The rapper responsible for last year’s most unexpected hit emerged from a singular New York City story of strip clubs, gangs, and below-board basement butt injections. Navigating new fame and a new record, Invasion of Privacy, Cardi B is fighting to stay true to her Bronx roots while the world clamors for her to become a global superstar.
“I love…,” begins Cardi B—pink, glistening ribs in hand; slick, brick-colored barbecue sauce clotting under Swarovski-crystal manicure—and then hangs in silent pause. She does this a lot: stops like a cliff diver savoring the charged seconds before a jump. Her speech is hyper-fast but full of built-in extra time for you to catch up. For her to ensure you’re paying attention.
With the aid of cutting-edge Millennium science, in the form of orbicular breast implants and illegal buttocks injections, America’s sudden favorite rapper, Cardi B, has built her body for optimal viewing at medium-to-long-distance range. This engineering foresight helps explain why, before she began making music history (a randomly chosen milestone from her tennis bracelet of success: she is the first rapper to have her first three Billboard Hot 100 entries in the Top 10 simultaneously), she was not just a successful stripper but a wildly successful one. The hills and slopes of her body are so captivating that you might not even notice the delicate beauty of her countenance until it’s staring at you head-on from across a dimly lit restaurant booth while you wait to discover what it is that Cardi loves.
Tonight her hair, lately blonde, has been teased into a kind of spun-sugar bouffant: Cardi B as Jackie O. She is tiny enough that she can wear a long black tank top as a dress in a public restaurant, but for modesty’s sake she has added a rosebud pink sweatshirt over it. In big black letters, the sweatshirt says: ᴅᴇsɪɢɴᴇʀ ᴘᴜssʏ. Cardi finishes her sentence.
“…Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” She nods, agreeing with herself. “Yes.”
Cardi B, born Belcalis Almanzar, grew up in a tight-knit Dominican enclave in New York City. It is perhaps for this reason she casts Delano in a Spanish hue—They-LAH-no—which, if not the standard American English pronunciation, is certainly no further from the original French.
“I love political science,” says Cardi, tucking into: Brussels sprouts with bacon, mashed potatoes with lobster, macaroni and cheese with optional truffle upgrade, shrimp cocktail with lemon and salt on the side, and a Coke with extra ice. We know the West Hollywood restaurant Cardi selected for dinner is good because, a member of her team explained earlier, Drake ate here last night. “I love government. I’m obsessed with presidents. I’m obsessed to know how the system works.
“First of all,” continues Cardi B, “he helped us get over the Depression, all while he was in a wheelchair. Like, this man was suffering from polio at the time of his presidency, and yet all he was worried about was trying to make America great—make America great again for real. He’s the real ‘Make America Great Again,’ because if it wasn’t for him, old people wouldn’t even get Social Security.”
I didn’t know he started Social Security.
“Yes,” she says, nodding. She has baby-doll features: big eyes, round face, minimal chin. “Yes, from the New Deal. It was a system to get us back from the world Depression—then, on top of that, while he was president there was a fucking war going on. World War II was going on. So all this shit going on in the United States, while recouping the country from an economic tragedy, making sure that America won the war—and his wife? I would say she was almost like Michelle Obama. She was such a good humanitarian, and we both got the same birthday, October 11th.”
Cardi unleashes her recollections of FDR’s life and accomplishments in a passionate torrent that assumes no prior knowledge on the part of the listener and follows no time line. She knows which president succeeded Roosevelt (his vice president, Truman) and which preceded him (Hoover). She gives a brief overview of the 22nd Amendment. She used to be able to list all the U.S. presidents in order of term but is too nervous to try it in front of me. As a compromise, she invites me to name any president.
“He was the 15th president,” she says, and her tone is as neutral as if she were reciting types of weather. “Buchanan is the only president that was a bachelor.”
It’s possible to remember a time in American popular music before Cardi B, but only because we left it so recently—just last summer. Almost as soon as Cardi swaggered into popular consciousness, she became inescapable. “Bodak Yellow,” her omnipresent first major-label single and biggest hit to date (June) was followed by a verse on G-Eazy’s “No Limit” (September), which was followed by a verse in the company of her now fiancé, Offset, on Migos’s “MotorSport” (October), which was followed by Cardi’s single “Bartier Cardi” (December), which was followed by some sweetly subdued Spanish singing on Puerto Rican singer Ozuna’s “La Modelo” (same day in December), which was followed by a victory lap on Bruno Mars’s “Finesse (Remix)” (January). All of those songs charted on the Billboard Hot 100, which means, at present, Earth’s atmosphere contains roughly equivalent amounts of Cardi B and argon. Now that Cardi’s new album, Invasion of Privacy, has been unleashed, the pre-Cardi Era will soon seem as distant and hazy to us as life in the Middle Ages, a harsh time when clothes were crafted of rough wool and peasants lacked technology for making moOoOoney moOoOoves.
“All right, here’s the thing,” begins Cardi B when I ask how her body came to be. “When I was 21, I did not have enough meat on my body—if I was to get lipo, I wouldn’t have fat for my ass.”
Cardi B, as we know her, took shape about four years ago, when she was already a few years into her stripping career. Though she did not know it at the time, the aforementioned investments in her silhouette would prove the boost that would enable her to scale her first level of fame.
She wanted fat for her ass because (1) her boyfriend had recently cheated on her with a woman who, per Cardi, “had a fat, big ass” and (2) she’d observed that her colleagues with big asses made more money than she did stripping, regardless of dancing technique.
Cardi claimed her ass from the universe in a basement apartment in Queens, where, for $800, a woman injected her buttocks with filler. “They don’t numb your ass with anything,” she says. “It was the craziest pain ever. I felt like I was gonna pass out. I felt a little dizzy. And it leaks for, like, five days.”
The circumference of the final product cannot be determined beforehand, which makes this procedure risky even among illegal medical procedures. While Cardi was happy with hers, she planned to return for a touch-up. “But by the time I was gonna go get it, the lady got locked up ’cause she’s supposedly killed somebody. Well”—Cardi clarifies with c’est la vie insouciance—”somebody died on her table.”
With her remixed body, Cardi B began posting short clips of herself to Instagram, following a winning formula that persists today. Clips generally consist of Cardi addressing her phone’s camera directly, frequently with cleavage on glorious display, firing off profanity-drenched comedic criticisms and observations at breakneck speed. She was not doing music at this point—just Cardi. But just Cardi proved hugely popular. She steadily amassed an online following and, borne on the current of their reposts and likes, was deposited on the shore of TV fame.
In 2015, she was cast on the sixth season of Love & Hip Hop: New York, a VH1 reality show documenting the lives of a handful of people involved, with varying degrees of tangentiality, in the hip-hop scene. The network press release announcing her debut didn’t even pretend to connect her to the music industry: “Firecracker and Instagram sensation Cardi B. leaps from the pages of IG to the small screen with a bang!”
Cardi’s cocktail of comedic timing, histrionic flair, and extremely large breasts made her the program’s indisputable breakout star. All three ingredients are showcased in one of the best-loved clips from the series, in which Cardi, wearing a snug dress and earrings the size of hand grenades, screamingly informs a male acquaintance: “A GIRL HAVE BEEF WITH ME, SHE GONNA HAVE BEEF WITH ME…” What makes Cardi good TV is that at this climactic moment, she turns away from the camera, simply so she can dramatically back around to the camera and, dropping her voice to a strange baby-growl, utter the final word, “…foreva.” Cardi capitalized on the fan response to “foreva” by repurposing it into the eighth track (“Foreva”) on her first-ever mixtape, Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 1. The second volume in the Gangsta Bitch Music set followed a year later.
So she was small-scale famous when she signed with Atlantic Records in the fall of 2016. Probably more famous than anyone you know, but less famous than the most famous person you might ever meet. More TV personality than actual rapper. Yet the force of that personality was sufficient to will an honest-to-God musical career into being.
Cardi B booked the cover of The Fader’s summer-music issue without technically having any summer music recorded. “Bodak Yellow” is not mentioned anywhere in the story; it was recorded after the press was lined up, ostensibly to give the cover a reason to exist.
You’d never know it. “Bodak Yellow” doesn’t sound perfunctory; it is masterful. Her staccato flow is a minefield strewn with terrifyingly forceful plosive consonants, but her vowels are languid to the point of taunting. It’s not that she doesn’t fuck with you; it’s that she doesn’t fuuuuuck with youuuuu. The verses are quick as GIFs. The song lacks a traditional melodic hook but doesn’t miss it. Each tight section is self-contained, with its own rhythm, and the excitement of jumping from one to the next propels the listener forward. This also has the curious effect of giving the song no natural finishing points. If you start spitting the lyrics to “Bodak Yellow” in your car, you’ve essentially signed up to rap the entire song to its conclusion, because stopping it early is like ending the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air song when a bunch of guys start making trouble in his neighborhood.
But just because you’ve recorded a good song doesn’t make it a hit. If you’re not an established radio presence, something magical needs to happen to launch it to public awareness. In this case, the cruel cockiness of the “Bodak” lyrics garnered the record an early publicity boost thanks to an Internet fight between Rob Kardashian and Blac Chyna. Chyna, herself a former dancer, responded to her ex-fiancé’s accusations of infidelity by Instagramming a video of herself caressing Versace bedsheets while Cardi B’s defiant tale of a stripper-turned-mogul blared in the background. The video topped 100,000 simultaneous streams. And a rash of popular blogs immediately made it their mission to track down the song and its mystery maker.
Debates over whether Cardi would prove a one-hit wonder were settled when “Bartier Cardi” cracked the Billboard Top 20, and lingering fears that she might still be a mere novelty act were dismissed as tracks featuring her rhymes continued to slide easily into the Top 10. The only person who still doesn’t appear completely convinced of her ability to churn out hits is Cardi.
“It’s really hard for me to make decisions,” she says over dinner. She hypothesizes that this is because she is a Libra. “I always got to call somebody like, ‘How does this sound? Does this sound ridiculous?'”
In late February, just a couple months out from her album’s release date, Cardi is still writing material “every day.” The deadline, she says, makes her feel “like I have a job. It’s really like homework. You got to think, think, think, think, think, think, think.” Since her career took off, she’s begun suffering newly intense migraines. “And, you know,” she says anxiously, “I don’t got the best English in the world, so sometimes I really got to ask somebody, ‘Does this make sense? Would this make sense?’ Because I will probably use the words…that they don’t even supposed to go there.”
Cardi was raised bilingual in the Bronx. Her mother came to the United States from Trinidad as an adolescent; Cardi characterizes her English as “broken.” Her father, from the Dominican Republic, speaks to his daughter exclusively in Spanish.
For listeners, Cardi’s distinct vocal patterns are part of the appeal of her rap style. She makes English sound way more fun than it is. “Do you want to know something?” Cardi asks. “That’s my biggest problem, that takes me a long time in the booth. I be trying to pronounce words properly and without an accent. Each and every song from my album, I most likely did it over five times, because I’m really insecure about my accent when it comes to music. In person, I don’t care.”
But people love that about you.
“No, like—it got to sound good. Like, for example: ‘I’m turning you awhn,'” she says, hitting the word hard, the way a New Yawka who’s walkin’ heah might bang on the hood of a taxi while taking a bite out of a big apple. “I will say, ‘turning you awhn,’ not ‘turning you on.’ See, I give you an example. ‘Turn Offset awhff.’ There’s that ‘awhff.’ Turn Offset off. Shit like that drives me insane.”
She demonstrates a few other examples—”Get awhff me”—to illustrate the distance between her actual and her ideal. Listening to Cardi carefully practice the flat, wide vowels of a Coloradan weather woman is a little heartbreaking, in part because we’re too late to stop her; she’s already nailed them. Cardi knows people still want her to be the girl who turned them awhn, but to her, the thing that makes her sound different from her peers isn’t charming—it’s embarrassing. “It’s a really bad pet peeve of mine,” she says. “I can’t help it.
“I feel like I’m not in control of my life,” she continues, about her immense, abrupt fame—which may explain her fixation with pronunciation: The sound of her words, at least, is something she can decide. If she wanted to take tomorrow off, “I would have to call so many people. I would have to call the label, my management, my publicist. It’s like a partnership. I’m the artist, but I don’t feel like I have a higher position than anybody that’s working for me. If I don’t want to work tomorrow, I cannot just stop working, because then, how’s other people gonna feed their family? It is a lot of pressure.”
Cardi is close to both of her parents and describes her upbringing as strict. She wasn’t allowed to attend sleepovers—”ever”—on her mother’s reasoning that “first of all, you all are having sex; you’re not supposed to have sex. Second, you never know if there’s men in the house, and you never know if you’ll get molested.” Her mother likely also wanted to keep her near home because Cardi was, in her own words, “a very fragile child.”
“My mom used to cry a lot because she used to be scared that I would fall asleep and die of an asthma attack,” she says. Cardi’s chronic asthma could see her hospitalized for two-week stretches. At home, the nebulizer machine that opened her lungs also gave her tremors. “People used to tell my mom, ‘She’s not going to make it.'” This makes Cardi laugh, which, by the way, is rare. She’s earnest in person—neither warm nor hostile, just serious. Off-camera, one-on-one, she’s not a riffer and she’s not a ham. She’s relentlessly funny in conversation but doesn’t acknowledge her humor or wait for a response to it. Her speech is free of the tic-like bursts of exuberant birdsong that give her TV appearances a madcap air.
Because Cardi was not allowed out of the house for nighttime parties, in high school she attended what New York kids call “hooky parties”—daytime parties in parent-less apartments with other students skipping class. When she was in school, she liked English. She lists her favorite books: To Kill a Mockingbird, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and The Coldest Winter Ever, by Sister Souljah.
“It’s a hood book, but it’s really good. The main character is like my alter ego. She is a bad girl. I like a bit of bad-girl shit.”
On the topic of bad-girl shit: Since Cardi became super-famous, it’s been hard to get a straight answer from her about her rumored affiliation with the Bloods (or, more specifically, the gang’s subset: the Brims). There are lots of hints that suggest a relationship: Cardi’s love of the color red; the possible double meaning of “bloody shoes” in “Bodak Yellow”; the text of a tweet Cardi posted last February, “Cardi FUCKIN B and the B stands for Brim.”
“Here’s the thing,” begins Cardi. “I never really wanted to talk about that, because I always wanted a music deal. I always want to keep my endorsements. When I was 16 years old, I used to hang out with a lot of”—agonizing, cliff-diver pause—”Bloods. I used to pop off with my homies. And they’d say, ‘Yo, you really get it poppin’. You should come home. You should turn Blood.’ And I did. Yes, I did. And something that—it’s not like, oh, you leave. You don’t leave. Stripping,” which Cardi began at 19, “changed my life. When I was a stripper, I didn’t give a fuck about gangs, because I was so focused on making money.
“One thing I could say,” she continues, “you could ask any gang member: Being in a gang don’t make you not one dollar. And I know for a fact every gang member, he asking himself, ‘Why did I turn this?’ Sometimes it’s almost like a fraternity, a sorority. Sometimes it’s like that. And sometimes I see people that’s in the same gang kill each other. So sometimes there is no loyalty. Sometimes you gotta do certain things to get higher, to get higher and higher. You’re doing all of that and you not making money off of it. That’s why I don’t talk about it much. Because I wouldn’t want a young person, a young girl, to think it’s okay to join it. You could talk to somebody that is considered Big Homie and they will tell you: ‘Don’t join a gang.’ The person that I’m under, she would tell you, ‘Don’t join a gang.’ It’s not about violence. It’s just like—it doesn’t make your money. It doesn’t make your money. I rep it, because I been repping it for such a long time.”
What do you mean when you say “rep”?
“I always mention it, because it’s something that I been doing for a long time.”
Like being a Libra?
“Yeah, it’s like saying you’re a Libra. When I was younger, I used to go very hard. As I got older…you can do your own thing, but you always got to check in with your set. You don’t leave your people behind. They will understand I don’t be doing it because I’m an adult now. After you’re in your 20s, why would you join a gang? That’s something that you do when you’re young. I don’t even got to keep up communications. I keep communication because I’m used to it. There was a point when I was like 20, 21, 22…I was repping it, but I know that things change, Big Homies change, and I knew I had to check in again. It’s like almost like renewing your license. I kept repping something, [but] people was like, ‘Okay, but you’re not under the right person.’ So it’s like, ‘Okay, I gotta do it real right.’ You gotta get in the loop. If somebody was to tell me right now, ‘I want to join a gang,’ I would tell them that it’s a waste of your money, it’s a waste of your time. And then you can never leave it. Sometimes these people are gonna expect you to be at meetings when you have a job. You gotta be at work till 9:30 p.m., and you cannot go to a powwow because you at work. How you tell that to people? One of the laws in my set is that you always gotta have a job, you always gotta do something to contribute, to be right in the community. They want everybody to be successful. Nobody want to be in a group full of bums. Nobody want a group full of bums.”
What irks Cardi in particular, besides America’s youth wasting time and money in gangs, is the suggestion that she only adopted a Brim affiliation after she got a record deal, to toughen her image.
“People always be like, ‘Oh, Cardi never used to rep it when she wasn’t making music.’ Yeah, because I already got signed. I can do that now. I’m smarter than what people think. There’s so many things that I limited myself because I wanted a million-dollar contract. When I do interviews, I don’t talk about it, because I will lose my endorsements. But since the cat is out of the bag”—she throws up her small, barbecue-sauce-covered hands—”that’s how I feel. Why? For what? Why would you join a gang?”
Cardi B is not intimidated to roll with a gang, or afraid to get potentially lethal illegal butt injections, but she is still capable of base human fear. I watch it course through her at dinner when an expression of such panic spreads across her face that I am afraid to turn around and see what she is seeing.
“I think that’s Taylor Swift,” she says. “No, no!” she pleads when I whip my head around. “I don’t think that was her,” she adds, trying to un-alert me. “I don’t think that was her.”
Cardi’s publicist, Patience, dining—by Cardi’s request—at a nearby table, in her line of sight, catches her look of distress and rushes over.
“Is that Taylor Swift?” Cardi asks in a nervous whisper. “Is that Taylor Swift?”
Patience offers to check.
Have you ever met her?
“I never…,” begins Cardi. She is too preoccupied to finish the sentence, following Patience around the room with her eyes.
It was Swift’s tepidly received single “Look What You Made Me Do” that “Bodak Yellow” bumped from the top Billboard slot, catapulting Cardi into music history. The feat made her the first solo female rapper to claim the spot since Lauryn Hill in 1998. Taylor Swift took the news like, uh, herself, and sent Cardi an opulent congratulatory bouquet.
“Up close?” she whispers. “Not her.”
Cardi visibly relaxes at this update, like she has narrowly escaped being hit by a bus. (N.B.: It is completely unclear from Cardi’s reaction whether she likes or dislikes Taylor Swift.) (Also N.B.: Later, when I pass the table of the Rumored Taylor, I realize Cardi may have been looking at Karlie Kloss.)
Would you have gone up and said hi?
“Nah. I’m too nervous. I’m too shy. When I met Beyoncé, people be like, ‘How that felt? I bet you was mad happy.'” Cardi looks more like she’s reliving trauma. “It’s like, ‘Actually, I wanted to shit on myself.’ It was a very scary thing. All she was doing was like, ‘Hi. I love your music.’ And I was like”—Cardi emits a miserable, voice-cracking wail—”UHHHN!”
“I usually call him Set,” says Cardi when I ask how she and her fiancé refer to each other. Both of them found fame under stage monikers; the world knows him as Offset, of the rap trio Migos. “When I’m really serious, like we talking ’bout serious business, or when I’m pissed off, I call him Kiari” (his given name; he “sometimes” calls her Belcalis). They met last January.
“Around Super Bowl time I told my publicist to tell him, because I was very shy, ‘Listen, if we gonna go on a public date together, you cannot make me look like a dumb-ass after this.’ I never wanted to date a rapper because I would hate to look crazy in public.”
“Like you on a date with me but you fucking other bitches. And he was like, ‘No, I really like her. I’m really feeling her.’ We was talking, we was making out. We didn’t fuck. After the Super Bowl, it got really serious because I feel, like, all eyes on us.”
Around World Series time, he asked her to marry him onstage at a concert in Philadelphia, with a tremendous eight-carat pear-shaped ring that straddles the border between jewelry and finger splint. Around Christmastime, his iCloud was allegedly hacked, and a video rumored to show him shortly before the proposal in a hotel room with a naked (non–Cardi B) woman surfaced. Offset has remained silent on the subject, but Cardi has alluded to it publicly, both to voice her displeasure with cheating and to assert her right to evaluate her relationship without input from the world.
“For a long time,” she says, “we was in love with each other but we didn’t really trust in each other. It was like a competition of who’s gonna hit each other up first. I don’t want to hit him up first; he will hit me up first. People used to put things in my head: ‘He gonna leave you. He be fucking with mad bitches.’ People used to put things in his head: ‘Cardi, she’s a dog. Don’t trust her.’ We never really trusted each other because I always feel like he could get any girl he wants—what makes me think he’s gonna want me? I think he felt the same way. Niggas want to be with me, and bitches wanna be with him.”
Up until the proposal, you didn’t trust each other?
“It was just too much playing games. He would look for me; sometimes he would take a jet to me. And it was just like, ‘Let’s stop playing. We really love each other. I’m scared to lose you, and you scared to lose me.'”
Cardi anticipates a fall wedding ceremony in Atlanta. She doesn’t specify the year.
“I always feel like his people and him gotta feel comfortable,” she says of getting married far from her beloved hometown. She’s not yet fully acclimated to Atlanta; lacking a license, she still needs Offset’s uncle to drive her around when she visits. “[Offset]’s never comfortable in New York. He loves down south. He told me to move in with him, in Atlanta. I stayed in his house a couple of times, but it’s so hard to live there. He decided, though, that we’re going to build a house in Atlanta, and that’s the house that we’re gonna raise our kids in. But my job is in New York, always, so I can barely spend time in Atlanta.”
She seems to value her fiancé’s presence in her life as, if not exactly stabilizing, at least reassuring.
“I’m very indecisive, and that’s a very bad trait that I have,” she says. “It’s so bad. And then I always feel like I need—like I need somebody to tell me something. He’s always screaming at me for that, like, ‘You don’t need this. You know who the fuck you are. Oh, my God, you’re so annoying!’ And it’s like”—Cardi mimes shedding dramatic tears—” ’I don’t know, I just need help!’ I’m afraid to do my own decisions. I call him a lot, like”—she raises her voice to a high-pitched whine—” ’Babe, I need your help. Do you think that I should do this, this, and that? Do you like this song? Do I sound good in this song? Do I sound corny?'”
Has he ever told you you sound corny?
“No. He always tells me, ‘Stop being afraid. You always afraid of something. Why you always afraid?'”
When I ask Cardi why she thinks Offset is a good match for her, her answer hints at the stress of blindsiding success and her desire for a playbook: “He’s so attending in my business. I don’t really know the music business too well, so I always feel like people taking advantage of me. He’s always making sure that I’m well taken care of or that I learn something.
“Sometimes,” she continues, “I be so sleepy because I do so much things. So he always pressure me to go to the studio. Like, just last week I was sleeping, and it was three in the morning. This motherfucker took the sheets off of me and woke me up. Refused to give me back the sheets until I get my ass in the studio. And I like how we always planning on going half and half on everything. His mom always looking for lawyers for me. It’s like we help each other to be adults.”
I ask what is the most unbroken time she and Offset have spent together since meeting last January. While there are some weeks they can’t coordinate their schedules, she says, they generally see each other a couple times a week. As for back-to-back stretches?
“I think we’ve spent like about six days together in L.A.”