To call Cardi B’s new album the sound of hip-hop in 2018 is to downplay her ambition. From giant trap hooks to unobtrusively laid-back keyboards to chirpy R&B ballads, it encompasses the plural sounds of hip-hop, as they exist on today’s charts; almost every tendency currently common in the genre is represented. So broad is her synthesis that Invasion of Privacy, out since April, initially sounds ordinary and unremarkable. It sounds like another conventional rap album, before revealing Cardi’s maniacal determination to be all things to everybody. It almost plays like a genre-spanning hits compilation: Now That’s What I Call Hip-Hop!: Cardi B Edition.
Cardi B originally surfaced as an Instagram celebrity, while gradually making her name as a rapper with extensive features on other artists’ tracks, and eventually a series of mixtapes that included the scintillating Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 2 (2017). Like many artists fluent in social media, she built her fanbase online with posts and videos prior to making her grand entrance as a pop star. When she did appear on the national pop scene, her entrance was grand indeed. “Bodak Yellow,” her breakthrough hit, topped the Billboard Hot 100 for three consecutive weeks and won critical acclaim across the board. The beat’s hypnotic sway and her vocal cadence have become instantly recognizable musical touchstones.
Named as a nod to Kodak Black, whose flow on “No Flockin” Cardi replicates and disrupts “Bodak Yellow” relies perhaps too heavily on Cardi’s charm as a performer. A thrilling, defiant song, it’s too spare and midtempo to count as a truly great single. The much-vaunted beat is a fairly pro forma rap synth loop; the echoing space between keyboard and drum machine is a rap convention rather than sonic innovation. Rather, the fuss over “Bodak Yellow” in 2017 stemmed from her celebrity presence — it was the Cardi B song! — and the way it introduced her persona to the world. How fabulous to meet this shit-talking, fire-breathing rap goddess, basking in the success of her stripper-turned-rapper rise-to-fame story, snarling insults in her heavy New York accent, bragging, “I don’t dance now, I make money moves.” It was the banger that promised future bangers, and now they’re here. As marvelous as it is to hear “Bodak Yellow” in isolation, it sounds even better in the album’s context, surrounded by twelve other firecrackers of its caliber.
As debut albums go, Invasion of Privacy is magnificently sharp and confident — every song sears or sizzles or swishes. Instrumental and vocal hooks pop up in unexpected corners, arranged in a parsable sequence that starts tough and lightens up in the middle, before Cardi musters all her energy to end on a triumphant note. It’s also strikingly generalized for a debut, ranging wide to cover all her bases, yet simultaneously aiming to occupy hip-hop’s conservative formalist center. Like Kendrick Lamar’s Damn (2017), Invasion of Privacy presents itself as not just a conventional rap album but a definitive apotheosis, an album that mimics and condenses the experience of listening to contemporary rap radio while cutting down to the genre’s bare and most essential bones.
“Bartier Cardi” swerves every which way over droning keyboards and sparsely arranged adlib whoops, as Cardi rattles off a series of rapid-fire rhymebursts to complement the beat’s compressed energy, and 21 Savage’s monotone on his guest verse fits the meter. “Bickenhead,” a self-appointed sequel to Project Pat’s 2001 crunk classic “Chickcnhead,” twists the original’s beat into a sliced-up, percussive marvel, with looped, echoing background yells and eerily insidious electronic trickle augmenting the thick stabs of the electronic bass. There’s a sense of relish to Cardi’s dirty talk that the beat absorbs, too; the drum machine’s agile clicking sounds harsh and aggressive in the best tradition of drum machines imitating erotic rhythms.
Elsewhere, she’s less delighted: “Be Careful,” a slower song that showcases her singing, rides the crooked hop of a Lauryn Hill sample. The cheerful keyboard chords belie the anguish behind Cardi’s rant against a cheating partner. The chorus occupies the sweet spot between feistiness and vulnerability, while the Spanish bits in the rapped verses add a startling depth of feeling.
The many moods and modes on Invasion of Privacy illustrate the flipside of universal ambition, which is stylistic inconsistency. She returns to certain defaults, like the glittering, stuttering trap beat or the belligerent vocal chant; “Moneybag” exemplifies both, and approximates the quintessential Cardi B sound as precisely as anything on the album. It still is not the quintessential Cardi B sound, though, because there isn’t one. As a rapper, her brusque, emphatic shout is unmistakable. Yet Invasion of Privacy is a collection of individually distinct songs whose beats lack common qualities. Given the revolving all-star cast of producers, each curating a different track, no one sonic template is unique to her. The many guests featured exacerbate the album’s potential for facelessness: “Best Friend,” featuring Chance the Rapper, sounds like a Chance song; “Drip,” featuring Migos, sounds like a Migos song, and so on. That’s the point — the album paints a portrait of a musical world larger than Cardi herself, but with Cardi in its midst, afloat, thriving.
The most striking effect of the album’s stylistic sweep is its presentation of her voice across contexts — her loud, blunt, clotted, physical voice deftly swallows up any style. The transition from the salsa-inflected Latin trap of “I Like It” to the mournfully ethereal slow-jam R&B of “Ring” to the furious “Moneybag” is a demonstration of versatility as well as a declaration of belonging; the musical settings revolve around her. Consequently, her voice and concomitant inflections provide the album’s sonic signature. She’s not the smoothest or most nimble-tongued rapper, or a particularly inventive rhymer, but the crude declarative force that is her gift lends Invasion of Privacy a dogged drive, a sense of earned exuberance. Therein lies musical continuity.
Invasion of Privacy’s range is a savvy commercial strategy, as she’s already scored a number of follow-up hits to “Bodak Yellow” that don’t sound much like each other (“Bartier Cardi”; “Be Careful”). It’s equally the aesthetic strategy of a relative newcomer eager to become the biggest rapper alive: the idea is for musical exemplarity to translate into cultural centrality. By synthesizing hip-hop’s many strands, she makes her bid to become future source material, for the strands to subsequently flow out of her. With art that aims to apotheosize, it’s all or nothing — the two options are total success or generic emptiness. Cardi brings it off with the enthusiasm of a rapper making her claim on the world.
Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy (2018) is available via Amazon and other online retailers.