A review by Jon Caramanica for the New York Times.
Cardi B’s two breakthrough singles — “Bodak Yellow,” which went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 last year, and “Bartier Cardi” — posited the Bronx social media savant turned-reality-TV scene-stealer turned rapper as a pugilist preaching the virtues of triumphing over difficult circumstances, the power of sexual agency and the satisfying payoff of hard work. She sounded ecstatic, and also ready for a rumble at any turn.
And so “Be Careful,” the third single from her major-label debut album, “Invasion of Privacy,” was a heady swerve. The beat is a tinkle, not a gloomy horror soundtrack, and even though Cardi is rapping with ferocity, she’s also stepping gingerly; the subject is her heart, and she doesn’t want to fracture it. At the bridge, she interpolates Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor,” and she sings the hook with an enchanting rawness. That she’s not a trained singer is the thing — she’s most effective at her most unvarnished.
Cardi B moves seamlessly between these modes — taking a gut punch one moment, delivering one the next. She is more versatile than most rappers or pop stars of any stripe. And what’s most promising about the exuberant and impressive “Invasion of Privacy” — an album full of thoughtful gestures, few of them wasteful — is that it’s a catalog of directions Cardi, 25, might go in, slots she might fill, or even invent.
Much as Cardi B’s ascent to music stardom has been unconventional, so is her approach to maintaining her place there. The Cardi of this concise and purposeful album is as confident on the breezy trap anthem “Drip”(featuring Migos, which includes her fiancé, Offset) as on the power-of-positive-thinking sermon “Best Life,” featuring sermonizer Chance the Rapper. “I Like It,” featuring the Puerto Rican rapper-singer Bad Bunny and the Colombian lite-reggaeton star J Balvin, is undeniable, both for its smoothness and also its revising of “I Like It Like That,” the boogaloo classic by Pete Rodriguez.
Here alone are three possible Cardis: switchblade Cardi, empowerment-seminar Cardi, pan-Latin-unifier Cardi. And those aren’t even all of them. On “She Bad” and “I Do,” she raps about sex with the assertiveness and raw detail of Lil’ Kim or Too Short. And on “Thru Your Phone,” she’s convincingly broken by an untrustworthy partner: “I might just cut all the tongues out your sneakers/Smash your TV from Best Buy/You gon’ turn me into Left Eye.”
“Invasion of Privacy” is also, notably, a hip-hop album that doesn’t sound like any of its temporal peers: It is not a samey post-trap longread designed for zoned-out maximal streaming, nor does it flirt with the sonic and thematic excesses of the SoundCloud generation. In fact, it’s more reminiscent of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when New York rap was beginning to test its pop edges.
And though it’s a debut album, it’s by no means a debut: Cardi B has been famous for years already, first as a libertine social-media slice-of-life comic, and later as an effervescently campy reality-television standout. Both of those sorts of fame are relatively young, though. Succeeding in music has generally been thought to require something more than the natural vim and charm that she’s deployed to this point.
And yet, that is partly a hip-hop myth deployed by gatekeepers. Cardi proves it’s a lie: The skills she has been deploying to hilarious effect in her other careers are exactly the ones that make her music so invigorating. Few artists of any kind are so visibly and infectiously enthused.
As a result, the appetite for her is insatiable, and the career milestones are coming fast and furious: co-hosting “The Tonight Show” alongside Jimmy Fallon, appearing on the covers of various magazines, announcing her pregnancy during a performance on “Saturday Night Live.”
She has also been the most reliable hip-hop guest star of the last 12 months, with appearances on G-Eazy’s “No Limit,” Migos’s “MotorSport,” Ozuna’s “La Modelo” and the remix of Bruno Mars’s “Finesse” — she has yet to release a dud. For someone who only started rapping a few years ago, that stylistic versatility is striking — it shows Cardi to be a quick study. And indeed, in a recent interview with Ebro Darden for Apple’s Beats 1, she spoke openly about wanting to improve as a rapper and working with a more experienced rapper and songwriter, Pardison Fontaine, to improve her technical skills. “I needed a little bit of help from breaking out of my box,” she said. “I need to learn how to flow a little bit easier and cleaner.” (There was some consternation online after an old video of Mr. Fontaine performing part of “Be Careful” recently resurfaced online. Atlantic Records did not make songwriting credits for “Invasion of Privacy” available.)
The hard work shows, especially in terms of her cadences, and her ease in adapting to various production styles. Her quick-jab rhymes aren’t particularly complex, but occasionally she gets off a delicious turn of phrase, like this one, from “Money Bag”: “These bitches salty, they sodium, they jelly, petroleum/Always talking in the background, don’t never come to the podium.”
The work of becoming a great rapper is something that’s rarely spoken about, but Cardi has been open about her education process, an implicit acknowledgment that her path to success has been unusual. It is one way rap stars are made today, and may be for the foreseeable future — not by triumphing over other rhymeslingers in Darwinian fashion, but by arriving to the genre as a fully formed personality, and then learning how to shrink-wrap that personality around beats.
This is a new paradigm, one that puts charm before bona fides. It is what happens when a genre is exposed to sunlight and expands beyond the internal logic that once drove it. But it’s not enough for Cardi to win on those terms — she wants to succeed on the old ones, too.