Why Cardi B Topping The Pop Chart Matters
“Bodak Yellow” is an anthem that travels. The hit track by rapper Cardi B — born Belcalis Almanzar to a Trinidadian mother and Dominican dad — seeps out of cars cruising through New York City’s boroughs. It’s launched the 24-year-old onstage for Drake’s OVO Fest, the MoMA PS1, and Hot 97’s Summer Jam. Janet Jackson danced to it on tour. Missy Elliott, Idris Elba, Rihanna, and even Gayle King have cosigned it. And this week, it reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
This is no small feat. By virtue of its comprehensiveness, the Billboard Hot 100, which counts physical and digital sales, radio airplay, and most recently, streaming and YouTube to determine a song’s popularity, bears considerable weight. The Hot 100 reflects what the majority of the country is listening to.
Between the chart’s inception in August 1958 and this week, 1,067 singles have earned the coveted top spot. But despite hip-hop’s enduring popularity, fewer than 75 of those singles have been by rappers. In his prolific career, Jay-Z has only topped the Hot 100 twice — as a featured artist on Mariah Carey’s 1999 single “Heartbreaker” and with 2009’s “Empire State of Mind” featuring Alicia Keys. Kendrick Lamar (with “Humble”) and Drake (“One Dance”) are one-timers while Kanye West has managed to fit two No. 1s under his belt (“Stronger” and “Gold Digger”). Nas has never broken through the Top 10.
Women who rap are an even rarer sight at the chart’s summit. Lauryn Hill was the first to earn a No. 1 single with 1998’s “Doo-Wop (That Thing).” In the nearly 20 years since then, no solo female rap performance had earned the same distinction, with the contentious exception of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” — until Cardi B. Given the limited number of women rappers who manage to break through the mainstream, this scarcity isn’t altogether surprising. But the fact that artists such as Missy Elliott and Nicki Minaj have yet to reach the No. 1 spot proves how elusive the position is even to the most popular hip-hop artists, especially those who are women. With “Bodak Yellow,” Cardi B — a self-proclaimed “regula degula shmegula girl from the Bronx” — is making history.
Cardi’s rap career has been meteoric, playing off a number of factors, but the path to it was indirect. At 19, the New York native began stripping to make money. Her clientele grew. Soon she began posting candid, daily Instagram videos in her downtime.
“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 in 2015. “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.”
Next, she parlayed her internet popularity into a two-season stint on Love & Hip Hop: New York. A gift from the GIF-gods, her mix of cheeky hilarity, disarming honesty, and brash behavior charmed viewers and expanded her fanbase further. Encouraged by a manager, she decided to focus on pursuing music — a long-standing dream of hers — and wound up reaching her widest audience yet. Cardi turned viral catchphrases into rhymes and, after recording two mixtapes within 12 months, signed to Atlantic Records earlier this year.
Released with no major promotion this past June, “Bodak Yellow” is her first charting single, and a mammoth one at that. Leaning on a minimal beat of three alternating notes and trap drums, Cardi borrows from the cadence used in Kodak Black’s 2014 hit “No Flockin’.” But while Kodak’s style was laid-back, here Cardi’s thick, husky voice is coolly aggressive, much like a seasoned boxer.
Although women in hip-hop have been some of music’s most electrifying, pioneering, and influential artists (see: Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott, Queen Latifah, Lil’ Kim, Trina, and Salt-N-Pepa for proof), in recent years they’ve been on a decidedly downward trajectory. Few are signed to popular labels, and when they are, they often face targeted discrimination. That they are predominantly women of color means there are even more obstacles before them, inside and outside the industry. In Ava DuVernay’s documentary My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women in Hip-Hop, Trina reveals that “females don’t get as much exposure and as much perks as the guys,” while Salt-N-Pepa have been candid about dealing with racist record companies. Accompanying the racism, colorism, sexism, misogyny, and general exploitation that goes unchecked, there’s a pressure to fit parochial beauty standards. Missy Elliott was kept out of a Raven-Symoné music video early in her career because she didn’t “fit the image,” and her verse was lip-synched by a thinner, light-skinned actress instead. Women who rap face a minefield.