Cardi B has only ever asked for one thing since releasing Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 2.
Belcalis Almanzar, self-made superstar, filled the early portion of her career with swaggering boasts and carefree, don’t-need-no-man sensibility, so when she made this one, simple request, she staggered the rap world with the sudden display of vulnerability.
“Be careful with me,” she implored on her latest single, a stunning departure from the boisterous club anthems that defined her rise to household recognizability. It implied fragility, softness, delicacy behind the ratchet, “gangsta bitch” facade. It caught everybody off guard.
It shouldn’t have. Cardi’s been telling us all along that she’s just a “regular, degular, schmegular” chick; it’s just that we were all too caught up in the glamour and rambunctious presentation to notice.
Which is exactly why “Be Careful” was exactly the right song for Cardi B, at exactly the right time.
With her album, Invasion Of Privacy, dropping at the end of the week, the expectations are as high for Cardi as they’ve ever been. When “Bodak Yellow” dropped, she was still a relative nobody, coming off the release of the second of two well-received, but only lightly-marketed mixtapes and still best recognized as the loud girl from all the Love & Hip-Hop: New York memes. “Foreva” was her biggest hit before that, its success predicated on the familiarity of the listener with her reality show antics.
Then “Bodak Yellow” broke all kinds of records, unseated Taylor Swift from her usual position at the top of the charts, and skyrocketed Cardi to a career plateau where she was routinely being mentioned in the same breath as Nicki Minaj and Lauryn Hill. It may have all been too much, too soon, but here we are. Cardi had to prove that she could follow up the monstrous success of her first charting single with another, or be banished to the designation of one-hit wonder.
Instead, she followed up with a string of hit records, featuring with fiancé Offset on “Motorsport” alongside Nicki Minaj, the reigning queen of hip-hop, whom fans had tried so desperately to pit her against. She gave G-Eazy a gift with another raucous verse on his Master P-homaging “No Limit.” She extended the shelf life of Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic, giving him enough of a recency bias boost to surpass Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar at the 2018 Grammy Awards, where Cardi again stole the show during their ‘90s reviving live performance of “Finesse (Remix).”
She’s hurdled every challenge set before her — skepticism, beef, an audience unfamiliar with her, and the mountain of barriers unique to women in the hip-hop portion of the music industry — as her star kept rising. Through it all, though, the question remained: Can she make a “real” album?
“Be Careful” is her carefully calculated first shot at answering that question. Unlike “Bartier Cardi,” the first single released from Invasion Of Privacy — in fact, unlike any of her previous hit singles — “Be Careful” is a stripped-down, sparse production, placing the focus plainly on Cardi’s own lyrics and delivery. She can’t use Kodak Black’s flow as a crutch or rely on a wealth of better-established costars to carry her by their name recognition alone. Likewise, the sensitivity she showcases on the Latin pop-infused single is closer to the heart than she’s ever been.
In all this time, she’s probably only revealed flashes of the real Belcalis Almanzar to her closest followers, the fans who laughed along to her hysterical musings on Instagram long before anyone in the Recording Academy had any clue who she was. In her music, she’s the towering, Blood-affiliated, unstoppable Amazonian-by-way-of-the-Bronx warrior Cardi B. With “Be Careful,” she’s showing us Belcalis, the vulnerable, lonely girl from the BX who fell in love with a deadbeat out of a need to feel wanted.
It’s that person at the core of every MC’s heavily-armored exterior that makes their stories truly fascinating. Kendrick Lamar, the wise kung-fu monk of hip-hop is boring compared to Kendrick Duckworth, the good kid from the mad city out west. J. Cole arguably didn’t find himself until he returned to 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Nicki Minaj may be the Harajuku Barbie, but she’s at her best when she showcases “Dear Old Nicki.”
That’s why Cardi B needed a “Be Careful” and needed it at this specific junction of her career. For sure, she can bang out twelve trap anthems to satiate her thirsty fans and the number-crunching execs at Atlantic, do some numbers over the summer, and retire to Jersey, but she wants to make music her career. She’s stated repeatedly that she’s been rhyming since her teens, hoping for the opportunity to do nothing other than this for a living.
To build that kind of self-sustaining career, to have real longevity, artists have to make music that’s timeless, relatable, vulnerable, and real. That doesn’t happen chasing trends — just ask any of the hundreds of one-hit wonders whose ranks Cardi deftly avoided joining. It means putting one’s fragile, glass heart in the hands of listeners and trusting them to be careful with it, knowing that in their callousness they could shatter it to pieces. It means taking a risk.
Cardi is taking the risk. She’s putting her heart in our hands. And although the lyrics may specifically refer to some man in her life or another, they are also an admonition to us, her skeptics, admirers, critics, and fans not to let her down.