You could tell Cardi B was going to be a huge star long before the history-making Billboard chart run that’s turning her into a household name. Her early Instagram videos roasting scammers, haters, lazy lovers, and gossip blogs exhibited a no-nonsense personality and flawless comedic timing. She was a joy to watch on Love and Hip-Hop: New York, where her motivational speeches about fleecing what you want out of thirsty men and her habit of saying exactly what’s on her mind frequently broke the show’s fourth wall. In a series about has-been rappers’ dirty laundry and young artists’ fights for management deals and studio time they don’t necessarily deserve, Cardi’s talent and drive stuck out. The song “Everything,” off her 2016 mixtape Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 1, spelled out why: “I’m worried about my father [stopping] cab driving before he turn sixty, and my mom to stop being a cashier before she turn fifty.”
Living uptown, in Harlem, the Heights, the Bronx, or anywhere like it, you grow up with dozens of kids with the same dream of prosperity. Quick hustles and unfulfilling jobs claim whoever the streets and the prison systems don’t. Great hip-hop debut albums are animated by a powerful feeling of having bucked the tide of history to snatch victory from presumed defeat. Think of the Notorious B.I.G. “celebrating every day, no more public housing” on Ready to Die’s “Juicy” or 50 Cent noting in bittersweet reflection that “sunny days wouldn’t be special if it wasn’t for rain” on “Many Men (Wish Death)” off Get Rich or Die Tryin’. “We wasn’t s’posed to make it past 25,” Kanye West sang on “We Don’t Care,” off The College Dropout. “Joke’s on you, we still alive.” Stepping into a career you’ve wanted since youth is disorienting. You never forget how easy it is to miss your mark.
“Get Up 10,” the lead track on Cardi B’s debut Invasion of Privacy opens on the same note of disbelief: “They gave a bitch two options: strippin’ or lose / Used to dance in the club right across from my school.” Like the Jekyll and Hyde performance in Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares Intro,” it dramatizes Cardi’s rise to riches, starting out quiet and moody but picking up steam as her notoriety skyrockets. “I was covered in dollars, now I’m dripping in jewels …” she later says. “I went from making tuna sandwiches to making the news.” Invasion is a peculiar rap debut in that it doesn’t present an artist essentially fully formed on arrival, the way an album like Illmatic or Doggystyle does, and it doesn’t make its case for the artist as a newly minted A-list property in part by pairing them with household names, the way albums like Drake’s Thank Me Later and Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday did. Invasion of Privacy wisely tightens up the kinds of songs that have worked for Cardi thus far and introduces a few new tricks. It’s a collection of airtight strip-club bangers and heavier emotional numbers, a mix of the expected and the delightfully unexpected.
The pre-album hit parade of “Bodak Yellow,” “MotorSport,” “No Limit,” and “Bartier Cardi” offered solid proof Cardi B can knock out a midtempo trap joint without breaking a sweat, and fans of those records will love Invasion’s “Drip,” “Money Bag,” and “Bickenhead.” “Drip” revisits the winning chemistry Cardi and the Migos cultivated on “Lick” and “MotorSport,” while “Money Bag” calls back to the same blend of Chicago drill flows and foreboding productions as attention-grabbing mixtape-era tracks like “Lit Thot” and “Foreva.” “Bickenhead” samples the Project Pat single “Chickenhead” and patterns itself after Pat and Three 6 Mafia affiliate La Chat’s side-splitting verse-two back-and-forth as it revels in the free-spirited fashion and sex-positivity that uptight, grubby guys use as an excuse to call women awful names.
Invasion could’ve gone gold just turning in a dozen elite club joints, but it has bigger designs. “Be Careful” and “I Do” are powerful records both for Cardi as a rapper still growing as a writer and for a rap industry that is severely unbalanced in the way that it conceptualizes relationships. “Be Careful” is a slow jam built around an interpolation of Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” that gives voice to the wives and girlfriends put out by the promiscuous behavior men brag about in their music: “You even got me trippin’, you got me lookin’ in the mirror different / Thinkin’ I’m flawed because you inconsistent.” It’s a special moment for a rapper whose kingdom was built on slapstick, noisy South Bronx swagger, and an exotic dancer’s necessary watchfulness to express this much frailty. (Rappers will cop to hurt feelings but never to a significant other damaging their very self-worth, but we should never forget that Cardi’s journey to stardom started with a flight from an abusive boyfriend. She moves swiftly and precariously because the stakes are high, and she knows what rock bottom is.)
As Invasion of Privacy unfolds, you realize the refrain of “Be careful with me” is a threat and that two-timing Cardi B is a crime with hellish consequences. Cardi and SZA gleefully plot Lysistrata moves on a man in “I Do.” “Here’s a word to these ladies: don’t you give these niggas none / If they can’t make you richer, they can’t make you cum.” (SZA’s hook is absolutely brutal: “Left that nigga on read cause I felt like it!”) “Thru Your Phone” catches Cardi peeking into her guy’s cell and then scheming on revenge to Beyoncé’s scorned love classic “Resentment” when she finds some dirt. “Imma make a bowl of cereal with a teaspoon of bleach,” she raps. “Serve it to you like, ‘Here you go, nigga, bon appetit!’” As is the case with Queen Bey, when you step out on Cardi B, you might hear about yourself on the charts.
The deeper Invasion of Privacy digs into the other side of the game, into the consequences of chauvinism and womanizing, the more important it feels. There’s miles of very popular rap music that speaks about women, Future records that talk about girlfriends like currency, trophies for skirmishes with other rappers and signifiers of desirability and sexual prowess. There’s also miles of rap music that speaks somewhat clumsily to women, as Drake has done in a career of well-meaning but ultimately patronizing songs for women like “Fancy,” “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” and “Hotline Bling,” where he gets too cozy feeling like the arbiter of a woman’s worth.
Invasion of Privacy offers necessary balance. “Bickenhead” is a reminder that dressing well and going out are ends in themselves, not just crafty attempts at lassoing a man. “I Do” is sage acknowledgment that nobody has to answer your late night “wyd?” text. “Be Careful” is proof that no matter how cool a dude seems by outward appearance, there’s always someone somewhere who’s sick of his shit. Hip-hop as a business has been very cagey about taking chances on songs like these, from industry excuses about women being more expensive to style to fans’ perennial thirst for beef anytime more than one woman is active the mainstream. Now that songs like these are moving as fast as box logo trinkets, there’s no excuse. Open the floodgates.
*A version of this article appears in the April 16, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!