Even if you’re among Cardi B’s 34 million Instagram followers, and have tuned in daily for your fix of her raucous, unfiltered videos on social media, you might want to pause for a second to consider the number of life-changing events she’s cycled through in the year or so since becoming hip-hop’s breakout female star. It was “Bodak Yellow,” the single she released in June 2017, that, within three months, made Cardi the first solo female rapper to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart since Lauryn Hill, in 1998. That same summer, Drake invited her onstage during his OVO Fest, in Toronto, and then in September, she married the rapper Offset, of Migos, whose own career was in overdrive. Pregnant with her first child by October, she threw herself into recording the songs and videos for her debut album, Invasion of Privacy. This past April, she launched the album and revealed her baby bump on Saturday Night Live; in July, she gave birth to her daughter, Kulture Kiari. Meanwhile, Invasion of Privacy topped the charts, and she and Drake tied for the most nominations at the 2018 American Music Awards. She has movie offers on tap and a 2019 tour in the works, and is a contender for the next Super Bowl halftime show. At 25, Cardi is not only the first female rapper in history with three Hot 100 No. 1 singles but she’s likely the first to juggle sudden global fame with a newborn.
“When I got pregnant, I was fucking freaking out,” Cardi, born Belcalis Almanzar, told me recently. “Everybody around me was like, ‘No, this never happened before. Every artist that had a baby, they already put in years in the game. This is your first year. You’re going to mess it up. How are you going to make it?’ ” She was sitting on a brown suede sofa in her grandparents’ modest walk-up apartment in the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, polishing off a salad that her abuelito, as she calls her grandfather, soon cleared from the wooden stool she was using as a table. Nestled against the velvet pillows, she tucked her bare feet under her and slid her ever-present phone beneath her thigh. “While I was pregnant, I kept telling myself, I can’t wait till I’m back out there. I’m going to look hot, and I’m going to be that bitch.”
In 2013, while working as a stripper, Cardi began posting funny, off-the-cuff monologues to social media that soon led to a spot on the VH1 reality series Love & Hip Hop. Her candor, then as now, is her secret weapon. She speaks her mind, in a thick New York Latina accent; on platforms known for their artifice, she comes across as hyper-authentic. Recently, demonstrating that her post-baby breasts had been lifted with tape for an event, she announced via Instagram that she would be getting them done, for the second time. “I’m not even going to call it surgery, I’m just going to say a ‘titty renovation,’ ” she declared. In both her songs and posts, Cardi rolls out several facets of herself. In some, she’s the snarling vixen, taking to task her naysayers and the truant men in her life; in others, she’s every woman’s ballsy BFF, dispensing tips on how to game the system and make money moves.
On this rainy September afternoon, however, that brash, braggadocious Cardi was on a break, while new mama Belcalis was in the bosom of her family. In a few hours, she would head into the studio to work on “Money,” the single she was struggling to finish, and, in two days, she would fly to Milan Fashion Week, where she’d sit front row at Dolce & Gabbana in head-to-toe animal print and matching furry sunglasses. (Cardi’s stylistic interests run the gamut: In November, she’s releasing the first of several modestly priced clothing lines for Fashion Nova.)
But today, Cardi’s face was makeup free, and her short tousled black wig a touch askew. She was dressed in a striped T-shirt halter dress and appeared delicate and tinier than her enhanced Jessica Rabbit–like curves might suggest. Save for occasional gurgling sounds and the car seat leaning against a wall, there was little sign of Kulture; a diaphanous curtain divided the public space from the bedroom where Cardi’s grandmother was minding the baby. While Cardi and Offset have teased the appearance of their daughter in videos showing them FaceTiming with her from a club or whispering to her in bed, their own pictures of the tot had yet to surface. Still, she was very much the topic of conversation. “Four weeks after giving birth, I was supposed to start rehearsals for a fall tour with Bruno Mars, and I couldn’t even squat down,” Cardi said, explaining why she decided to drop out. “People don’t really talk about what you go through after pregnancy. Like, they don’t tell you that you get stitches down there or that your first two weeks you’re constipated. Or that you get contractions because of breastfeeding. I wasn’t expecting that. When Kulture was born, I felt like I was a kid again; everything was making me cry, and I needed a lot of love. I be feeling like, Do babies know who’s they mom? I feel like babies love whoever is giving them the milk, and I want to give the milk the whole time. I want her to know me.” She paused to let this sink in. “I feel better now, but sometimes I just feel so vulnerable, like I’m not ready for the world yet. It’s weird.”
She and Offset plan to raise Kulture in Atlanta, his home base, where he has a house and they keep their matching Lamborghinis, plus Cardi’s new Lamborghini SUV, though the New York City girl that she is, Cardi has never learned to drive. “When I got married with my dude, we still had a lot of doubts, because our relationship is not like everybody’s,” she said. “He was always traveling, and I was always traveling. We’re artists. So I used to see him, like, twice a week, and, you know, he’s known for having different women, and I’m known for, like, not taking shit from guys. But we really loved each other, and we was scared to lose each other.” As she tells it, they had talked about marriage, and one day, in the middle of an argument, she suggested they go ahead and do it. “And he’s like, ‘You’re playing around.’ And I said, ‘I’m for real.’ ” So they got the license and had a secret ceremony in Offset’s bedroom, dressed in sweatsuits. And yet, without a ring, it didn’t feel real, she recalled, and anyhow, it had been her dream “for a guy to get on his knees and ask me to marry him. And he was just like, ‘I will never get on my knees. Fuck outta here.’ ” But he did, surprising her onstage during a concert in Philadelphia a few weeks later, with the eight-carat teardrop diamond that now adorns a hand bedecked in rhinestone-encrusted nail extensions.
The baby wasn’t planned, and Cardi asked Offset what she should do. “You think my career’s going to be over?” she wanted to know. “And he kept saying, ‘I don’t know how you don’t see it, but you so hot right now, nothing could get in your way. You just have to work hard and put out a poppin’ album. I think you should keep the baby.’ ” Offset has had three other children with three different women, and, as Cardi is the first to tell you, Internet trolls are hungry to feed her worries with rumors of his infidelity. “Every single day there’s rumors about me and my dude. And it almost drives me crazy, because I start to believe them. I don’t have no proof. I don’t have receipts. But I just got to know my man. We practically on the phone 24 hours a day. If I can’t find him, I’m going to find his friend. Somebody going to answer the phone. But I cannot be feeling insecure, to a point that I would drive my dude away, because these people want that to happen.”
On the subject of social media, she’s received seasoned advice from none other than Kris Jenner. Though Cardi is naturally shy and prefers the familiarity of old friends and family members, she accepted Jenner’s invitation to come over one night in August. “I said I’d go there for an hour,” she recalled. She stayed for seven, finding it easy to talk to Jenner, her boyfriend, Corey Gamble, and Kim and Kanye West. “Kris told me, ‘People are going to talk badly about you, but it doesn’t really matter as long as you’re making money,’ ” Cardi recounted. “And it’s true. If you read the online comments, it seems like everybody hates the Kardashians. Each and every one of them. But how can that be true if everything they sell sells out?”
I asked if she feared losing street cred once she became a mother. “You don’t lose street cred,” she said, “but people want an illusion that female artists are available. They fantasize less when they know they actually somebody’s wife. And then imagine having a baby.” Cardi, however, continues to be outspoken about her sexuality. On her anniversary, in September, she complained on camera about not getting any action (though not in those words) as the shot panned to Offset asleep on the bed. A week later, she captioned another Instagram post, of her performance at the French lingerie brand Etam’s runway show in Paris: “Your lingerie collection was sooo sexy i wanna fuck my man in all the pieces!” And yet, according to Cardi, she’s begun censoring herself in ways she’d never considered before. “I can’t rap about certain things, because I don’t want to insult my husband. And when I want to do a music video, I can’t use a male model and do crazy things.” The same goes for Offset, though: “He knows better than to do certain things in music videos. I’ll beat his ass.”
That’s likely not just bluster, as Nicki Minaj learned during their now-infamous New York Fashion Week dustup at a party—just nine days after Cardi’s scrap in a Queens strip club with two sister bartenders, one of whom may or may not have had an affair with Offset. “The shoe heard around the world” is how one celebrity site dubbed the Minaj episode after Cardi threw her platform sandal at the fellow rapper, following a shoving match that left her with a noticeable bump on her forehead. The Internet exploded. Fashion insiders tsk-tsked; a few designers privately distanced themselves. Women lamented that females were still being pitted against each other. Meanwhile, Cardi’s fans, the #BardiGang, went to battle with Minaj’s, and each rapper took to her own social media channels to make her case. Their beef will no doubt have new chapters by the time you’re reading this, but the encounter was not even two weeks old when I broached it with Cardi. “For a while now she’s been taking a lot of shots at me,” she said of Minaj, jiggling her leg. “I spoke to her twice before, and we came to an understanding. But she kept it going.” Her breaking point came when she saw that Minaj had liked, and then unliked, a tweet disparaging Cardi’s mothering skills, something Minaj has denied. “I was going to make millions off my Bruno Mars tour, and I sacrificed that to stay with my daughter,” Cardi went on. “I love my daughter. I’m a good-ass fucking mom. So for somebody that don’t have a child to like that comment? So many people want to say that party wasn’t the time or the place, but I’m not going to catch another artist in the grocery store or down the block.”
We were interrupted by the sounds of Kulture fussing before she entered the room in the arms of Cardi’s grandmother. Spying Mama, Kulture wriggled and kicked her squishy legs, and smiled as Cardi planted slurpy kisses on her lips. “She just want milk!” Cardi exclaimed. “Let me tell you. It’s like, whenever she wants, she has to get it.” Soon her grandfather joined the scene, and Cardi wrapped herself in a fuzzy baby blanket. Since Migos has been on tour with Drake, she prefers to spend time at her grandparents’ home, surrounded by doting relatives. “My baby. That’s all I give a fuck about right now,” she continued. “I’m thinking about how my money’s going to last so this girl is 21 and put in college. I’m thinking about investments. I’m thinking about five years from now and about the craziest shit like, How am I going to discipline this girl?” She pulled up the nursery music video “Baby Shark” on her phone and handed it to her grandmother. “See, that’s why I like to be here, instead of out there by myself in Atlanta. Because it’s everybody around her.”
Cardi remains close to both of her parents and to her sister, Hennessy, a burgeoning influencer. (Cardi’s name comes from her nickname, Bacardi.) She was born in the Bronx, to a Dominican dad who drove a cab and a Trinidadian mother who worked as a cashier. In middle school, when everyone else was into Pepe Jeans and Rocawear, Cardi wore lots of hot pink and furry jackets, just like the title character in the Disney Channel show she loved, That’s So Raven. Her mother was strict, forbidding Cardi from sleepovers at friends’ houses, so Cardi rebelled, skipping afternoon classes to party. She also joined the Bloods. “My mom tried to stop me from all of that,” she recalled, “but I still did it. I joined a gang. If she had let me out as often as I wanted to, I probably would be dead or got my face cut up. Or been a teenage mom.” She plans to follow her mother’s example with Kulture. “Really, no sleepovers?” I asked her. “I’m going to be very strict,” she insisted. “Like, you can have whatever you want, but you can’t do whatever you want.”
By 19, Cardi was living with a boyfriend and enrolled at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. She took courses in political science and history, subjects she still keeps up with by watching the news and documentaries. “For some reason, I’m really fascinated with the Holocaust. People were so naive back then to believe certain things. But then, we in 2018, and there’s people that believe that our problems come from a certain group of people. It just baffles my mind.” To pay for school, she worked as a cashier at Amish Market in TriBeCa; her manager advised her that she could earn much more stripping at the New York Dolls Gentlemen’s Club across the street. She taught herself pole tricks by practicing in empty uptown subway cars on her way home from work at 4 a.m. At first, she recalled, she would cry with shame whenever the faces of her parents would “pop up in my head, watching me when I danced.” But the money freed her to get her own apartment and ditch the boyfriend, who she has said was abusive. Soon, she was remaking herself. Noticing that Russian girls with fake boobs drew the most customers, she augmented her own; ditto her butt, after she switched to a club favoring women with “huge, humongous asses,” the likes of which she’d never seen, and learned that the new boyfriend she was in love with had cheated on her with a woman who was similarly enhanced.
Watch: Cardi B Explores ASMR
At the same time, Cardi started developing a fan base on Instagram that, in 2015, she leveraged into a scene-stealing Season 6 on Love & Hip Hop as the bawdy comic relief. Singing had always been a passion, since her days at the Renaissance High School for Musical Theater & Technology, in the Bronx, but she had never had the means to pursue it. “I was just, like, over my dreams,” she said. “To me, it’s all about money. I gave it a try when I could afford it.” She’d released one of two mixtapes, Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 1, before she signed to Atlantic Records in October 2016. Then came “Bodak Yellow,” followed by Invasion of Privacy. In her fifth month of pregnancy, Cardi was in the studio every single day, fighting off intense bouts of drowsiness. “She was a ferocious worker, unreal,” recalls Craig Kallman, the chairman and CEO of Atlantic Records. “I think she wanted to show women around the world that you can have it all. And I think she’s showing that.”
Over the album’s 13 tracks, with guest appearances by the likes of Migos, Chance the Rapper, and SZA, Cardi flaunted her range, from urgent street hip-hop to vulnerable ballads to swaggering Latin pop. Pitchfork called her “a born star who’s grown accustomed to being told to dim her light for the sake of others. Each new triumph rejects such a ridiculous premise, and each naysayer has seemingly only granted her more power.” On the opener, “Get Up 10,” she raps, “Look, they gave a bitch two options: strippin’ or lose/Used to dance in a club right across from my school/I said ‘dance’ not ‘fuck,’ don’t get it confused.” Going back to her roots, she collaborated with the Latin trap king Bad Bunny and the reggaeton star J Balvin on “I Like It,” an update of Pete Rodriguez’s 1967 hit song, which quickly became a beach-party anthem. “What is magical about Cardi B is her dexterity and her temerity to push the boundaries of how you perceive a hip-hop artist,” Kallman told me. “She is from the streets, and she’s going to continue to make great street records for her core fans. But at the same time, she can rock at the top of the pop field with the best of them.” To wit: her pulsing verses on Maroon 5’s chart-topping single “Girls Like You,” and her recent collaboration with Selena Gomez, Ozuna, and DJ Snake on “Taki Taki.”
“I have to take a shit!” In a former mansion on the Upper East Side, Cardi, standing in a bathrobe, was getting ready for her W shoot. At this, the room cracked up. She had come straight to the set from Philadelphia, where, the night before, she and Kulture had gone to visit Offset on tour. Cardi was being photographed by the artist Mickalene Thomas, channeling Latina glamour queens of a bygone Hollywood era such as Maria Montez, Chelo Alonso, and Rita Moreno. Like Cardi, said Thomas, “They were all powerful women who claimed a space for themselves, in an industry that wasn’t exactly inclusionary.” In photographs, collage-based paintings, and domestic interiors, Thomas has drawn on art history and popular culture to explore black female sexuality and power. She wanted to reveal Cardi in an unexpected way. “On many levels, she portrays herself through a male gaze,” said Thomas, whose first major solo museum show in Canada opens November 29 at the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto. “I wanted to see if she could transform herself and go beyond the prescribed notion that’s expected within an industry that wants to only perceive and present you as one dimensional.” Cardi, as it turned out, was surprised to realize that she had never been shot by a black photographer.
Nearly two weeks later, Cardi had her first public solo concert since giving birth, for an audience of 60,000 in Central Park. The occasion was the Global Citizen Festival, a musical event aimed at ending world poverty, and Cardi was brimming with energy from the moment she exploded onto the stage. Dressed in a red bra and red fringed pants, with long blonde tresses that fell to her knees, she twerked and strutted confidently as she ran through several of her hits. She was nervous, she admitted, and out of breath because it was asthma season. “That was a lot of energy—we need to tone this down, for my health,” she said in the middle of her set, dispensing with the teleprompter to give a short speech about active citizenship. While there had been numerous calls to action by the politicians and celebrities who had preceded her, Cardi stood out for the humor and spontaneity of her delivery. “I’ll keep it real. We Americans, we’re spoiled. We have the right to vote and nobody can take that right from us—unless you’re a criminal!” She ended with “Bodak Yellow,” but not before introducing a video message from one of her icons—former First Lady Michelle Obama. As I watched her jab her arm at the screen to focus attention on Obama, I couldn’t square the person I was seeing onstage with the Cardi who had told me, “I’m the person who has to prove everyone wrong, constantly. Constantly.” Clearly not for much longer.