The new American dream: Cardi B's rise from Instagram to chart-topping rapper

Former stripper turned reality TV star with huge Instagram following becomes first female rapper to top US singles chart since Lauryn Hill

Her rise to fame has been described as both a modern fairytale and the millennial manifestation of the American dream. This week Cardi B, social media star turned musician, became the first female rapper in 19 years to reach No 1 on the US Billboard chart, knocking Taylor Swift off the top spot.

It is a moment that has sent reverberations through the music industry, not only because it highlighted how few female rappers have topped the charts – before Cardi B, Lauryn Hill was the last to do it, with Doo Wop (That Thing) in 1998 – but also because of her distinctive rise to becoming a chart-topping rapper with song Bodak Yellow (Money Moves).

Born Belcalis Almanzar to a Dominican father and a Trinidadian mother, this 24-year-old New Yorker’s ascent to fame, as an onslaught of think-pieces have noted, has been meteoric, even by today’s standards.

It is a trajectory that moves from college drop-out to stripper to Instagram influencer to reality star to mainstream rapper with the vocal support of Missy Elliott and Nicki Minaj, and whose songs are being covered by Janet Jackson. She also has over 10 million followers on Instagram, and she hasn’t released an album.

Cardi B performing in New York.
Cardi B performing in New York. Photograph: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Airbnb

Almanzar’s viral online presence from 2014, built on extremely honest, stream of consciousness-style videos and Instagram posts, landed her a spot on the sixth season of VH1’s reality series Love & Hip Hop: New York in 2015, and she stayed for two seasons.

She left to pursue her music career – not an unusual step for a reality star yet one that usually ends in failure as they struggle to be taken seriously. Yet this was not the case for Almanzar. Helped by a powerful social media following, a forceful personality and genuine rap talent, she found herself competing – and eventually beating – Taylor Swift’s Look What You Made Me Do on the US chart this week.

Validation from fellow female rappers also came thick and fast. Nicki Minaj tweeted:

Congratulations to a fellow NEW YAWKA on a RECORD BREAKING achievement. Bardi, this is the only thing that matters!!! Enjoy it💕💞🎀 @iamcardib

— NICKI MINAJ (@NICKIMINAJ) September 25, 2017

Missy Elliott added:

Congratulations @iamcardib for having a #1 record in the country that's not as easy as it seem this huge🙌🏾 May u have continued blessings🙏🏾

— Missy Elliott (@MissyElliott) September 25, 2017

Much has also been made of the fact that prior to her reality TV debut, Almanzar worked as a stripper to support herself financially. Rather than trying to hide that from the public, she has made doing everything on her own terms an key part of her narrative.

Her refusal to bow down to being publicly palatable is also evident in her open discussion about having had plastic surgery (bum injections rather than implants, she emphasises), her public criticism of Donald Trump, and her shout-out of support to NFL player Colin Kaepernick at the MTV Video Music Awards.

Radio 1Xtra DJ A.Dot, who is about to co-host BBC television’s new live music show, was among the first to play Cardi B on UK radio, and said it was “insane” to realise she was the first female rapper since 1998 to get a US No 1. She also said fan and industry acceptance of Cardi B as a legitimate rapper was a testament to how being a purist about music was an outdated idea.

“I’m not saying this should be anyone’s life plan but stripper turned reality star turned No 1 artist is today’s American dream,” said A.Dot. “ I don’t think you need to be one thing anymore for people to take you seriously. She’s so honest as well, and I think that’s a big part of what’s endeared people to her. I think quite often people try to have this artist persona, where they have their artist mask on in public, but with Cardi B, it’s all out there. Anyone who tried to media train her would have given up within 10 minutes, because she just says what she wants, and I think people like that and really respect that.”

However, A.Dot doesn’t have much faith in Almanzar’s staying power. “I think the magic in that song is that it’s not difficult, it’s not a masterclass in lyricism but it doesn’t always have to be,” she said. “I reckon she’s a one-hit wonder, but that’s fine. There’s going to be pressure for her to prove she’s an artist. I could be wrong but I think she’s hit her peak. What a peak though.”


Hannah Ellis-Petersen

The GuardianTramp

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