It takes all of 10 seconds in Cardi B's presence to be reminded of the sheer force and hilarity of her personality. Simply being Cardi B, at maximum volume, made her a star – first on Instagram, then on the VH1 reality show Love & Hip-Hop: New York – before she'd recorded any music at all, let alone knocked Taylor Swift from the top of the pop charts with the sly swagger of her single "Bodak Yellow." She is the people's diva – or "the strip-club Mariah Carey," as she once rapped – unfiltered in a way the world often doesn't allow female stars to be. In a culture reshaped by streaming and social media, where the kids, without much corporate nudging, get to decide who the stars are, Cardi B is what you get.
On October 1th Cardi turned 25. She took a rare day off, hanging with her entire family – sister, parents, cousins – at her mother's house. But she missed her boyfriend (now fiancé), Offset of Migos, who was touring in Australia. "I was sad, because it's like, 'Oh, my gosh, I'm not getting no dick on my birthday,'" says Cardi, whose bedazzled acrylic nails are decorated with tiny reproductions of Offset paparazzi shots. "But I wasn't going to get dick on my birthday anyway, because I got my period."
It may not seem like it, but this is actually a newer, more cautious Cardi B. After a few social-media controversies – including when she was justly called out for a since-deleted tweet that referred to Kim Jong Un as "Won Tung Soup" – she is trying to learn to hold back a bit. "I used to tell myself that I will always be myself," she says. But she worries that she's going back on that vow. "Little by little, I'm feeling like I'm getting trapped and muted."
Her life is changing fast. She put out her first mixtape, Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 1, in March last year, back when she was still Love & Hip-Hop's breakout star. It was a gloriously raw and raunchy introduction that cashed in on her TV catchphrases with songs like "Washpoppin'" and "Foreva." She released Vol. 2 in January this year, five months before announcing a major-label contract with Atlantic Records.
In June came "Bodak Yellow," named in homage to Florida rapper Kodak Black, whose song "No Flockin'" inspired its flow. "Bodak Yellow" is an unlikely Number One: a tough trap song with zero concessions to the mainstream, or even anything like a conventional pop hook. In a year when the youth power of streaming services, which now count toward chart positions, is changing the very meaning of pop, she's become the first female rapper to score a solo Number One since Lauryn Hill in 1998. Not bad for someone who initially pursued rapping as a way to monetize her reality fame. ("I said, 'TV don't make you rich,'" recalls her manager, Shaft, who once produced Lil' Kim. "'You gotta sell something! Waist trainers, hair, something.'")
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The pressure is building. Her once-carefree social-media presence has drifted toward moody reflections about the downsides of fame. She's stressed about creating a debut album – the very word "album" makes her wince – that can live up to "Bodak Yellow" and the best of her mixtape tracks, not to mention the challenge of creating singles that can keep her on the charts and avoid one-hit-wonderdom. There is a chorus of doubters in her head, she acknowledges, and it sounds something like this: "Can she make another hit, can she make another hit?"
She fears failure, and paints a vivid picture of what it might look like: "If you go broke and lose your career, it's bad – and everybody is talkin' shit about it! At least if you lose your 9-to-5 you don't got millions of people judging you and talking shit while you lost your job."
Seven years ago, Cardi B was convinced she'd already failed at life. To please her mom, she was studying at a Manhattan community college with plans to become a history teacher. Born Belcalis Almanzar, she'd grown up in the Bronx's Highbridge neighborhood, and she was struggling to survive financially on her own. "It was just very sad," she says, uncharacteristically subdued.
"It was very frustrating – you have to pay for everything. When I finally got a job at Amish Market, I had to debate, 'Do I wanna go to class or do I wanna finish my shift?'"