Three seconds of rapper Cardi B attempting to juggle a political statement and a potential wardrobe malfunction didn’t make Sunday night’s VMAs worthwhile, but it certainly came close.
After all, if anyone could save that three-hour snoozefest/Katy Perry-led disaster it would be Cardi, an exotic dancer/reality TV star turned hip-hop legend in the making. Despite being the mad genius behind “Bodak Yellow,” the sleeper hit that’s been not-so-quietly sneaking up on the competition all summer, Cardi was relegated to a pre-show performance and a paltry presenter gig. Luckily, the artist previously known as Belcalis Almanzar is not one to waste an opportunity—if the VMAs were going to act like the shockingly unsynchronized Fifth Harmony deserved center stage over Cardi B, then Cardi B was going to give those MTV execs a taste of what they were missing.
The Love & Hip Hop alum took her pre-show gig, a slot more suited for whichever Vine teen Pepsi has decided to sponsor that year, and delivered an unparalleled performance. Resplendent in a glittery metallic bodysuit and matching knee-high boots, Cardi and her dancers gyrated in what appeared to be an MTV-branded airplane hangar. Remaining high energy and altogether unfazed while performing in a near-abandoned, cavernous space for a camera crew is a definitional money move. Cardi B clearly didn’t care that she wasn’t nominated for Best New Artist, even though her ubiquitous banger just keeps charting higher and higher. Cardi B knows that she is going to be just fine, with or without a moonman or a bodice that fits her. During a VMA pre-show interview with Charlamagne Tha God, the rapper debuted her Madonna-meets-mullet red carpet look, and told the controversial radio host that, “I worked so hard for this, can’t nobody take it. I’ll kill you for this.”
With one-hundredth of the screen time of Katy Perry and five times her natural charisma, Cardi B proceeded to singlehandedly steal the VMAs, proving once again that the entertainment industry can’t afford to keep underestimating her. Her suspicious reaction to Lil Uzi Vert getting on stage with Ed Sheeran was the GIF of the night—which is really saying something when it comes to a show that’s more likely to be consumed via short clips and internet outrage than actually suffered through in real time. Cardi’s ability to silently send-up the time-honored tradition of famous white boys convincing MTV to let them rap onstage was candid and funny—two things that the VMAs historically aren’t. She followed her big unscheduled moment with an even stronger statement, speaking out in support of Colin Kaepernick during an introduction to Demi Lovato’s performance.
Cardi’s statement—“Colin Kaepernick, as long as you kneel with us, we’re gonna be standing for you”—was a standout in a night that flirted with but only rarely addressed pressing political issues. Even more impressively, Cardi B struck a blow against typical award show apoliticism while simultaneously managing to keep her dress up. While Cardi’s almost-nip slip naturally became the story, the whole incident was a reminder of Cardi’s ability to blend humor, natural charisma, and conscience, all the while not flashing her nipple on national television. Katy Perry may have dressed up like a basketball while dancing on top of a bunch of other basketballs, but Cardi B did that.
Before Cardi was the highest-charting female rapper since 2014—watch the throne, Nicki—she was a breakout star on Love & Hip Hop. As an ex-stripper turned aspiring famous person, Cardi quickly gained a reputation for sleeping with dudes to further her career and also coming up with really good catchphrases. Her confessionals ranged from genuinely hilarious, wacky riffs to second-wave feminist proclamations like, “Ever since I started using guys I feel so much better about myself. I feel so much more powerful.” Cardi had the rare ability to give a reality TV performance that read as honest and unfiltered. By packaging her realness into Instagram videos and social media rants, Cardi spread her influence like a hot meme, quickly graduating from Vh1 to global stardom.
A typical Cardi B Instagram is a selfie video, either trained on Cardi’s face or panning down over whatever shoes/clothes/waist trainer she’s wearing or selling that day. Shout-outs to the Bardi gang, Jesus, and her “good-ass family” are interspersed with very sincere speeches about work ethic, stripping, and the Bronx. Cardi B generates catchphrases easily and often; off the cuff comments like “I use my goddamn waist trainer all day long” are endlessly quotable. There’s a reason why Elite Daily recently ordained that “Cardi B’s ‘Bodak Yellow’ Lyrics Are Actually Perfect For Your Next Instagram” (aside from an insatiable appetite for SEO-friendly content). Naturally, the internet loves Cardi B—she’s a 140-character friendly “stream-of-consciousness genius.”
But while the rapper’s appeal may seem natural, Cardi’s success has everything to do with the hard work she’s put into it. When Cardi comes up with a catchphrase, she quickly goes about monetizing it. When her Love & Hip-Hop declaration that “If a girl have beef with me, she gon’ have beef with me forever” went viral, Cardi promptly converted the sound bite into a hit track, “Foreva.”
Unlike the typical artist come-up story, Cardi B knew she wanted to be famous long before she knew she wanted to rap—she honed in on the goal of a better life, and then went about finding the path that would get her there. “I have a passion for music, I love music,” the rapper has said. “But I also have a passion for money and paying my bills.”
Cardi was born in the Bronx to a Trinidadian mother and a Dominican dad. After dropping out of college, she started stripping, seeking financial independence so she could move out of her boyfriend’s house. Her strip club fame was exacerbated by her rapidly growing social media following. In 2015, she was able to quit her day job on the strengths of social media influencer perks like paid appearances and sponsored content. Her mixtapes, Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 1 and 2, followed in quick succession.
Not satisfied with her unofficial but completely deserved title of artist of the summer, the 24-year-old has been working overtime to maintain her top spot, with appearances at Drake’s OVO Fest, Hot 97’s Summer Jam, and MoMA PS1. She’s debuted a Spanish-language remix of “Bodak Yellow,” represented at the Dominican Day Parade, and bragged about her new Bentley in the New York freaking Times. Cardi’s all-out offensive is in keeping with the work ethic she’s extolled for years on Twitter and Instagram. “When I was a stripper, I used to strip like six nights a week,” she told Fader. “I used to bust my ass. And I didn’t stop [working]. Until today I work just as hard as I did before.”