‘Cardi B: The Charm Offensive’, by Doosie Morris

Illustration by Richie Stalls

In 2017 I wrote a piece for The Lifted Brow about the cinematic potential of Instagram Stories. The medium, I suggested, is capable of offering increasingly sophisticated narratives possessed of artistic intrigue. While time has yet to reveal the potency of my suggestions, my research gave me a gift perhaps even greater than the smugness of prophecy—it gave me Cardi B. She wasn’t exactly what I was looking for at the time, more Rosie Perez than Rosselini, but the 25-year-old Bronx native, nails dripping in Swarovski, mouth firing like an automatic weapon, had me at “ju know what’s crazy doe?!”

With her hair in an impossibly-large bun, she pointed a jewel-encrusted talon at an equally jewel-encrusted wristwatch: “A hunred thousan’dollars on tha wrist” she said in her thick Latinx accent, switching her stack of curves on a stilettoed heel and assuming the frisk position against the wall. Flicking her head over her shoulder she teased, “my outfit doe bitch, sixty dollars!” Examining the timepiece with mock astonishment she offered: “On some G shit doe, I can’t even tell the time on this shits”. A perfectly-timed curl distorted her face into droll provocation. The clip ended suddenly, instantly giving way to another. I laughed out loud. Who the hell was this chick?

Since Cardi’s stratospheric ascent to mainstream notoriety last year, it’s a question many people have asked. Dozens of profiles, from New York Magazine to Cosmopolitan, have catalogued her unprecedented path to hip-pop culture domination, most speculating on how exactly she ‘arrived.’ How did this loose cannon of female fortitude get past industry gatekeepers to become a bonafide V.I.P? It’s not an easy question to answer. Part of what is so appealing about Cardi B is that the usual formulas don’t apply and labels don’t stick. To borrow phrase from her fellow New Yorker, and likewise canny self-promoter, Walt Whitman: Cardi B is 'vast, [she] contains multitudes' and she doesn’t shy away from those contradictions.

Born Belcalis Almanzar in October 1992, the daughter of Trinidadian cashier and a Dominican cab driver, Cardi B was raised in the Bronx and attended a performing arts high school. As a teen she became a Brim (a subsidiary of the notorious LA gang, the Bloods)—an affiliation she has, until recently, kept vague. She went to community college with the hope of becoming a history teacher until one of her tutors told her she didn’t speak English properly. She dropped out and was working as a checkout chick in a supermarket and living with an abusive boyfriend when her boss fired her, suggesting she’d make more money across the street dancing at a gentleman’s club. Around the same time, Cardi began posting energetic, expletive rants on Vine and Instagram, sounding off at full volume on whatever came to mind—mostly the transgressions of many a hater, love-interest, customer or food server. A natural comedian with a flair for no-bullshit soapboxing, she quickly gathered a significant following (#bardigang) and was booking gigs as a hype-girl in clubs in New York and across the country. Her job—as she has put it—was to “get things turnt up.” Her social media success and undeniable charisma gave her appeal as a reality TV candidate: the show Love & Hip Hop cast her on its sixth season, despite the fact she wasn’t even making music at the time. A natural born show-off with a first-generation work ethic, Cardi got down to business putting her mouth where the shmoney was. The mixtapes born of her time on Love & Hip Hop’s sixth and seventh seasons, Gangsta Bitch Music Volumes 1&2, are heady testimonials on the life of a self-proclaimed ‘stripper hoe’ that pull no punches and have some serious, honest-to-hoodness, hip-hop chops.

Eighteen months later, just weeks after I first encountered her on Instagram, she unseated Taylor Swift at the top of the US Billboard charts, exploding into the mainstream with the gravelly trap anthem ‘Bodak Yellow’: “I don’t dance now” she pummels into the hook with something between a drawl and a provocation. “I make money moves”.

She was the first solo female rapper to take the top spot in nearly twenty years, and only the second in history. Lauryn Hill’s catchy sermon ‘Doo-Wop That Thing’ was the first. With typical aplomb and earnest, Hill preached with caution about the misdirection of a certain type of young woman: loudmouthed, money-driven and cockstruck. Two decades later, Cardi B’s bawdy, unabashed rants and flashy style contrast starkly, even comically, with the type of asceticism that defines Hill as an artist.

It’s easy to ridicule and label a woman like Cardi B, to equate her haywire ratchetness with some kind of moral or intellectual deficiency. But in many ways Cardi’s candour and contradictions are beacons. They are reminders that, despite Hill’s stern lyrical warnings (and Western culture’s general prevailing sentiment), ‘hard rocks’ and ‘gems’ shouldn’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Cardi’s knack for subverting such exclusionary archetypes is refreshing. Just try to define her singularly as a slut, tom-boy, diva, funny-girl or earth-mother. Cardi B defies that type of mechanistic corralling, the social stereo typing that not only limits women’s capacity and willingness to explore and develop their richness, but also sets them in wasted competition with one another. If you’re funny, don’t try to be sexy, females are warned, if your M.O is sexiness, don’t think you can play it smart; if you’re smart, forget sporty or creative, or whatever, and so on and so on and so on ad nauseum. In other words—stay in your lane, bitch.

Part of Cardi’s credibility is her ability to transcend this trap. Bouncing imperviously between sex-bomb, screwball and scrapper, she embodies her multiplicity without ever mentioning it. In her posts, and in her music, Cardi weaves her textures in a way you will seldom see other females in the public eye allow themselves to do. In her IG posts, she waxes on about everything from socio-economics to yeast infections, applying her hood-spun philosophy to all matters be they federal tax laws or fellatio. The track ‘I Went Thru Your Phone’, splices dewy heartache with funny and furious Eminem-esque revenge fantasies. A heart that’s “beating like it’s bleeding out” doesn’t negate threats of poisoned cereal and prank calls to his mother. The speed and randomness with which she interchanges between such diverse feelings is dizzying, but their intensity and good-humour captures the hurly-burly that bubbles away, often suppressed, beneath the female facade. Keeping others comfortable by feigning unreasonable consistency is a skill that is expected and applauded in women. The consequent expectation, for women to curate an image from a socially-approved playbook that insists they evolve on a one-way trajectory, through a series of culturally-sanctioned redemption myths, is at best reductive.

Cardi rejects this self-defeating charade; indeed she often seems oblivious to it. This is powerful. Too often, the more realistic fits and starts, concurrent, conflicting growth and digressions people go through are conflated with some kind of mental instability. ‘That bitch is crazy’ an all-too-frequent sub-in for the more accurate ‘that woman is human’. Cardi doesn’t give a shit if you think she’s nuts, stupid, or slutty because Cardi knows what’s up, and judgement calls like that only show a lack of empathy and self-awareness: “Everyone has a me inside them,” she says, “that loud girl that just wanna go ‘ayyyy!’.” She knows that her social media presence, and her music, have the power to validate that spirit of DILIGAF in her audience: “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?” How condescending would that sound coming from most other celebrities?

Almost nothing Cardi says or does alienates her from her fans. Cardi maintains a level of relatability. Her come-up was witnessed by followers in real-time and continues through an all-hours-access pass to her life via social media: “Went from makin’ tuna sandwiches to makin’ the news/I started speakin’ my mind and tripled my views/Real bitch/only thing fake is the boobs.” The rags-to-riches shtick is heavily drawn on in her track ‘Get Up 10’, an intentional nod to Meek Mill’s haunting ‘Dreams and Nightmares’. The monologue captures Cardi’s utter lack of pretence about her journey—her ability to be vulnerable without being a victim, and to promote resilience without relying on excessive self-aggrandising, is part of her charm. When asked about the illegal butt injections she got in a basement in Queens and why she felt she needed them, Cardi chose not to concoct a politically-correct empowerment rhetoric about a woman’s body’s being her own. She simply said, “girls wit big fat asses was getting what I wanted.” The logic behind her subsequent course of action is undoubtedly flawed and no one, least of all Cardi, is suggesting women undertake life-threatening black-market procedures to compete with each other for jobs, relationships or validation.

Nevertheless, there’s something really appealing about the lack of spin she puts on it. Such unashamed kernels of ugly truth are an aberration in our culture, one that has found itself increasingly more comfortable pathologising and politicising raw emotions, and the dubious ideas they inspire. Most can relate to making a questionable choice based on a notion that someone else’s success is reflective of one’s own perceived deficiencies. More regrettably though, most women can relate to side-eyeing other women’s personal choices. But Cardi’s not snoozing on that bullshit either: “You know though, a lot of women be saying they is feminists, that they all like there to support other women and this and that – but low-key, they be judging.”

Of course Cardi isn’t above dishing out judgements of her own. In some of her most amusing tirades and lyrics, other women are on the receiving end of her formidable shade throwing. Her very first single ‘Cheap Ass Weave’ is pure, but light-hearted snobbery and she regularly torments her haters with her antics and rebuttals to the point of making them (according to one of her more evocative turns of phrase) “wanna pull they pussy hairs out.”

The parallel levity and ferocity that Cardi brings to the table can make people uncomfortable and often leaves her open to condescension. She knows she’s an easy target, but it’s surprising how few condemnations actually stick. “Some people think I’m just a dumb Bitch/If that was true I wouldn’t have shit – YEAH!” she fires at her detractors on the potent and skilful ‘Pull Up’. Given her starting point, the obstacles she’s navigated and her remarkable successes, it’s hard to argue with her. At the moment she seemingly has it all: she’s a huge star collaborating with the best in her game, regularly smashing industry records, recently married (to Migos member OffSet) and a smitten new mum to a 2-month-old daughter. Her recent pregnancy could have been career suicide, but true to form, Cardi has done Cardi. It leaves little doubt that she is steering her ship by an internal compass that is stronger than the pressures her recent fame can mount.

This tendency to disregard popular expectations was demonstrated somewhat unflatteringly at a recent New York Fashion Week event when she threw her shoe at Nicki Minaj, claiming Minaj had insulted her parenting abilities. Cardi was removed from the venue in disgrace. As inappropriate as throwing your shoe at someone might be, Cardi is clearly driven by an underlying set of ethics to which she strictly adheres; and integrity, however it may manifest, is a quality woefully absent in much of modern life.

Cardi’s paradoxes are radiant and fierce; she wears them truly as they come, with little concern for popular opinion. The word ‘unapologetic’, used as a thinly veiled substitute for ‘obnoxious’, irks me, but it’s not the latter that we see with Cardi. Cardi brings an authenticity to the artifice that plagues (and is inherent to) social media and the music industry. True, a scrag fight at The Plaza is unseemly in the extreme, but in a culture of inconsistent personal morals and general flakeyness there’s something to be said for such abidance to one’s core values. It’s the kind of fidelity to principle that defines truly decent people. So, as low-rent as that fracas might seem, the moral consistency Cardi shows in her online presence, and the flow-on sense that she is (to those close to her) a truly loyal friend, is the inoculation against petty judgement that other celebrities seldom earn.

For such a long time, a pop-culture figure like Cardi could not have existed: the mainstream would not have accepted her as she was, from where she came. Full Stop. As a flash in the pan bimbo, a cash cow with some novelty value and a dirty mouth perhaps, but not as an actual contender. Things have changed. Social media means Cardi has always had total control over the Cardi her fans see on a daily basis, and no recording label could ever hope to curtail that. Why would they even try? Her skills as an emcee and entertainer have developed with the right support but it’s Cardi’s infectious, raw personality that earned her the love and respect of millions. In that sense, Cardi B is not only a pioneer but a miracle. Beyond decades of hopeful Girl Power refrains of ‘just be yourself!!!’ Cardi is a real mainstream, mega-success story who has got there on her own terms, while seriously, actually doing just that..

People like Cardi B don’t come around very often. They only ascend into popular consciousness when that mainstream has somehow aligned itself with what they represent. If Cardi’s popularity is indicative of society accepting women’s multidimensional qualities, then perhaps Cardi B is the court jester that the kingdom of pop-culture has been waiting for.

Doosie Morris is a Melbourne writer and critic. She enjoys strong coffee, cold beer, deep breaths and big laughs.