ALTHOUGH CARDI B COULD NEVER BE ACCUSED OF MINCING WORDS, it’s hard to imagine a Twitter rant as frank on the subject of fame and its discontents as her video for “Press,” the tense, defiant track she released in the spring of this year. In it, a steamy ménage à trois culminates in a gunshot, which in turn gives way to a defiantly glamorous perp walk, a police interrogation complicated by very high heels, a trial that ends in a bloodbath, and, for good measure, a prison-cell toilet-bowl drowning. “Press, press, press, press, press / Cardi don’t need more press,” she raps over a frantic beat. “Walk in, bulletproof vest. . . . Murder scene, Cardi made a mess.” She’s the antihero of this ambivalent revenge fantasy; as the bodies pile up, her tearful fans begin to look foolish, and the haters—the press, presumably?—are proven right.
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The video was released a day after Cardi B pleaded not guilty to charges emanating from a brawl at the Angels NYC gentlemen’s club in Queens the previous August. If there was a point to the timing, perhaps it was to assert that Cardi was already on trial. “I thought ‘Press’ was fun and it was gangsta, and then because it didn’t perform as good as my other songs, people was like, Oh, she’s a flop; oh, she’s dying out,” she explains. “This whole year has just been a lot for me. I feel like people are just so tired of me winning. I will look for my name on Twitter, and it’s like hate tweets, hate tweets, hate tweets.”
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It’s the middle of an early-autumn afternoon, and Cardi is stretched out on the green modular sofa in the living room of her grandmother’s apartment in Washington Heights. She has just woken up, having come home at close to 3 a.m. after shooting a video with the rapper Fat Joe for his track “Yes,” on which she guests. The song is a paean to a certain rough New York—perhaps the Bronx, where both Fat Joe and Cardi grew up—fueled by violence and greed. (“My palm and my trigger finger itch, bitch,” Cardi raps.) She is wearing nothing but an oversize white T-shirt and underpants, a reprieve from the daily slog of hair and nails and zippers and heels. A giant peacock tattoo stretches over her buttock and down around her thigh. Lately her style has hewed toward the quiet and refined. She loves suits, in part because she loves the idea of surprising people by wearing suits. But for the video, she wanted to deliver early-aughts J. Lo vibes: white fur coat, white fur Tarzan miniskirt, white bikini top. A white Yankees cap was rejected, since she is a Red Sox fan. (“The underdog thing,” she explains.) Only her long, silver Targaryen wig remains from last night’s costuming.
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Cardi was born at NewYork-Presbyterian, not far from this walkup whose hallways are saturated with the warm smells of Dominican cooking. Her father’s mother has lived here for 34 years, and it’s the longtime family gathering place. She has 10 aunts and uncles on her father’s side alone, and 36 cousins, and she can remember so many nights when these narrow floors were crowded with sleeping bodies. Neighbors in the building, who have known her since she was a baby, barely seem to register her fame. The clamor itself feels protective: Her own apartment, in New Jersey, is spacious and quiet, an incubator for worry. “When I’m there by myself, a lot of thoughts go to my head, and when the thoughts go to my head, it just overwhelms me, and it puts me down, and it puts me on social media, and that drives me insane. So I just like to be where there’s a lot of people so I won’t be watching my phone.” At this point her 16-month-old daughter, Kulture, grinning widely, walks through after her bath, accompanied by Cardi’s aunt and her niece. Cardi squeals and gives her baby a hug, and the trio disappear behind a curtain that divides the living room from the sleeping areas. “Being a mom—how can I say it? Things are a little bit harder to balance, but it’s good for the mental. Like, if I’m playing with my daughter, I forget about the issues.”
Perhaps the central question dogging Cardi at the moment is how to sustain the breathtaking momentum that carried her from stripper to social-media phenom to reality-television star to world-beating rapper in less than five years. “Bodak Yellow,” her breakout single from 2017, became the first number-one hit by a solo female rapper in nearly two decades, since Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” in 1998. Cardi’s subsequent debut studio collection, Invasion of Privacy, was critically hailed and landed her a Grammy for best rap album, another first by a solo female rap artist. Musically, her gifts were as convincing as they were unexpected. Given the ribald humor, truth bombs, and instant aphorisms of her Instagram videos—in which she brought unstinting candor, a Spanish–inflected Bronx accent, and mutinous grammar to whatever topic struck her fancy (love, sex, cheating, and money, mainly)—perhaps it should have been obvious that she’d be a quick study at writing and rapping. “What makes Cardi unique is her voice,” says Bruno Mars, with whom she has collaborated on a pair of hit singles. “She was blessed with a distinct, memorable speaking voice and a tone that can set a party off. Her voice on a record is explosive.”
Cardi is hard at work on a second album, scheduled for release early next year, and the pressure weighs heavily. “The first time it was just me being myself,” she says. “I didn’t even care if people was gonna like it or not. When I found out I did so good, I’m like, is this a big number? Everybody was like, yes, this is a huge number. So it’s scary because it’s like, now you got to top your first album, and then it’s like, damn. I wonder if people are gonna relate to the new things, to the new life, to the new shit that I gotta talk about now. Music is changing. I feel like people just wanna hear twerk-twerk music, but it’s like, is that just a phase? I probably need a sexy song. I need a lot of turn-up songs. I need a slow song, a personal song. And those are harder for me—I always need help when it comes to talking about my feelings. It’s hard for me to be soft, period. So it’s a lot of thoughts, a lot of pressure. It’s really like a job.”