“They gave a bitch two options—stripping or lose,” snarls Cardi B over the dramatic piano pings and hazy synths of “Get Up 10.” It’s the opening line on her debut album, Invasion of Privacy, and a tone-setting declaration that reveals exactly where she’s coming from. For Cardi B, losing was never on the table.
So, as she says next, she took up dancing, “in the club right across from my school.” Much like Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro)” from 2012, or Detroit rhymer Tee Grizzley’s “First Day Out” from 2016, Cardi uses the theatricality of the slow-building production to lay out the stakes. When she raps, “I went from rags to riches / Went from WIC to lit / Only person in my fam to see six figures,” it’s difficult not to root for her.
A Bronx native born to Trinidadian and Dominican immigrants, Cardi hit the strip clubs after dropping out of college and being fired from her job as a grocery-store cashier—a decision that also provided the means to leave a toxic relationship. Her bold personality and hilariously blunt rants and one-liners (“A ho never gets cold,” she proclaims in one video) brought her social-media followers in droves, and she parlayed that popularity into a spot on VH1’s Love & Hip Hop: New York. What some would consider missteps, Cardi B has turned into the stuff of stardom, and Invasion is her Odyssey, her own “Binderella” story, as she puts it—a momentous testament to perseverance.
In the modern era of rap, Cardi is perhaps the first woman to achieve pop-culture prominence without the direct assistance of a man. Her omnipresent breakout hit “Bodak Yellow” may take its cues from a song by a male rapper (Kodak Black’s “No Flockin”), but there was no co-signer, no superstar artist offering her a wave to ride or a place to stand next to him in videos. Her historic ascent included earning the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Bodak Yellow”—the second woman, after Lauryn Hill, to do so with a solo rap single. Invasion’s debut atop the Billboard 200 makes Cardi the fifth woman in rap to accomplish that feat.
One of the defining features of Cardi B’s music is its unabashed sincerity. In a pop-culture moment where honesty is as much an earnest means of self-care as it is a commodity—appearances are, one way or another, always kept up—Cardi has the audacity to be messily imperfect. It’s what makes her so endearing. Her transparency creates room for the portion of her fans whose stories resemble hers to also feel a small bit of vindication. On the buoyant “Best Life,” which gets a lift from hip-hop’s favorite optimist, Chance the Rapper, Cardi raps: “I never had a problem showing y’all the real me / Hair when it’s fucked up, crib when it’s filthy / Way-before-the-deal me / Strip-to-pay-the-bills me / Before I fixed my teeth / Man, those comments used to kill me.”