female rapper in nearly two decades, since Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” in 1998. Cardi’s subsequent debut studio collection, Invasion of Privacy, was critically hailed and landed her a Grammy for best rap album, another first by a solo female rap artist. Musically, her gifts were as convincing as they were unexpected. Given the ribald humor, truth bombs, and instant aphorisms of her Instagram videos—in which she brought unstinting candor, a Spanish–inflected Bronx accent, and mutinous grammar to whatever topic struck her fancy (love, sex, cheating, and money, mainly)—perhaps it should have been obvious that she’d be a quick study at writing and rapping. “What makes Cardi unique is her voice,” says Bruno Mars, with whom she has collaborated on a pair of hit singles. “She was blessed with a distinct, memorable speaking voice and a tone that can set a party off. Her voice on a record is explosive.”

Cardi is hard at work on a second album, scheduled for release early next year, and the pressure weighs heavily. “The first time it was just me being myself,” she says. “I didn’t even care if people was gonna like it or not. When I found out I did so good, I’m like, is this a big number? Everybody was like, yes, this is a huge number. So it’s scary because it’s like, now you got to top your first album, and then it’s like, damn. I wonder if people are gonna relate to the new things, to the new life, to the new shit that I gotta talk about now. Music is changing. I feel like people just wanna hear twerk-twerk music, but it’s like, is that just a phase? I probably need a sexy song. I need a lot of turn-up songs. I need a slow song, a personal song. And those are harder for me—I always need help when it comes to talking about my feelings. It’s hard for me to be soft, period. So it’s a lot of thoughts, a lot of pressure. It’s really like a job.”

Julie Greenwald, the chairman and COO of Atlantic Records, agrees that when a debut album achieves rare multi-multi-platinum success, the bar gets set high. “It’s not the typical artist rollout, where the second or third is where you run all the bases,” she says. “Cardi hit an out-of-the-park home run on her first album, and she knows there will be a lot of people waiting for the next one with their arms crossed. But she is incredibly driven. With the first album, that year, she did everything we asked her to do—every radio visit, every television show, every press interview. Nothing was given. I think people respond to her because they know she’s not singing about something she isn’t. She’s going to keep putting herself and her experiences in her music. Now that will include motherhood, her travels, her struggle to maintain her identity as a girl from the Bronx while living this fantastic life. She will show you all the shit that’s involved in being famous.”

There are other pressures, too. Cardi is now 27, a mother, and a wife, which makes not giving a fuck harder to pull off. And although it was her refusal to self-censor that endeared her to audiences in that first flush of celebrity, she now finds the facts of her life distorted or submitted for judgment. It has often been painful. “Social media really made me,” she says. “Before I got on Love & Hip Hop, I had millions of followers just off the way I speak. Just me talking. And that’s how I got discovered. But now social media makes everything hard.” She has seen her marriage to Offset, the Atlanta rapper and member of the group Migos, placed under a microscope. The couple broke off their relationship in December 2018 but reunited early this year.

“When me and my husband got into our issues—you know, he cheated and everything—and I decided to stay with him and work together with him, a lot of people were so mad at me; a lot of women felt disappointed in me,” Cardi explains. “But it’s real-life shit. If you love somebody and you stop being with them, and you’re depressed and social media is telling you not to talk to that person because he cheated, you’re not really happy on the inside until you have the conversation. Then, if you get back with them, it’s like, how could you? You let all of us down. People that be in marriages for years, when they say till death do us part, they not talking about little arguments like if you leave the fridge open. That’s including everything. When I was pregnant with Kulture, a lot of people was like, oh, he has three kids already; why would you have a kid with somebody that have three kids? And it’s like, how is that such a bad thing? My dad has eight kids, and we all get along, and it feels better, fuller. And with Offset, I feel like his kids just bring a pop of fun to life when they’re in his house. I actually love it. It brings out a different side of him that I like to see, and I love to see my baby interacting with her siblings. The more the merrier.”

Cardi and Offset are still figuring out how to settle into family life together. They are rarely in the same city for more than a night or two at a stretch, and while she is shopping for a dream home, they don’t necessarily agree on where it should be. She is most comfortable in or near New York, but Offset has never wanted to live there. “It’s not an easy thing,” he says. “We both have our own households. But you grow. We’re way better now with communication. She’s balancing a lot. She feels like she can’t be absent a lot, and our jobs are crazy. But I think motherhood got her more focused. I always tell her, don’t follow the comments. But she’s been outspoken on things since before she was making music—she’s not ever putting on, she’s not ever being cool. At the end of the day, she’s still going to rap about the same shit, which is what it’s like being a woman.”

My thing is, everybody on social media acts like relationships is perfect,” Cardi says. “And that’s crazy to me. I’m around so many women, and there’s always a woman talking about how she loves her man, but her man is not financially stable, or she has a problem with his mom, or the sex is not as good anymore. Everybody has issues. I believe in forgiveness. I prayed on it. Me and my husband, we prayed on it. We had priests come to us. And we just came to an understanding like, bro, it’s really us against the world. He has my back for everything, I have his back for everything, so when you cheat, you’re betraying the person that has your back the most. Why would you do that? We have come to a clear understanding. For me, monogamy is the only way. I’ll beat your ass if you cheat on me.”

CARDI, who was born Belcalis Almánzar, has famously described herself as a “regula degula schmegula girl from the Bronx.” Her father is Dominican, and her mother is from Trinidad. She was a class clown who always dreamed of being a famous rapper. “I don’t know what it is—I will never know what it is—but ever since I was young, people liked to hear me talk,” she says. “I was always that person, like, I didn’t really have a lot of friends, but people was excited to see me in class because they knew I was funny. They was dying to hear a story from me. But the streets distracted me from my dream, you know what I’m saying? It’s like, oh, I could’ve been in a vocal class after school, but I’d rather just go hang out with my friends and smoke weed and be around gangs and be with this guy. That type of shit distracted me. And being an artist was just so far-fetched.”

When she was a teenager, people started to call her Bacardi, mainly to match her younger sister, Hennessy, who had been named for the cognac. (It wasn’t until she was 22 that she became Cardi B, after Instagram kept shutting down her account for use of a copyrighted name.) At 16 she joined the Bloods. Although she attended a performing-arts high school, partying also seems to have prepared her for her career. Hennessy remembers what it was like to go out with her older sister: “We would go to house parties, and the whole party would surround her in a circle. She would entertain by dancing, doing a headstand or a split. It was like her own little concert. So it’s like she grew up to be who she truly is.” But shortly after graduation, Cardi was kicked out of the house for fighting with her little sister, and she moved in with a boyfriend. “He didn’t have a job, and I didn’t have a job,” she remembers. “Me and his mom used to smoke weed, and it’s like, you’re hungry but you’re high and you cannot even, like, fucking eat food because you don’t have money for it.”

She enrolled at Borough of Manhattan Community College and got a job downtown as a cashier at the Amish Market, but the $290 in weekly earnings barely covered her expenses. When her English professor told her not to come back—that she had failed his class due to a pair of absences and a pair of tardies—she bawled, and dropped out. The Amish Market then fired her for giving discounts—but not before her manager suggested she walk across the street and inquire at New York Dolls, the strip club. When Cardi says that stripping saved her, this is what she means: “At that time I just felt like my world was coming to an end. I was that teenager who was like, I don’t need nobody. But my boyfriend kept cheating on me. He and I used to get into arguments, hitting each other a lot. Girls like to say, ‘I will beat a nigga’s ass.’ I used to have that mentality. I used to hit my first boyfriend, until he started hitting me back and it just got out of control. But I started stripping, and I made enough money to move out.”

At first she told her parents that she was making money babysitting for a rich white family, though over time she embraced the profession. At 19 she got her breasts done and started posting humorous Vines and Instagram videos about her work, which garnered her a following and landed her lucrative gigs hosting parties. These early clips anticipate the film Hustlers—in which Cardi has a small scene-stealing role—by casting the strip club as a place of opportunity and ingenuity. Refusing to be an object by being her own subject, she preempted misogynistic speculation. “You doing a good deed,” she told her prospective customers in one early posting. “You giving a young female some shmoney, and you giving her kids some shmoney. . . . Maybe the next day you get a raise.” On her 23rd birthday, she worked her final shift.

It did not take long for Cardi to be recognized for advancing an inclusive feminism that acknowledges the difficult decisions that women not born into privilege must weigh. “Women always want to talk about feminism and supporting everybody,” she says, “except if it doesn’t fit your category of what to support. Certain women that claim they are feminists only think that a certain type of woman should represent that. Like oh, you have to have a college degree, and you have to fucking be, practically, like, a senator or Mother Teresa or a Christian holy woman. No, you do not. Feminism means being equal to a man. And I am.”

Cardi’s temper is well documented, but she is working on it. “I’m really calm,” she insists. “I’m the type of person now who like, if we talk about things and settle things, I will do that.” She’s becoming practiced at fending off baseless accusations about her old career. “I just hate when people be like, oh, you used to be a stripper, so you’re a prostitute, you used to fuck guys. I never used to fuck guys. The thing about it is, when you’re known as a stripper that fucks guys for money, everybody hates you because you’re fucking up the game. You’re making guys expect more than what you should be giving, and the next bitch pays for it. I don’t have to give guys no ass. You want something from me? I want something from you. I want your money, you want my time. So I’m just gonna give you time. Once you start expecting more, my phone number’s disconnected. Bye.”

Cardi has not shied away from excoriating President Trump’s treatment of women, and some of her most delicious rants in recent years have been attacks on either his policies or the ominous cultural shift she believes he has set in motion. She has been an American-history buff since grade school and is especially effective at hitting progressive talking points with humor and clarity. (See, for example, the Instagram video in which she spells out the difference between government shutdowns under Trump and President Obama.) She is a longtime Bernie Sanderssupporter, and in August she joined Sanders’s presidential campaign to produce a video conversation between them, out of a nail salon in Detroit. She is passionate about combating police brutality. She worries about race-baiting on the internet. She has mixed feelings about gun control and carries a knife herself for protection. (“I’m from New York. We don’t play with guns,” she says.) Most of all she worries about the costs of education and health care. “It’s like, why is this such a successful country and we don’t have Medicare for everyone? It’s like, how are people gonna work if they’re sick? People gonna fucking be paying forever. And we don’t have freaking free schools? That discourages people to want to go to school if you gotta pay for it. Especially the way that social media makes it seems like everybody is the boss of something. Not everybody can be a boss. People gotta have certain jobs to keep things going. Let’s say I go to school for my job, and my school bill is more than I’m gonna be paid for. Then I’m not gonna want to do that job. So it’s like, who’s gonna do that job? It discourages people from wanting to learn.”

She cannot help but understand that she is a product of the same technological conditions that gave rise to Trump, but as a social media provocateur par excellence, she can read the president like a book. “I feel like not any of these Democrats have a really strong support base—I’m gonna say a fan base, because it’s almost like a fan base, what Trump has,” she explains. “Because he was an entertainer, Trump knows how to get them to keep on talking about him. All these little antics that he do, like get into arguments with Chrissy Teigen, it’s just techniques to get attention. And I get that. You like a certain artist that do crazy shit. But this person is in charge of our country. This person is in charge of our well-being. When it comes to my president, I want my president to be, like, extremely holy. That is the person I want to look up to. I don’t want my president to have any hatred toward a certain type of people. I don’t want my president to be arguing with freaking celebrities or caring what people think of him. I want my president to tell me an answer on shit that really matters. I don’t want my president to entertain me. I just don’t.

“One thing that I like about Bernie,” she adds, “is that, you know, there’s proof that he’s been doing this for years. That he been caring about people for years. That it’s inside of him, being a humanitarian. When I see the candidates be like, oh well, some of his bills, they not perfect. If he’s such a perfect person, why is Vermont not perfect? People are not perfect, but he has the perfect intentions. He naturally cares about minorities. He actually cares about people getting Medicare because he knows they can’t afford it. I don’t feel like he’s just saying these things ’cause he want the vote.”

Cardi always intended to have a child by the age of 25, but she took care to wait until she had the means to provide for that child herself. Touring and performing create their own challenges: Although Cardi can depend on her own mother for help, it’s more complicated as her daughter gets older and more aware. “Flying is hard on Kulture, so if I go to a place and I’m not going to stay more than five days, I’m not bringing her,” she says. “But now that’s getting harder, because she’s sleeping on my chest and she doesn’t want to let me go, or she sees you on FaceTime and she’s crying. It’s kind of like a friendship now, and it’s hard to leave your little friend.” Occasionally her candor about the challenge of balancing a career in overdrive with the demands of motherhood has been turned against her. In early October, on Access Hollywood, she cataloged the stresses of simultaneously recording an album, creating a hip-hop talent contest (Netflix’s Rhythm + Flow, which debuted in October), promoting a film (Hustlers), and designing a clothing collection for Fashion Nova, only to watch as the television show ran a headline on its website suggesting that as a result of her divided attentions, Kulture has been calling someone else “Mommy.” (The show has since apologized.)

“I could shake my ass, I could be the most ratchet-est person ever, I could get into a fight tomorrow, but I’m still a great mom,” she says. “All the time I’m thinking about my kid. I’m shaking my ass, but at the same time I’m doing business, I’m on the phone with my business manager saying, make sure that a percentage of my check goes to my kid’s trust. I give my daughter so much love, and I’m setting her up for a future. I want to tell her that a lot of the shit that I have done in life—no matter what I did, knowing that I wanted to have kids made me go harder to secure a good future for my kids.”

Lately she and Offset have been talking about codesigning a collection of children’s clothing. “And the CEO is over there,” she says, flicking her silver mane in the direction of the bedroom. “Right, Kulture? I’m busting my ass right now so you could have a good car when you’re 18, so you can go to school and have an apartment that I could pay for. If my daughter wants to go to college, that’s okay, but I just want her to be an owner of whatever the fuck she wants to own. Just be an owner. Be the boss.”

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