The Business Of Being Cardi B
The Cardi B effect:
A branding power rooted in specific authenticity, created and permeated by rapper Cardi B. Behaviors associated with the Cardi B Effect include blunt honesty, rapping, laughing, mild to moderate twerking, tongue-curling, teeth-kissing, chart-topping and regular degular Bronx girl antics.
On August 12, 2017, Cardi B, the Bronx-hailing 25-year-old rapper, performed her now-quintuple-platinum single "Bodak Yellow" for the first time in New York, during a concert held at MoMA PS1's Warm-Up, an outdoor summer series held at the venerated museum's offshoot in Long Island City. A hometown crowd of around 4,000, from all ages and ethnic backgrounds, acted as a barometer of her ascendant stardom — the "Cardi B effect" was spreading. Quickly. Decked out in a red lace dress and a blunt black bob, Cardi was greeted with flashes, cheers and phones recording her every move. When she finally performed her fast-rising single, the crowd erupted in unison: "Said lil' b****..."
"She was like: 'Are people even going to know me here?,' " remembers Ashley Kalmanowitz, vice president of publicity at Atlantic Records, who was on the side of the stage that day.
Like the liquor in the cups of the concertgoers and the weed smoke around them, the Cardi B effect was not only perceptible, it was intoxicating — even for members of Cardi's own team. "The way the venue is set up, since it gets narrow, you can feel the energy coming from the back of the room to the front of the stage. It's amazing," DJ Sparkx, Cardi's longtime DJ, tells NPR Music.
But Cardi's trepidation over the crowd at PS1 was warranted. At that point, the cool kids at Warm-Up weren't considered her core demographic (a performance at New York's Dominican Day Parade the following day likely didn't come with the same initial wariness). And yet, the immediate embrace of the artistic bleeding-edge of New York meant that Cardi's crossover was underway. Over one pivotal weekend, she proved to herself and her haters that, riding the wave of "Bodak Yellow," she could rule every enclave in her city, from the Uptown bodegas to the bougie outer-borough art scene and everywhere in between.
It was as evident that day in August as it is now, a day before the release of her major label debut, that Cardi's kitschy, endearingly ratchet authenticity — that last word echoed by every source NPR Music spoke to — has not only allowed her to saturate the pop world, but is the reason for that saturation.
Cardi was a natural at self-promotion long before her transition into the rap world. Born and raised in The Bronx, Cardi, née Belcalis Almanzar, started to gain notoriety online in 2013 for her hilarious videos on Instagram — posting mini-vent sessions about her profession as a stripper or girls who didn't like her, holding court during advice hours, promoting her crystal-talon nails (courtesy of Jenny's Spa) and sharing general moments of self-proclaimed "stripper hoe tactics." Her aim wasn't to be an Instagram comedian or stereotypical parody character; she was just goofing around, being herself and flipping negative connotations on their head.
"She knew what she wanted, as far as branding herself," says DJ Sparkx, who met Cardi at Perfections Gentlemen's Club in 2013 and would be the first to spin her earliest records in the strip clubs. "She knew that she had to stop dancing to grow her brand."
That social media success soon transferred over to the small screen, leading to her joining season six of the reality television show Love & Hip Hop: New York, which premiered on Dec. 14, 2015. Cardi spent two seasons promoting herself as the "regular degular shmegular girl from The Bronx," all the while recording music, growing her followers and planning her next move. (A press release for season seven: "Cardi B heads out on tour to promote her mixtape but finds navigating her new fame difficult." If they only knew.)
She released Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 1 in March 2016, and by November of that year had signed a deal with Atlantic Records, says Marsha St. Hubert, a senior vice president of urban marketing at Atlantic Records. Though Atlantic initially kept her signing quiet (common practice in the industry — reports circulated of the deal in February and Cardi spoke openly about the signing during her summer 2017 cover story interview with The Fader), the label was adamant about keeping Cardi's brand — her personality — intact. St. Hubert says there was "never a censor, never a muzzle, never a 'You should take that post down' conversation surrounding Cardi."
But in terms of getting branding partnerships and sponsorships — an important source of both revenue and reciprocal promotion — Patientce Foster, founder of Cream PR and Cardi's longtime publicist, notes that it wasn't always easy to sell the Cardi B effect at first. "It was hard to get brands to work with her in the beginning," Foster says, though she did not disclose what brands were initially reluctant to work with the musician.
"I still want to be myself, I still want to put my opinions out there or whatever, I just really want people to take my music serious," Cardi told XXL Magazine in June 2016. In November that year, she admitted that she'd almost skipped joining Love & Hip-Hop in order to focus on her music.
Early on, Cardi's focus on her music career slowed those sponsorship talks.
"By the time we signed her, she was around, I think, 6 or 7 million followers on Instagram," St. Hubert explains. "[Her fans] would be very engaged when it wasn't around the music, per se. So for us, our goal throughout this whole process is to get Cardi in music conversations."
St. Hubert remembers the initial uphill battle to get Cardi recognition in the rap space. "A lot of times, we'd pitch certain things and we'd go have conversations with outlets and they'd be like, 'We'd love to have her talk about that one time she said this or said that,' " she says, "and basically it was on us, between myself and Ashley, to really always [bring] the conversation back to music."
Cardi dropped her second mixtape, Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 2, in January 2017, with Atlantic distributing the project. GBMV2 peaked at No. 25 on Billboard's list of Independent Albums. "I want a certain type of respect on my name," she told The Breakfast Club in January, after the tape's release.
In late April, Cardi recorded what would become her golden ticket. On "Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)," Cardi mimics the flow of Florida rapper Kodak Black, spitting about everything from retiring from stripping, Louboutins, paying her mom's bills and having an unmatched work ethic in the game. Jermaine White, aka J White Did It, who produced the track, recalled Cardi's laser focus in the studio to Complex in August, 2017, saying their "chemistry at first was a love-hate one because I was such a general at first, and then she became the general."
Atlantic put out the single on June 16, followed by a lavish, Dubai-set music video the following week. Upon its release, "Bodak" broke into the Hot 100 at No. 85. For the July 4 holiday, St. Hubert set out to work the track through the holiday break, calling on the label's radio promotions team to push the song into heavy rotation. By the time she arrived back to work Wednesday, July 5, St. Hubert says the song was averaging nearly three million streams a week across all streaming services.
The venomous wit Cardi uses to craft her lovable and savage Instagram rants is the same ingredient that makes "Bodak Yellow" sting so sweetly. An anthem by all accounts, the track unifies and speaks to many different groups without compromising its own gritty truth.
As "Bodak Yellow" contended for rap song of the summer — against the likes of French Montana and Swae Lee's "Unforgettable," DJ Khaled, Bryson Tiller and Rihanna's "Wild Thoughts" and Playboi Carti's "Magnolia" — brands finally started to become hip to the Cardi B effect, noticing the cultural markers outside of the rap world that were proving it wasn't limited to clubs, concerts and radio. On Aug. 24, a geography teacher in Brooklyn rewrote the lyrics as a part of a lesson plan, exciting her students and creating a viral moment online. Janet Jackson worked the song into her tour routine on Sept. 17."Bodak Yellow" hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 on Sept. 25, 2017, making Cardi the first solo female rapper to take the top spot since Lauryn Hill with "Doo Wop (That Thing)" in 1998. Cardi's track would stay at the top spot for three consecutive weeks, making it longest-running No. 1 record by a solo woman rapper.
As the wider world began to discover, and relish, Cardi's underdog story, the ride-hailing company Lyft became one of the first big names to collaborate with the rapper, adding her face and signature nails to the skin of its app. On the weekend before her single topped the Hot 100, 13,000 Lyft riders in New York City entered "BardiGang" in the Lyft app to use the promotion.
The Cardi B effect was airborne. Rolling Stone dubbed 2017 "The Year of Cardi B." New York Magazine proclaimed she was "made to be famous." Soon after, she garnered two Grammy nominations for "Bodak Yellow" on Nov. 28, 2017. In December, shoe designer Steve Madden announced a shoe collaboration. "Usually, when someone is on the cusp of exploding like she is, they can be very difficult to work with. Cardi B was far from that," Madden says of working with the rapper. "She has a very good perspective on life, and I like that." That same month, as Cardi was making Jimmy Fallon giggle on The Tonight Show, Amazon was brainstorming which celebrity endorsers to contact for their 2018 Super Bowl ad.
"I texted my 16-year-old daughter to ask her what she thought of Cardi B and when she responded in all caps and a long series exclamation marks I knew we had to get her," Michael Boychuk, executive creative director at Amazon, says.
"That's how we knew Khalid was going to blow up — we started pitching him to brands and they were like, 'Oh my God, I listen to him every day in the car with my kids,' " explains Andrew Hampp, VP brand strategist at MAC Presents, a New York-based music sponsorship agency that works with the likes of Chance The Rapper, Khalid and Foo Fighters. "That's kind of the secret — you need the CMO with the teenager to get music deals done sometimes."
"I think the Amazon commercial made perfect sense because it wasn't all about her," Hampp continues. "She was one of several celebrities in it, so it still gave her the pop of awareness and relevance that is so great in the biggest event of the year like the Super Bowl, but it also shows that it branded her as a personality, not just her song."
As for keeping up the musical momentum, Cardi has, at least, debunked the fear of being a one-hit wonder. Cautionary tales of artists scoring an early-career hit and then fading out or falling off are littered all throughout hip-hop history: Kriss Kross' "Jump" spent eight weeks at the top spot, Mims' "This Is Why I'm Hot" held steady at No. 1 for seven weeks and Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" ruled the chart for four weeks straight. Post-"Bodak Yellow," Cardi has collaborated with Migos, Nicki Minaj, G-Eazy, 21 Savage and A$AP Rocky, and proven she can make a hit more than once. (On Jan. 12, Cardi became the first rapper to have her first three entries place in the chart's Top 10 simultaneously.)
On Jan. 4, 2018, the pop crossover was complete, when she hopped on the '90s-inspired remix to Bruno Mars' "Finesse." The track entered the Hot 100 the week after its release, faster than any of her previous singles, peaking at No. 3, earning her a fan in Jim Carrey, a performance at the Grammys and inspiring the theme of a kid's birthday party.
In a genre rooted in showing and proving, Cardi isn't afraid to show the pitfalls as well as the peaks of her odyssey. "I'm going to take my time, and I'm going to decide on my decision. It's not right, what he f****** did — but people don't know what I did, 'cause I ain't no angel," she told Cosmopolitan in the magazine's April 2018 issue in response to rumors of her fiancé and fellow rapper Offset cheating on her, in a quote that encapsulates the grounded and the barbed of her appeal.
Even with her larger audience — 20 million Instagram followers and counting — Cardi's social posts remain just as shameless, her colloquialisms are quickly adopted (Oww, okurr!) and though she's become accustomed to showing fans a polished, red carpet image, she still isn't hesitant about getting on Instagram Live barefaced to rant about haters. The Swarovski crystal nail art she used to promote on Instagram has stayed just as inconveniently opulent — and through her mounting fame, Cardi has kept the same nail technician for five years, Jenny Bui, who says that Cardi is a trendsetting customer.
"Everybody wants the Cardi nails," Bui tells NPR Music.
Long after its disappearance from the charts, cultural markers continue to quantify "Bodak" as more than just a flash in the pan, and Cardi as more than just a rapper who lucked out. Her lyrics were used as protest signage during the January 2018 Women's March. In March 2018, the track topped a new chart when The New York Times Magazine named it the No. 1 song on its annual list of "25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going," citing its self-contained strength and unashamed recounting of her past as a feminist line in the sand. While other women in music have kept their respective time in the sex industry shadowed due to lack of relevance in their music, Cardi uses hers as a point of personal motivation and has been vocal about her advocacy for those still in the industry.
"People say, 'Why do you always got to say that you used to be a stripper? We get it.' Because y'all don't respect me because of it, and y'all going to respect these strippers from now on. Just because somebody was a stripper don't mean they don't have no brain," the rapper explained in Cosmopolitan.
"It's part of her story and how she got to where she is, and it's a female empowerment story," Kalmanowitz says.
"I think that's gonna be what gives her more staying power than an Iggy Azalea or an Ashanti, is that yes, people are loving her music right now — but I think like she definitely is a TV personality. I would watch if she hosted a talk show. I would watch the s*** out of it," Hampp laughs. It turns out that was a prescient statement: Cardi is set to co-host The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon on next Monday, April 9 — a first for the late night program in Fallon's time as host — on the heels of her debut album's release, after an appearance on Saturday Night Live two nights before.
"I often think about how women of color are so easily disposable in the public eye," says Taja Cheek, curatorial assistant at MoMA PS1 who sits on the board of Warm-Up planning and was there for Cardi's performance last August. "I think what's undeniable though is the way that women, and women of color, relate to ["Bodak"] and use the song as a source of empowerment, and that's important."
With her highly anticipated album arriving tomorrow, April 6, a newly-inked management deal with Quality Control Music, a movie role in the works and a fall tour supporting Bruno Mars, Cardi is living out her lyrics, again and again. Washpoppin?