Cardi B In The Post-Album Era
About a month ago, in its woefully misbegotten list of the 200 greatest rap albums of all time, Rolling Stone put Cardi B’s 2018 debut Invasion Of Privacy all the dang way up at #16. That decision caused all kinds of online consternation from just about everybody, me included. My problem with that placement wasn’t that I think Invasion Of Privacy isn’t a classic album; it’s that you’re not going to convince anyone of its worth when you pull a troll move and say that it’s better than Illmatic. Thing is: I think that Invasion Of Privacy really is a classic album, or at least the closest thing to a classic album that the circumstances would allow. Maybe “classic” is too loaded a term, but Invasion Of Privacy is some kind of miracle: A hyped-up pop-rapper taking an unconventional route to the top but still dropping a debut LP that’s hard but accessible, one that checks the different smothering demographic boxes without losing its quality control or its focus. I still kind of can’t believe that the album exists. And if we never get another Cardi B album, I’m fine with that.
Invasion Of Privacy is more than four years old now, and there hasn’t been another Cardi album since. This is not worth fretting about. There definitely will be another Cardi album one day. Cardi has said that it’ll come out this year. In a Twitter voice-note thing a couple of months ago, Cardi said that she was having some issues getting the next record together without really describing what those issues might be: “I really had technical difficulties with my latest project. I had not one, not two, but three technical difficulties on the music that I’ve been working on. It had to be done and taken care of before I could put it out.” I love how vague and yet specific that explanation is. “Technical difficulties” presumably means sample-clearance issues and/or guest-artist politics, but I like the idea that her mic just stopped working or something.
In any case, the past four years have proven that Cardi B never needs to make another album. She can ride the zeitgeist just fine without it. Starting with “Money,” a #13 pop hit that came out a few months after Invasion Of Privacy, Cardi has kept up a steady stream of non-album singles — not just the collaborations that you’d expect of a rap star of her stature, but full-on solo songs that have racked up platinum certifications without ever needing to find a home on an album. “WAP” has never shown up on an album, and that didn’t stop it from being absolutely massive.
It would be one thing if these one-off Cardi B singles were straight-up pop songs that existed to rack up radio plays and then disappear into the ether, but that’s not the case. Cardi is still making hard, nasty songs, and those songs are still successful. Just last year, Cardi returned to #1 with “Up.” That song might have a dazzling, absurd video, but it’s really just Cardi, with no guests, spending two and a half minutes snarling about sex and violence. If anyone else makes that song, there’s no way that it becomes a pop hit. Cardi has figured out a career path where those received-wisdom rules don’t apply.
On Friday, Cardi released her new single “Hot Shit.” I don’t know if it’ll be a pop hit or not, and I don’t know if it matters. On the one hand, “Hot Shit” is an event — Cardi teaming up with Lil Durk, who’s having a moment that’s now lasted for at least two years, and with Kanye West, who can’t seem to escape the A-list despite his own best efforts. But “Hot Shit” is also a hard-ass rap song with no video and a cuss word in its title. The song has a hook, but that hook is really just a couple of extra bars of rapping; it doesn’t sound like a chorus. “Hot Shit” could turn out to be an opening salvo from an album-rollout campaign, or it could just be one more one-off Cardi B single. Either way, I really like it.
Cardi has said that she’s had most of “Hot Shit” in the can since 2019, but it fits thematically with what happened a few months ago, when Cardi jumped on the single “Shake It” with Bronx drill upstarts Kay Flock, Dougie B, and Bory300. Both tracks are just Cardi talking irrepressible hard shit over simple, energetic beats, which is what Cardi was doing back in the pre-“Bodak Yellow” days, when she dropped two mixtapes in six months. I love the “Hot Shit” moment when the quick “Electric Boogie” sample arrives just Cardi says she’ll slide on the opps — the same perfect timing as the choo-choo sound effect right after “I would let ’em run a train” on “Up.” Sometimes, it’s the little things. And anyway, Cardi is so famous and so charismatic that she can make street records like “Shake It” and “Hot Shit” without losing her rep as a pop-rapper or endangering her ability to show up on shit like the David Letterman Netflix show. That’s how she’s transcended the demands of the album cycle.
For many years, pundits like me have been imagining a day when the album format becomes totally outdated — first because of Napster, then iTunes, and now streaming. It’s not going to happen. Stars like albums because albums work on a marketable cycle, even if the individual hit songs are the things that end up making all the money. Someone like Drake has a weird relationship with the album format. He’ll release massive hits as one-offs or claim that his album-length projects aren’t really albums, but he’ll also put a whole lot of emphasis on the marketing when he does make something that he considers to be an album. But Drake doesn’t need to do all that, and neither does Cardi. Unless she makes some doofy-ass statement about vaccines and swollen balls, Cardi will keep getting Met Gala invites for life. She was famous for being famous before she even became a rap star, and now she’s super-famous for being famous. If she makes an album, it’ll be because she wants to do it, not because she needs it, even for brand-management purposes.
That same kind of thing seems to be happening across the rap landscape lately. Cardi’s “Bartier Cardi” collaborator 21 Savage has been on a tremendous run lately, and it’s been well over a year since he and Metro Boomin released Savage Mode II. Savage isn’t as big as Cardi, but he’s big enough that he can show up with a nasty-ass verse and soak up all the attention that comes with it. Last month, Savage put in a great showing on Pharrell’s single “Cash In Cash Out,” arguably out-rapping an on-fire Tyler, The Creator. (“She swallow all my kids, she a bad babysitter?” I lost it.) Then, one week later, Savage was upstaging Drake on “Jimmy Cooks,” which went on to become the #1 song in America. Savage doesn’t need the album cycle anymore. Neither, for that matter, does Cardi’s “Rodeo” collaborator Lil Nas X.
Lil Nas X may or may not be a rapper, but he became a sensation long before last year, when he finally deigned to release an actual album. (In a great little twist, Lil Nas X didn’t need to come out with an album to get an Album Of The Year Grammy nomination; he got that for his first EP.) Lil Nas X’s new single “Late To Da Party (Fuck BET)” exists completely independent of any kind of album cycle; it’s just a near-instantaneous reaction to a complete lack of BET Awards nominations. In a previous era, a song like that might’ve been pure mixtape fare. Today, that song has a video and an appearance from NBA YoungBoy, a giant YouTube star who exists on his own accelerated album-cycle timeline and who seems to release a new song everyday. Even someone like JID isn’t exactly famous, but he recently rapped on a big Imagine Dragons hit, and now he can come out with pure-rap showcases like “29 (Freestyle)” at his leisure. Those between-albums tracks are nothing new, but they used to end up on movie soundtracks, or mixtapes, or SoundCloud. Today, they’re going to the same streaming services as the actual albums. They’re as official as anything else.
I love albums. I’m old enough that I still tend to process new music through the lens of album releases. But that format doesn’t have to be for everyone. Nobody needs to force an album just because of some arbitrary conventional schedule. Some artists are singles artists, and you can be a singles artist even if Rolling Stone has deemed your one album to be the 16th-best rap album of all time.
1. Dusty Locane – “Cremate (Run Outta Lucc)” (Feat. 3Kizzy, Stelly Hundo, & OMB Jay Dee)
It was true in the Ruff Ryders days, and it’s true now: If you’ve got four guys ranting about joyous violence in heavy New York accents over a beat that sounds like an angry foghorn, I will be happy.
2. Bandmanrill – “Floyd”
I don’t know whether this beat counts as drill or whether it’s some new mutation of Jersey club. All I know is that it sounds like the best kind of panic attack.
3. Mozzy – “Lurkin” (Feat. EST Gee)
Mozzy has been a master of straight-faced real talk for a long time, but he doesn’t always translate that gift into making straight-up bangers. Maybe that’s why this one hits so hard. Mozzy and EST Gee make complete sense together; I hope they’ve got more of these on deck.
4. P-Lo – “One Thing”
This isn’t remotely practical, but every rap video should be shot at an NBA Championship parade.
5. Germ – “Wont Go, Cant Go”
This song sounds like it crawled out of a muddy swamp and then sat down next to you on the couch when you were high and watching Netflix.