From Reality TV To The Queen Of Rap, Cardi B Is The Blueprint For The Modern Pop Star

You should know better than to underestimate Cardi B. From her initial rise as a social media personality, to her status today as the reigning Queen of Rap, Cardi has shown herself to be an immensely durable and versatile figure within the popular imagination: a true renaissance (wo)man, capable of flitting between several different spheres while remaining completely and authentically herself.

This is no mean feat. Historically, the general public has reserved a great deal of suspicion for celebrities who have worn several hats. We’ve all sniggered at Gwyneth Paltrow’s transition from Hollywood actress to wellness guru under the banner of her tiresome lifestyle brand GOOP. We’ve all rolled our eyes at another Hollywood star flogging a vanity album of themselves crooning their way through an uninspiring selection of jazz or folk standards. Reality TV stars who have transitioned into music have an even more dubious track record. Who can forget Kim Kardashian’s first and last single, “Jam (Turn It Up)” (apart from almost everyone?)

Cardi B was born Belcalis Almanzar in 1992 in The Bronx, to a Trinidadian mother and a Dominican father. After being fired from several jobs (including working at a deli counter and as a cashier), in 2013 Cardi began to work as a stripper – a decision which she credits with “saving her,” giving her the ability to leave an abusive relationship and go back to school. It is during this period that Cardi first appeared in the public consciousness, when she began posting videos on Instagram and dearly-departed microblogging site, Vine.

Despite being several years away from starting her rap career, the star of these Vines is instantaneously recognizable as Cardi B. All the ingredients are there: the distinctive accent (part abrasive New Yawker, part melodious Spanish), the outrageous cackle, the outsized personality (part silly, part sexy, part campy), the filthy sense of humor and carnal preoccupation that, several years later, would result in endless criticism from conservative Americans. By 2013, the full range of Card B-isms were already in place: the trills and exclamations, the tongue-pop she uses like punctuation.

A 2017 cover story with The Fader describes the moment Cardi B’s manager encouraged her to “give rapping a try,” citing her distinctive accent as evidence that she’d do well as a rapper: “She had a natural ear for music. Her speaking style, in certain scenarios – like when she yelled at a dude on the phone – were proof of a unique voice.” While it’s true that Cardi raps how she speaks, she also raps what she speaks. Many of the snappy, vivid punchlines from Cardi’s Vines were recirculated, several years later, as rap verses. In one clip, Cardi B addresses the camera, faux-seriously: “People be asking me, like ‘what do you does? Are you a model? Are you like a comedian or something?” She smirks: “Nah, I ain’t none of that! I’m a hoe. I’m a stripper hoe. I’m about this shmoneyyyyy.” Two years later, Cardi would release “Stripper Hoe” and “What a Girl Likes” (the chorus of which goes, ‘gimme shmoney, gimme gimme shmoney’) – a crafty repurposing of comedic material which had been years in percolation.

Indeed, it is very easy to imagine a reality in which Cardi is a model or a comedian. A VP of a New York celebrity talent agency described her as “A TV personality – she was born to be famous.” Unsurprising then, that Cardi excelled when she was cast on VH1 reality show Love & Hip-Hop, quickly becoming the show’s break-out star. One standout moment from the show went viral: while discussing an ex-friend, Cardi declares “if a girl has beef with me, she gon have beef with me -” a loaded pause, a pirouette – “forevah.” Again, a year later the zinger would reappear, as the chorus of excoriating single, “Forever.”

This phenomenon has begun happening without Cardi B’s input. In the first few months of the pandemic, Cardi posted an impassioned monologue imploring her followers to take the virus seriously, which resulted in several, ahem, viral remixes.

If you are a martian who somehow hasn’t heard a single Cardi B song, you would be forgiven for thinking, from these accounts, that Cardi makes novelty music. That her music is an extended joke, an overplayed meme, the commercially-driven over-extension of a social media personality. This isn’t the case, at all – Cardi B’s rhymes may be superficially amusing, but her songs frequently have great soul and depth. In this instance, the things that make her great at social media – her charm, her scrutiny, her self-awareness – translate into being great at making music.

Something particularly notable about Cardi’s debut album, Invasion Of Privacy, is that it feels retro – oddly so, for a star who has built their career through social media. In an age where albums are frequently formatted to appease Spotify algorithms (see: Drake’s Scorpion, which stretched to a whopping 25 tracks, presumably to wring as many streams out of each user as possible), Cardi’s debut is a very reasonable 13 songs.

It would have been easy for Cardi to pack Invasion Of Privacy full of racy raps and crowd-pleasing braggadocio, but instead, the album is nuanced, an emotionally varied piece of work. One example of this is “Be Careful,” a bruised ode to a cheating lover. Here, Cardi is measured and beneficent, rather than vengeful: “Do you know what you’re doing? Whose feelings that you’re hurting and bruising? You gonna gain the whole world, but is it worth the girl that you’re losing?”

In a 2019 article for The Guardian, Jia Tolentino described social media as humans “reproducing the lessons of the marketplace.” In many ways, Cardi has done this throughout her entire career – she’s just been one step ahead of the marketplace the entire time. Rather than waiting for the internet to make memes out of her, Cardi memes herself, exhaustively mining her own back catalogue and reprocessing her best bits. Rather than working with a label A&R department to form her image and to grow her fanbase, like a rapping Venus, Cardi arrived fully-formed. Watching back over her old Vines, we see a fully-fledged star, a totally cohesive media personality with a distinct vocabulary and a ready-made fanbase of millions of followers. All Atlantic had to do was ink the contract and send over the songwriters.

As streaming and social media has complicated the business of being a pop star, a new term has emerged in A&R circles. The ‘artist-brand’ – a marketing construct which presents the idealized pop star as a global media personality, who can command several streams of revenue, and who are able to communicate and promote themselves effectively across cultural contexts, and within many different forms of media. Cardi has intuitively taken to the spheres of social media, television, and music – what comes next? Interestingly, Cardi has proven herself to be a skilled political commentator. She was a valuable asset to the Bernie Sanders campaign, hosting a charming interview with the senator. Her presence loomed large during the New York Women’s March, with her tweets and song lyrics appearing on several signs held by attendees.

While Americans may be finished with reality TV stars becoming president, it isn’t difficult to imagine Cardi establishing herself as a maverick political influencer. Personally, I can’t wait for the next installment of The Cardi B Show.

Cardi B is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.