Recently, one of my homegirls — who really could not care less about hip-hop — asked me what I thought about Cardi B’s jam “Bodak Yellow.”
Before I could even tell her I hadn’t heard it yet, she started rapping.
These expensive, these is red bottoms
These is bloody shoes.
She laughed. I cringed. Calling Christian Louboutin shoes by their street name, “red bottoms” — in the presence of a style writer, no less! — is straight sacrilegious. That and the utter ratchetness — we are talking a litany of four-letter words and explicit descriptions of sex — led me to turn my nose all the way up.
No, thank you. I think I’ll pass.
In the last week, however, pop culture has forced me to pay attention.
The undisputed jam of the summer, “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” has been sitting pretty at No. 3 on Billboard’s Top 100 chart — up from No. 8 last week. It’s likely that Cardi B, the 24-year-old former star of the reality show Love & Hip Hop: New York, will perform the slow-tempo rap that recaps her come-up from the projects to the lush life on the Liberty Stage at Made in America on Saturday.
The buzz from Cardi B’s Sunday night appearance on MTV’s Video Music Awards is still loud as her followers — she has more than nine million on Instagram alone — continue to shout her out on social media for bigging up beleaguered NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
“Colin Kaepernick, as long as you kneel with us, we gonna be standing for you, baby,” Cardi B screamed in her thick, Dominican-tinged New York accent. (Her dad is from the Dominican Republic; her mom is from Trinidad.)
And didn’t Cardi B handle that VMA dress situation like a boss? Her light-pink gown slipped out of place when she introduced Demi Lovato, but she recovered quickly, coolly placing her hand over her dress as the camera panned back to her.
“Oh yeah, she’s that girl,” said Jennifer Coats, 29, a North Philadelphian and longtime Cardi B fan who considers Cardi B’s rags-to-riches story inspirational. “She never ever tried to be someone she’s not. She didn’t stay stuck in reality TV — she chased her dream, and she climbed to the top of the charts.”
Cardi B was born Belcalis Almanzar in the South Bronx. And before she was the chatty, take-no-shorts, around-the-way girl whose boyfriend was in jail on Love & Hip Hop: New York, she was a stripper. A stripper who posted photos and profanity-laced videos about her life both on and off the pole. Her tongue was slick. But she was funny and cute. And she was real. Hell, yeah, she had plastic surgery. And as soon as she got some money, she was going to get those teeth fixed.
(She got money and she got her teeth fixed.)
“We saw her when she moved into her apartment. We saw her when she got a house. We saw her help her sister [Hennessy] out,” said Carmena Ayo-Davies, a Philadelphia publicist making her own reality TV moves on VH1’s Baller Wives. “We’ve seen her go through it all, and we rode with her. I think she’s amazing.”
The Instagram exposure helped Cardi B win a permanent role on the sixth season of Love & Hip Hop in December 2015. Along the way, she released mixtape after mixtape, as well as a music video for her single “Cheap Ass Weave.” (You can’t get any more real than that title.) She partnered with MAC Cosmetics for a New York Fashion Week event. This year, she quit Love & Hip Hop and signed a music deal with Atlantic Records.
Her audience expanded beyond Instagram hotties perfecting the booty selfie to include women of all ages and races. Underneath the skin-tight body suits and ridiculously short shorts, Cardi B is a woman with unflinching drive. She escaped an abusive relationship. Cardi B lives her life on her own terms while encouraging other women to lean in, too. She is the Sheryl Sandberg of the ‘hood. And folks have responded.
“She cuts across all economic and demographic genres,” said Errin Haines Whack, 39, who writes about the intersection of race and culture for the Associated Press in Philadelphia and who is a bona fide Cardi B fan. “I mean, I’m not about to give this chick a humanitarian award, but she has nailed the empowerment piece of it. She’s seized the moment. She’s all about being who you are.”
I started to understand the appeal of Cardi B, whom fans laud for living her version of the American dream. There were times when I giggled out loud about her pursuit of the “shmoney.” It seems she’s made rapper Bobby Shmurda’s slang even more popular than Shmurda did.
But, still, I worry about the overtly sexual image. It tires me. Although Cardi says she didn’t sleep her way to the top — and who am I not to believe her — do we have to objectify ourselves all the time? Then again, as Whack reminded me, “If Kim Kardashian can cash in on her sexuality, why should we hold Cardi back?”
Still, my limitations are holding me as tight as an Herve Leger bandage dress.
I was raised in a world of hip-hop where women freely alluded to sex in complicated, syllable-heavy verses, but our clothing was baggy. Lil’ Kim was as wild as it got back then. Later, Nicki Minaj was simply manufactured.
But Cardi B has tapped into women’s aspirations in ways other young rappers haven’t. She’s flipped old ideas about life, money, success, and femininity on their head. She’s shown her fans she is not afraid of the grind. She’s savage the same way early Jay Z raps were. That’s why, they say, Cardi B is a Shero. She is an example of a woman living a life she wants. It’s hard for me to swallow this version, but just because she’s not the woman I want to be doesn’t mean she doesn’t get to be the woman she wants to be.
“She just has a different message than what we had when we were coming up,” said Elena Romero, an adjunct media professor at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and author of Free Stylin’: How Hip Hop Changed the Fashion Industry. “But she’s a businesswoman at her core. She’s smart enough to know what her flaws are, where she needs to improve, and she’s connecting and aligning herself with the right team to make it happen. You can’t hate on that.”