There’s a rule of thumb for people just learning to draw that suggests employing a series of short lines instead of a single, overly ambitious one. I guess the idea is that multiple, tiny strokes mean a result that’s more tightly controlled, less unwieldy. And if you sketch your small lines carefully, you’ll end up with the final product you set out to draw in the first place. It seems to me that it’s a rule that applies elsewhere, too. I have thought about lines, short and long, over the past week or so, watching Cardi B release her debut album, embark on a major promo tour in support of it, and announce her pregnancy.
If you were to go by much of the recent press about her, of which there has been a deserved but inordinate amount, Cardi drew one long line straight from obscurity to “Bodak Yellow” and the bouquet of record-breaking achievements that seems to grow every day. But, wilfully or not, that narrative obscures all her short lines: the months she spent in a manager’s basement studio teaching herself to rap, the days spent on the road away from her family, and all the other non-euphemistic, unglamorous instances of hard work to which she constantly refers in explaining her literally unprecedented success.
When I first met Cardi, early in 2016, she hadn’t yet fixed her teeth and had just two tepidly received songs under her belt — a promising single called "Cheap Ass Weave" and a random remix of a Shaggy track. At the time, she was unsure about her music, but willing to give it a try. A year-and-a-half later, she had released two compelling mixtapes and several freestyles that were a direct challenge to radio DJs and, she specified, other male industry gatekeepers who did not take her forays into music as seriously as she did. Despite those barriers to entry, she had some traction on hip-hop radio and among fans who knew her from social media or reality TV — even before “Bodak Yellow” was released in June 2017.
Still, she had her goals set higher. “I'm hanging out with more artists and I'm seeing what they making and I'm seeing the type of shit they get into and now it's like, now I want that as a goal,” she told me last spring, during an interview for her FADER cover story. “At first I just wanted like to make music and people love my music. Now I want to have number one hits on Billboard. That's what I want. I want to be the best, I want to be number one. And that's crazy because it's, like, that was nothing that came into my mind before. In the beginning I always used to be like, ‘Shit, I want a million dollars, I want to make mad money.’ But now it's like sometimes it's not even really about the money, I just want that respect. I want different artists to be blowing up my phone, like ‘I wanna work with you.’ Which they are, but I want every single one of them.”
On Invasion of Privacy, Cardi proves that her talent all along has been sketching out her fullness as a person through whatever medium she chooses.
By the time “Bodak Yellow” became "the song that made [her] rich,” the short lines that led up to it were starting to bleed into one. And yet the hard work, which was also smart work, persisted. Across Invasion of Privacy, which cleverly caps out at 13 songs and a lean 48 minutes, Cardi proves that her talent all along has been sketching out her fullness as a person through whatever medium she chooses. Unlike her peers, many of whom adopt different personas on record, especially early on in their careers, she is a woman exposed and complete.
On songs such as “Be Careful,” a Boi-1da, Frank Dukes, and Vinylz-produced single that, she hinted at a recent album listening party, was originally destined for Drake, and “Thru The Phone,” a pop radio shoo-in written in collaboration with Justin Tranter, she makes vulnerability pay off. Those songs interface with the more bombastic songs on Invasion of Privacy — such as the horn-driven, convertible-ready “I Like It” (featuring Bad Bunny and J Balvin), or the chest-pounding “Money Bag” — in a way that feels significant in this singles-first streaming era. In some ways, the album reads like her early Instagram posts writ large and permanent, observational humor and inspirational mantras set to 808s and rattling synths. Much of the album is so clearly from her singular perspective that it has felt like salve for, or at least a little respite from, the barrage of vile men who are currently atop the charts.
But it’s not as simple as that. On Saturday night, Cardi B revealed her pregnancy with a dramatic zoom-out during the second of two excellent SNL performances. Within hours, the news had sparked conversations about motherhood and, in particular, black women’s motherhood: Is it a prison or a freedom? How does it intersect with class? What does it mean for career opportunities or selfhood? But as usual, people were speaking for Cardi instead of about her, drawing their own lines over the ones she already carefully sketched.
“I feel like I'm old. They be tryna make women feel like if you don't get your life together by a certain age, then you're fucked… I don't want to be a single mom, to be honest with you. I can be a single mom because I can take care of my kid. I'm financially stable. But I don't want to raise it by myself. There's gonna be nights that I want to sleep and I want my partner to help me. And if I have a son, I would like my baby's father to teach my son how to be a man,” she told me last spring, speaking about a hypothetical baby and a hypothetical partner. “I got three nieces — Amor, Malia, and Leah. They all the same age. They all so cute together and I'm the only one that's missing.”
She followed those thoughts up on a Breakfast Club interview on Tuesday morning: “It really bothers me because I see a lot of women online like, ‘Oh I feel sorry for you, oh your career is over.’ And it’s like, Why can’t I have both? Why do I gotta choose between a career and a baby? I want both.”
In that way, Cardi has also complicated the idea of love and womanhood and relationships, offering something that I read as an unintended but effective companion piece to Beyoncé’s Lemonade — a layered and deeply affecting self-portrait a woman intentionally and intently making the decisions that suit her. Last night, in yet another high-profile stop on her Invasion of Privacy whirlwind, Cardi co-hosted The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, confirming that her charm and talent extends well beyond music and reality TV confessionals. I’d believe it if, having conquered rap, she left it behind and move on to something else. That would be her prerogative, and our privilege to witness. This summer, inshallah, Cardi will have her baby. And then Cardi will do whatever the hell Cardi wants, adding little lines as she draws her wishes into existence.