Cardi B had a whole life before rap. The Bronx native is just 24, but she’s already been a stripper, an Instagram celebrity, and a reality-TV star. None of those previous careers necessarily demand the same skills as rap stardom does, and Cardi’s rise came entirely in media that exist in my own cultural blind spots: Instagram culture, New York club culture, Love & Hip-Hop. So last year, when Cardi B launched her rap career, I barely noticed. I heard a couple of songs on the radio, sort of liked them, and didn’t pay much attention beyond that. I’m embarrassed that it took Cardi filming a music video in Dubai before I realized what she is: a towering personality and an American original, one who happens to be really fucking good at rapping. As it turns out, Cardi’s spent this whole time developing a personal voice — an unabashedly loud and sexual fuck-you New York honk — that translates perfectly to rap. She’s a star, and she can rap, so now she’s on her way to becoming a rap star. And if you, like me, missed her whole rise, then it’s time to start paying attention.
Last month, Cardi released her “Bodak Yellow” video, and it’s basically everything a rap video should be. It’s Cardi, squeezed into a shiny black vinyl dress and holding a cheetah on a chain, leaning back on stone-temple stairs while telling you all the reasons you ain’t shit: “I’m the hottest in the street / Know you probably heard of me / Got a bag and fixed my teeth / Hope you hoes know it ain’t cheap.” (Up until a few months ago, her teeth were famously crooked.) Her voice is a full-bodied New Yawk nasal bleat, the sort of thing that you’ve heard if someone has ever told you that you stupid for taking too long at swiping your Metrocard. We’ve heard versions of that voice before — Nicki Minaj sometimes slips into some variation on it — but I can’t remember ever hearing it in such a pure, distilled form. On “Bodak Yellow,” Cardi uses that voice to fill up the synthy, minimal beat, using all the track’s open space to project personality everywhere. It’s a big, loud, brash, noisy song, and it’s perfect.
Cardi’s only been rapping for a little while, and anyone who’s been paying attention has been able to follow her development in real time. Last year, she released Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 1, a slight-but-fun mixtape of New York head-slap music. Its biggest hit was “Foreva,” apparently based on a catchphrase that came from a Love & Hip-Hop scene that went viral. Earlier this year, she followed it up with Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 2, and it’s a huge leap forward in every way. The big single from Vol. 2 is “Lick,” which she recorded with Offset from Migos, back when the two were dating. A lot of the time, when real-life couples record rap songs together, you can hear the two of them adjusting to meet each other’s styles. That’s not what happened with “Lick.” Offset, flipping syllables virtuosically, dances all around beats, his words falling in hypnotic patterns. Cardi, by contrast, bulldozes through the track. Her voice is like a car alarm; it’s impossible to pay attention to anything else when it’s blasting at full volume, and it’s always blasting at full volume.
These days, practically all of Cardi’s tracks play out like this. She’ll dabble in motivational talk or relationship-rap, but she’s a whole lot more interested in telling you that you can’t afford what she’s wearing and that she will fight you: “No tolerance for a hating bitch talking shit / Only time I hold my tongue is when I’m sucking dick / So when I see you in the streets, yeah, it’s fucking lit.” There’s no subtlety to what she does, but she still comes off like a complete person. She’ll rap about confronting haters, leaving them stuttering and stammering, and then a second later she’ll move onto looking at a dude’s sweatsuit dickprint. And she’ll do all this by projecting a titanic, larger-than-life charisma — the same quality that made her a success in her last three careers. Maybe there’s nothing about Cardi’s past that makes her music seem like something you should hear. But underestimate her at your peril. She has something, and rap is already a whole lot more fun with her around.
1. Young Thug & Chance The Rapper – “Big Bs”
It probably won’t be enough to save SoundCloud, but it’s still a blast to hear these two wildly creative, wildly diverging rappers bouncing ideas and energies off of each other. When that Chance verse leads straight into the second Thug verse, with no pause whatsoever, it highlights the idea that these two have more in common that we might’ve realized.
2. Planit Hank – “Finish Him” (Feat. Styles P, Conway, & Lil Fame)
Three of the hardest rappers in New York state rapping nastily over mournful detuned violins: Obviously this shit is good. Styles will catch you in the restaurant and shoot you right through the wine glass. Conway has shooters sniffing coke up off of old 50s, and he’s got the game scared like the old 50. Fame is hanging them upside down, blood spilling in the pail. And suddenly, I want to break a car windshield with my face.
3. Young Scooter – “Burglar Bars And Cameras”
Scooter’s new Jugg King mixtape is a powerful reminder of the sort of moody, intense street-rap that used to be called “trap,” back before “trap” came to mean certain synth presets and hi-hat patterns. This one, with its visceral sense of place and its mocking melody, is my favorite, but the whole tape is great.
4. Fly Anakin – “People Like Us + Questions Redux” (Feat. Pink Siifu)
Anakin is an underground rap standout from Richmond, Virginia, and his new People Like Us EP is a nice combination of noisy beat-clatter and smooth, dextrous delivery. The sort-of title track staggers out on its own schedule.
5. The Alchemist – “A Thousand Birds” (Feat. Conway & Westside Gunn)
A pretty, tinkly beat from a veteran stoner-rap master becomes something else when these brutal, nasty, funny motherfuckers get ahold of it.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
Amber Rose: "Babe, do you like rock music now?"
21 Savage: "…nah." pic.twitter.com/U1HLfUmCZc
— Joe Coscarelli (@joecoscarelli) July 18, 2017