'I want you to feel that empowerment': how Cardi B went from stripper to star

The Bronx rapper went from Instagram skits to dislodging Taylor Swift from the top of the US charts with one of 2017’s best tracks. But after two Grammy nominations, she’s feeling the pressure of fame

‘Do you guys really think that Princess Diana was killed?” We’re in an office around the corner from Kensington Palace, and this week’s royal announcement is on Cardi B’s mind. It momentarily distracts her from toying with a lightbulb during the photoshoot – “I want to meet Prince Harry!”, she calls out. Later, she’s primed for the best conspiracy theories around as she widens her eyes and asks again, before miming a zip over her lips. “But we don’t want anything to happen to us!” she mock-whispers, then erupts into a cackle.

Her interest is not surprising. This year, Cardi has also ascended suddenly, vertiginously, into rap royalty thanks to inescapable song of the summer, Bodak Yellow. From a background that saw her dismissed as an interloper, she has been propelled all the way to the top of the Billboard chart by a groundswell of popular support. The staging posts of her journey have been roles that are routinely mocked: the stripper, the Instagram celebrity, the scrapper in reality series Love & Hip Hop. The genius of 25-year-old Belcalis Almanzar has been to flip that script at each turn.

Those who look down on her have been the butt of the joke all along, and Cardi B’s humour, which ranges from savage eviscerations to impish smirks, has seen the puckish Trinidadian-Dominican Bronx native run rings around her opponents while gathering legions of fans in her wake. These include Janet Jackson, videoed dancing on stage to Bodak Yellow in September; Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown, who mimicked Cardi B’s flow while rapping on the Jimmy Fallon show in October; and Call Me By Your Name star Timothée Chalamet, who shouted her out in his acceptance speech at this week’s Gotham Awards.

“It was pure, unadulterated fandom,” says Radio 1 DJ Clara Amfo – a Cardi B fan since her 2015 Instagram days – of the electric atmosphere at the rapper’s debut UK show, at London’s Koko in April. “I was amazed at how huge and obsessive her fanbase is: 95% women, all absolutely going ham for her. It’s the kind of fandom record labels and execs dream about and try to force with big marketing campaigns. She’s done that just by being herself on Instagram.”

That gig, mind, was before Bodak Yellow was even out. Cardi had released two livewire mixtapes and signed a high-profile deal with Atlantic Records, but the track that would catapult her to the top of the US charts – dislodging Taylor Swift in September to become the first solo female rapper at the summit since Lauryn Hill in 1998 – and, this week, two Grammy nominations, wasn’t even the label’s designated attempt at a hit (that was Lick, featuring her now-fiance Offset, one-third of Atlanta rap trio Migos).

Cardi B in Love & Hip Hop: New York.
Cardi B in Love & Hip Hop: New York. Photograph: VH1

The implacable, monolithic Bodak Yellow is Cardi B at her most powerful. It showcases the impeccable timing which for years had elevated her selfie-camera musings to social-media gold – Cardi says her spirit is really that of a comedian – but above all, the unvarnished, charismatic honesty about every aspect of her life. “I’m so free-spirited,” she says. “Everyone has a me inside them, that loud girl that just wanna go ‘ayyyy!’ No matter if you a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, it comes out. Like, aha, I got you being yourself for a lil two minutes or three, huh?”

Whether reclaiming sexist insult “thot” on her debut 2016 mixtape, Gangsta Bitch Music Vol 1, or “ratchet-ass bird bitch” on a 2015 Instagram video, Cardi B’s adeptness at spinning slurs around is rooted in her refusal to feel anything other than pride about her personality or her path. “Would people feel some type of way if I was a cashier-turned-rapper?” she asks today, weary of how the ex-stripper tag is disproportionately used to define her. “People want me to be so full of shame that I used to dance. I would never be ashamed of it. I made a lot of money, I had a good time and it showed me a lot – it made me open my eyes about how people are, how men are, about hunger and passion and ambition.”

How men are, in Cardi’s songs, is weak: soft, stupid, easily manipulated. Her 2016 song Trick hurls those insults back at the strip club’s patrons; Cardi treats a customer mean and empties his wallet anyway. This, she says, she learned from the Russian girls in the club where she worked: “They were so mean to the men!” she notes in awed tones. “It helped give me an alter ego.”

Cardi B.
‘I want to be an artist artist, a real artist’ ... Cardi B. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

She shrugs. “No man wants to accept they could be getting used for money,” she says. “But it’s OK for them to let us know that they use us? It’s in their lyrics, in the way they act.” She leans forward to make her point. “They always talk about what they want to do to women – they want to have sex with them, they want oral sex, then ‘fuck you, bitch’. Well, this is what women want to do to men: buy me a bag and go about your day.” This, says Cardi, isn’t necessarily a literal directive. “I don’t want to influence women to do something – I want you to feel that empowerment, like you could do that,” she emphasises. “A lot of women don’t do it because they don’t know how to, but a lot of women wish they could.” She pauses and raises her eyebrow. “Because nobody likes to spend they own money!” Cue that raucous, infectious cackle once more.

In Cardi’s case, her stripping job literally saved her from a relationship she skirts around calling abusive, preferring to label it controlling. “I was dictated to, and had to do things I didn’t want to do because I was living under a man’s roof, in his mom’s house, in an apartment with two pitbulls and bedbugs, and I didn’t have money. I was living in a space where I couldn’t even pay rent and people threw that in your face all the time.” Bored and directionless, Cardi would “waste the lil $200 I earned” on smoking weed every night – a habit she quit on starting at the strip club, where she had earned £20,000 by the age of 21, and where she began to plan ahead in earnest.

Cardi says she’s always planned her future, thanks to fellow dancers who would warn her about still being 31 and working in the club, and repeat customers who would tire of her. The plan has pivoted a few times, though: as a dancer, she intended to save $100,000 by the time she was 25, buy a house and rent it out.

Instagram, she figured, would also be a short-lived cash flow source. Having garnered a following from selfie videos in which she ruminated on relationships, dished out deliciously bawdy sex tips, cracked jokes that cut through the medium’s inherent performative silliness and dropped the occasional sharp nugget of socio-economic analysis, Cardi set about leveraging this fame with paid appearances at nightclubs. “And then I thought, you know what, if I’m so popular and have a fanbase, why not invest it in my music?”

This, too, was originally a short-term goal for a social media personality with no knowledge of the music industry. “I thought I’d get a certain number of YouTube views, make money off that, whatever.” The realisation that she had a knack for rapping – and that people loved it – prompted a rethink, and a commitment to a long-term plan for the first time. “I want to be an artist artist, a real artist, I don’t just want to do this for temporary money.”

This approach isn’t without its pitfalls, and despite the occasional cackles, Cardi B is subdued and serious in person, with the filthy jokes and boundary-pushing bons mots of her Instagram largely absent. In October, she told Rolling Stone that she felt she was getting “trapped and muted”, and today – having woken at 5am to do some recording – she admits to feeling pressure as she gears up to release her debut album proper next year. “When I first started it seemed very fun. Now I feel like I gotta focus so much more. I feel like I’m just overthinking.”

A handful of social media blowbacks haven’t helped: Twitter users, having imposed a woke feminist narrative on Cardi B that she had neither sought nor proclaimed, then dug up ill-advised old tweets to cancel it. (For the record, Cardi’s apology for her ignorance over using the word “tranny” had already been delivered in 2016.) “That’s the reason I don’t like calling myself a feminist,” she sighs. “People think they smart. Some people think being a feminist is having a degree, having a very high vocabulary, and it’s not – it’s a woman who thinks she has the same rights as men.”

Ironically for an artist who pushes back against toxic male behaviour, Kodak Black, the rapper whose flow on his track No Flockin inspired Bodak Yellow, has recently been charged with sexual assault. Cardi, who says she was unaware of his “activities” when she recorded it, now handles the subject with kid gloves: “I’m not gonna say that the girl is lying, I wanna give a woman the benefit of the doubt. But a lot of people will lie on a famous person, so I just mind my business when it comes to things like that and I’ll judge when things come out.”

Cardi B on stage during Power 105.1’s Powerhouse 2017 in New York.
Cardi B on stage during Power 105.1’s Powerhouse 2017 in New York. Photograph: Roy Rochlin/FilmMagic

Uniquely among celebrities, Cardi is also experiencing a curious problem. Having risen to her current position on the back of loyal fans invested and interested in who she is as a person, she now faces casual music fans who couldn’t care less about the woman behind the radio banger, except in the most superficial way. “They didn’t see me on TV, they didn’t see my videos from before, so they just hear my music and see me – and sometimes they don’t care to know me,” she says, sounding mildly confused at the state of affairs.

She exhales. “People are putting me in competition with really great, big artists.” The competitive aspect of music is, perhaps surprisingly, not one she’s comfortable with. “When I do music, I don’t feel like it’s competition. Then again, it kinda is, but I don’t like thinking like that,” she hedges uncomfortably. “And I don’t understand why they do that to women, and especially women in hip-hop.”

Before dislodging Swift from No 1, Cardi responded to the possibility by declaring her love for the singer, while an appearance alongside Nicki Minaj on Migos’s MotorSport has squashed rumours of a feud that fans and media seemed more invested in creating than either artist. It’s also Cardi’s most high-profile post-Bodak Yellow verse, a triumphant victory lap that seems to bely her worry about working under pressure. For her album, though, she’s keen to show the world that she can rap about feelings, not just fighting. “Like, Cardi do have a girly side to her – she’s not just gabbergabbergabbergabbergabber!”

“Part of her appeal is that she could be any girl you know,” explains Amfo. “There’s no airs and graces about what she presents to people.” Between the bawdy blowjob jokes and willingness to embrace the concept of “ratchet”, Cardi’s Instagram is strikingly normal: she’s still as likely to film herself un-made up in bed as glammed up in the back of a taxi. These days, she holds affection for the streets that made her as a means of easing the pressure she feels: “I can’t stop going back to the Bronx, for some reason.” Hip-hop’s people’s princess she might be – or the “strip club Mariah Carey” as she’s put it on record – but Cardi B is unlikely to forget where she came from.


Alex Macpherson

The GuardianTramp

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