Cardi B: The Black Girl Who Beat Taylor Swift On The Charts

Cardi B took on a corporate hit-making machine and won -- for the culture.
Cardi B attends Airbnb's New York City Experiences Launch Event on Sept. 26, 2017.
Cardi B attends Airbnb's New York City Experiences Launch Event on Sept. 26, 2017.

This was some black girl shit. 

In front of a raucous crowd tucked into the lobby of Atlantic Records’ New York office on Monday, Cardi B, newly minted as the first female rapper in 19 years to top the Billboard Hot 100 without any other credited artists, set her champagne flute on the stairs and shouted out her community.

“All of my friends, everybody I grew up with, my family, my gang — everybody posted so I could go number one,” she said. “Everyday harassing they followers like ‘Make sure you download and stream Bodak Yellow!’” Then she hit a slight whine and started dancing and crooning: “And ‘look what you made me do, look what you made me do, look what you made me do.’ Oh my God! I’m so excited!”

She’d knocked Taylor Swift off the top of the charts, and now she was spiking the football, by quoting the song that hers had supplanted: “Look What You Made Me Do.”

And look what Cardi had done: a non-respectable black girl from the hood, talking in a thick Santo-Domingo-by-way-of-the South-Bronx accent, had booted the biggest name in music from the No. 1 spot, overcoming a corporate marketing campaign designed to ensure Taylor’s song dominated the charts. “Bodak Yellow” is an anthem dedicated to the grit, perseverance and triumph of black womanhood, and in hitting No. 1 over Swift’s expression of betrayal, the story of the song fulfilled the aspirations of its lyrics.  

To understand why this is a win for black women, you have to understand why people don’t like Taylor Swift. During her acceptance speech for Album of the Year at the 2016 Grammys, Swift addressed a verse in Kanye West’s song “Famous.”

For all my Southside niggas that know me best
I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex
Why? I made that bitch famous (Goddamn)
I made that bitch famous

The verse references the moment when West infamously interrupted Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video at the 2009 VMAs. And Swift used one of her biggest moments ― she had just become the first woman to win Album of the Year twice ― to come for Kanye’s neck.

“As the first woman to win Album of the Year at the Grammys twice, I wanna say to all the young women out there: There are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success, or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame,” she said. “But if you just focus on the work and you don’t let those people sidetrack you, someday when you get where you’re going, you’ll look around and you’ll know that it was you and the people who love you that put you there, and that will be the greatest feeling in the world.”

West maintained that he had OK’d the lyrics with Swift while she bashed it as “misogynistic” and said she warned him not to release the track. But videos posted to Kardashian’s Snapchat confirmed that West did his due diligence and exposed Swift as a liar in the process. In her response, Swift admitted to being supportive during the phone call but claimed she never heard the finished song. “You don’t get to control someone’s emotional response to being called ‘that bitch’ in front of the entire world,” she wrote on Instagram. She also called the outing a “character assassination.” She later deleted the post.

Swift pulled off a classic complicit white girl move. She hauled her feminism out of storage and called herself a victim, while obscuring the ways she might be implicated in the situation. Why can’t they just leave her alone?

This comes as reports say that Swift is releasing her new album, “Reputation,” on the 10th anniversary of West’s mother’s death.

Ellie Woodward at BuzzFeed heard all the “sinister undertones” to the feud with West:

It proved that Swift recognised the power her white womanhood affords her – presumed innocence and empathy – and used this to her advantage in repeated acts that she surely knew would damage West’s reputation and strengthen her own.

Black girls get no such luxury. Swift has crafted her image around traditional white womanhood. She’s respectable, pure, always innocent. She is fragile and in need of protection. She’s the kind of girl a mother would love. She has used black bodies as props in her videos. She thrust herself into the center of Nicki Minaj’s conversation about being a black woman in the music industry.

Swift is not particularly outspoken. She hasn’t expressed any political opinions, which has led some people to think she voted for President Donald Trump. She didn’t attend the Women’s March (though she tweeted out support for it). She didn’t speak out against the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, the travel ban targeting Muslim countries, the ban on transgender people enlisting in the military, or the Nazis who see her as their “Aryan Goddess.”  

Cardi, who has been very supportive of Swift, is the antithesis. She slammed “Carrot face” Trump for focusing on protesting NFL players instead of addressing the devastation in Puerto Rico and “North Korea wanting to blow our shit up.” She also tweeted about football team owners who claim to support their players’ right to protest but who haven’t hired Colin Kaepernick. She’s commented on racist policing tactics, the white people who steal ideas from black folks, the impossible standard by which black people, black women, are judged.

“It’s something that’s natural to me. I really don’t care,” Cardi said of her outspokenness to Dazed Magazine. “I feel a certain type of way about things and I’m gonna say it regardless. At the end of the day, before I was an artist I was a human being who paid attention to society.”

Cardi B poses with a fan made painting while leaving Revolution Live on Sept. 25, 2017 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.&nbsp
Cardi B poses with a fan made painting while leaving Revolution Live on Sept. 25, 2017 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. 

If you know Cardi’s story, you know that “Bodak Yellow” is about triumph, growth, evolution.

Born Belcalis Almanzar, Cardi grew up in the Bronx’s Highbridge neighborhood. She acquired the thick accent, she says, because of all the time she spent at her grandmother’s house in Washington Heights. At 19, after she was fired from her job at a grocery store, Cardi started stripping. Soon, her honest and refreshingly vulgar Instagram and Vine posts started going viral.

“When I started doing videos and everything I just took a camera and was like, talking about how corny guys are, how corny bitches are. Just doing jokes that I do with my friends,” she told Complex. “A lot of people when they meet me will be like, you are just like your Instagram video. I’m like, bitch I know. That’s who I am. I’m not trying to be funny for Instagram. People just like my voice or my fucked-up-ass teeth or something.”

In 2015, four years after she started dancing, Cardi snagged a prominent spot on VH1 reality show ”Love & Hip-Hop” in 2015. During her two seasons on the show, she released “Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 1,” a mixtape, in March 2016. Six months later, she dropped “Underestimated Tour Album.” But it was “Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 2,” which dropped after she left ”Love & Hip-Hop,” that solidified her future in hip-hop with bops like “Hectic” and “Lick,” featuring Offset from rap-trio Migos.

Cardi’s music tells this quintessential story of a woman pulling herself up by her bootstraps. She plays with flows ― a move that could be seen as biting another rapper’s style if she didn’t so often improve upon them with a flow that manages to be both heavy and fast. (“Bodak Yellow,” in fact, is a faster, more upbeat ode to Kodak Black’s “No Flockin’.”)

Cardi leans into her sexuality and, in many ways, her hip-hop persona captures all the euphemisms bestowed upon black women ― arrogant, money-hungry, bitchy, aggressive. Men are objects to be used and tossed aside. Her music is bombastic, arrogant, genuinely fearless. She lets you know that she works her ass off and isn’t bothered by anyone who doesn’t like her. Cardi isn’t afraid to rap about the same violence the boys talk about, nor is she scared to talk her shit ― and it’s empowering, and I don’t mean this in the sense often ascribed to the empty-calorie feminism of Taylor Swift. She makes you feel as if the circles of permission have expanded. Even her more mellow tracks ― like “Selfish” and “I Gotta Hurt You” ― end with Cardi making the most out of a bad situation. Everything motivates her to win.

“I’ve been writing rhymes and I’ve been into music ever since I was in high school,” she says on her track “Intro (Skit).” “But you know when you young you have these dreams of becoming this big star or being an artist, but your dreams start getting crushed by priorities and bills you know.”

She continues: “After I got kicked out of my house when I was 18, it’s like I didn’t have 200 dollars to invest in a studio session like I had to pay bills, I had to pay my rent.  Now that I’m making that shmoney, it’s like, why not invest on my dreams that I always dreamt of. You know what I’m saying. You got to follow your dreams.”  

Cardi is the proud hero telling grand stories of her triumphs. On “Lick,” she fires off:

Too much mo’fuckers done doubted me
That’s why I had to just prove it
I remember walkin’ in the stores, I couldn’t buy nothin’
They look at me starin’
Now I just walk in the stores, I like it I cop it
I don’t even think

She spits a similar feat on “Red Barz”:

I swear to God, they ain’t wanna see me leave the club
Got up on my shit and now they scared to show me love
They’d rather see me on the pole twerkin’ it for dubs
I guess I really gotta show them what the fuck is up

Cardi owns her past and, by doing so, dominates anyone who hates on her. She is no one’s victim. Black women don’t have the luxury of being the damsel in distress. Cardi, like most black girls, sees herself as a conqueror who may be motivated by her critics, but she damn sure isn’t defined by her hatred of them.

In “Look What You Made Me Do,” Swift gives Cardi’s method a shot. She attempts to taunt the Wests by blurting out “look what you made me do” and proclaiming that she’s gotten “smarter … got harder in the nick of time / Honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time.”

But nothing about the song proves that there’s been a transformation. Swift doesn’t sound tough, intimidating or victorious. There’s no evolution. Swift is still making music that only high schoolers and petty, emotionally stunted adults can rock to. All she “thinks about is karma,” how the couple “said the gun was [hers],” how much she “doesn’t like” them. She proclaims that she doesn’t trust anyone now, despite her walking into the situation of her own volition, and proves that she can’t make music without being the victim. The Wests have, as Frank Guan put it for, made Swift release the “worst music of her career.” She sings songs of grievance from the top of the world.

Meanwhile, Cardi “don’t bother with these hoes” and “don’t let these hoes bother” her. She’s an unapologetically loud black girl ― not just one who loudly makes statements. Cardi is actually loud, “ratchet,” and everything everyone hates to allow black girls to be. She captures the essence of the black girl who’s brash, down to ride, doesn’t codeswitch, not afraid of making mistakes and makes sure that, in the end, she’s grown from it all. She’s the rawest, most authentic form of carefree.

Cardi is something new in a society that mandates black women to conform in order to succeed. She triumphed while maintaining her authenticity. And, of course, some people have seized on this moment to bash her. Some have expressed doubts about Cardi’s blackness, pitted her against Lauryn Hill (a woman perceived as being more respectable) and said she’s not a role model.

But in an Instagram Live video shot on Wednesday night, Cardi addresses her haters directly and, once again, lets them know what the fuck is up:

Get money, go hard
Damn, fuckin’ right
Stunt on these bitches outta motherfuckin’ spite
Ain’t no running up on me
Went from nothing to glory
I ain’t telling y’all to do it
I’m just telling my story

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Black Girls Rock! 2017