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Cardi B on Proving Her Greatness: ‘I’m That Bitch, and Y’all Fucking Know It’


C
ardi B is
makeup-free and draped in an orange, impossibly plush, queen-size blanket as she shuffles into Glenwood Place Studios in Burbank, California, around nine o’clock one evening in mid-March. Whatever hairstyle she currently has (knowing Cardi, it could be anything from a wig worth thousands to her fluffy, waist-length natural hair) is tucked under a giant bonnet, its magenta-and-teal geometric print immediately familiar from videos she’s posted on TikTok.

Cardi, who’s been handling phone calls and other tasks since 9 a.m., is feeling drained. She’s here to work on her upcoming album; tonight, she’s also tasked with what she calls “aggressive promotion” for a new single, “Enough (Miami).” “Right now, I’m getting cursed out because I was supposed to be on Stationhead,” she says, referring to the livestreaming app on which she is expected to be interacting with her fans (stan army name: BardiGang). “I got 3,000 fans like, ‘The bitch …’” she growls, mimicking the fury she suspects is brewing. (She does eventually appear on the app, and “Enough” hit Number One on Billboard’s Digital Sales Chart.)

Cardi isn’t the only star at work in the building tonight. Lizzo pops into Cardi’s room to say hello. “Look at you!” she coos, hugging Cardi. “You look like a little angel. I love you.” She jokingly encourages Cardi to promote the clothes her shapewear brand Yitty sent Cardi’s way (“Post and tag!”) before announcing that she’s off to “get some dick.” 

“Lucky you,” says Cardi. “Lucky, lucky you.”

Cardi needs coffee. When it arrives, she tears open several — like, several — packets of sugar and dumps them into her mug, along with some cream. Despite her visceral fatigue, it doesn’t take long for her to animate. When she cracks jokes or speaks hyperbolically, there is an undercurrent of laughter that gurgles in her throat but doesn’t always break, like a stand-up who knows not to spend too much time giggling at herself. 

“I could drink a dark coffee,” she says. “But only my family could make a dark coffee I could drink.”

“Is it a different type of coffee?” I ask.

“No, but they make it with love,” she says, shrinking into a petite, Disney-princess swoon. (Her longtime recording engineer Evan LaRay Brunson tells me her family makes their coffee with brown sugar.) 

Outfit by Tanja Vidic. Rings by Vitalty & YFS Designs. Earrings by Paume Los Angeles.

It’s easy to forget that the 31-year-old superstar born Belcalis Marlenis Almánzar is only one album deep — one record-breaking, Grammy-winning, culture-shifting album, but one nonetheless. In 2018, Invasion of Privacy shot Cardi from Instagram theatrics and reality-show shenanigans into the stratosphere. Just three years prior, she was stripping. Coming on the heels of “Bodak Yellow,” one of the most important songs in the history of New York rap, the album’s emotional range and tight execution helped usher in an era in which all kinds of women in hip-hop have broken through and thrived. “These labels was not believing in repping new rap artists,” Cardi says. “People from every single label have fucking told me this shit in my face. They started signing new female rappers after I got signed. Whether some bitches could be the greatest rappers [or] they just make good music — at the end of the fucking day, guess what? They’re in your playlist right now.”

Along the way, Cardi became a mother two times over without losing herself in the role. Instead, she amped up every part of her being, including her sexuality, making her film debut in Jennifer Lopez’s stripper-heist Hustlers and recording history’s greatest ode to the vagina, 2020’s “WAP,” with Megan Thee Stallion. She earned more than a billion streams for four separate songs on Spotify. And she went on a historic feature run, lending her bold personality to rap newcomers like GloRilla, R&B singers like Summer Walker, and Latin stars like Shakira. 

Despite those accomplishments, the prospect of a follow-up to Invasion of Privacy always loomed over Cardi; she’s proclaimed that her sophomore album was coming nearly every year since her first. Along the way, she’s worried: Could she match her previous success? Did she have the right songs? In February, her husband and fellow rapper Offset put it to her plainly: “Stop being scary and drop the album, shit goes crazy.” 

In an Instagram video from March 1, Cardi promised to do just that, saying she would release the album this year. By the middle of May, however, she will backpedal in a heated online exchange with her followers. As Cardi and Spotify commemorate those four songs hitting a billion streams each, she’ll spot fans on X posting skeptically about the status of the album, and fire back: “This is a big accomplishment for me, and of course here comes Bardigang complaining like Deum I can’t celebrate shit,” she’ll write, adding, “Anyway NO album this year I don’t care I’m relaxing.” Soon after, however, she’ll delete the latter tweet, with her rep confirming to Rolling Stone that an album in 2024 is still the plan.

When we meet this March night in Los Angeles, Cardi is, in fact, working earnestly toward completing it, but there’s a lot left to do: It needs an intro and at least three more songs. It needs a title, it needs features, and it needs a rollout plan. “Being out here is my punishment,” she says. “Until I have the album ready, I’m not going home.”

Dress by Y-Project.

Having spent the past three months recording in L.A. and Miami, cities that are functionally office buildings for her, Cardi is homesick for her bustling mansion just outside of her hometown of New York. “When I come to L.A., I be like, ‘I’m ready to get shit done,’ ” she says. “Then, eight days in, my mind starts missing home, feeling lonely, and then I be like, ‘Girl … ’ ” — as if confronting herself — “I miss my kids.”

Brunson, who has been by her side since 2016, says making music involves a “roller coaster of emotions” for Cardi. “When we good, we knocking them out. Verse after verse, hook, ad-libs. I’m like, ‘You’re done quick. You sure?’ But when she’s going through it, it’s going to be a long day.”

Cardi holds herself to exorbitant standards. She wants the album to have a wide reach, but also reflect that she’s a mosaic of a woman. “I’m a different person every single day,” she says. “When I’m in a good mood and I’m with my friends, [I’m] like, ‘Damn, I want my shit to be played in this club.’ But then I might be mad with my man, so it’s like now I want to do this song. But then I want to do a pop record. I want to do my sing-y shit.”

More than anything, Cardi wants to prove once and for all that the past six years haven’t happened by luck or hype, and she’s working painstakingly, anxiety-inducingly hard to do so. After I leave the studio, Cardi needs to pore over her unmixed and unmastered songs. When I see her next, in New York, I watch her punch in lines dozens of times, fixating on her every tic, pitch, inflection, accent. She surveys confidants from all walks of life — “I have friends that are scammers, and I got bitches that work a 9-to-5” — on her works in progress. She endures the punishment of being away from home. 

So, when people doubt her dedication to her craft, it gets under her skin. “Like yesterday, I was scrolling through TikTok and a bitch made me cry,” she admits solemnly from the studio couch. “She was just like, ‘She has got to give it up. She’s better off being an influencer. You was cosplaying being a rapper. Because you don’t take it seriously. That’s why you don’t put out your music.’ And it’s like, I take my music so fucking seriously that that’s why I don’t put it out. Because if it’s not perfect to my ear, if every fucking word doesn’t sound like it’s pronounced right, if the beat is overpowering the words or the words is overpowering the beat, I don’t want to put it out.”

She continues: “When you give so much and somebody just drags it down, like you’re just playing with your pussy all day, just watching Netflix all fucking day long, it’s very hurtful.” 

Of course, the album is just one hurdle. Now that Cardi B, the daughter of a Dominican-born cabbie father and a careful Trinidadian mother, raised poor in the Bronx, has earned most of what she’s wanted, she’s been tasked with a new kind of survival: propelling her life, family, and legacy forward without getting stuck in the traps of perfectionism or criticism. And as she works to solidify her status as a rap icon, she struggles to manage the more mortal but no less important challenges of motherhood and marriage.

CARDI B’S HOME is at its homiest on the weekends. That’s when, she tells me in L.A., she and the eight people who live with her in New Jersey — her kids Kulture (age five) and Wave (age two), plus an aunt, a niece, and four cousins — are joined by even more family. Cardi feels the most like herself then, with everyone sharing food and music. “We do a lot of oxtail. We do a lot of fried fish,” she says. “We do a lot of crab legs. We do a lot of goat.” She has a Filipino aunt by marriage who makes desserts with mango, condensed milk, and lychee jelly, as well as a savory meat dish Cardi loves but the name of which she can’t recall. “It looks like a little burrito, a little piece of doo-doo,” she says, fondly. The kitchen, however, isn’t Cardi’s domain. “One thing I hate doing is cooking,” she says. “It takes too much of my time.”

Cardi’s family proudly plays her songs at the house, though she’d rather they didn’t. “I’m like, ‘Oh, God, here y’all go,’ ” she says with a bashful smile, elongating the “o” for dramatic effect. Most often though, they listen to Spanish-language music. “My country” — she means the Dominican Republic — “they listen to merengue, they listen to típico, they listen to bachata. I’m really into that.” She’d like to make a Spanish-language album in the near future. “As soon as I finish this album, I am going to fucking Puerto Rico,” Cardi says, especially wanting to make reggaeton there. 

Cardi’s preferences are dictated by her moods. “If I feel good, if I’m with my family, if I’m eating goat, I’m going to listen to merengue; Antony Santos or just local Dominican artists,” she says. “If I’m moody, I’d probably listen to a very old Shakira song or her new songs.” Rocío Dúrcal, the late, legendary artist known to fans as la Reina de las Rancheras, is one of her favorites: “When I’m going through shit with my mans, I like to listen to her.”

When Cardi was younger, she told herself she’d be a mother by 25, a prophecy she fulfilled at what seemed like an inopportune time: She gave birth just months after Invasion of Privacy dropped, and right as she was planning for a national tour. “I was really, really scared,” says Cardi. “I just [felt] like, damn, I’m letting everybody down. I’m letting my family down. I’m letting everybody that works for me down.”

She backed out of the tour to be home with Kulture. “My baby was so little — germs and planes and ear popping on a newborn?” asks Cardi. “Can you imagine a baby in a fucking tour bus?” She compared the first year of motherhood to competing on a game show — think the obstacle course on vintage Nickelodeon’s Legend of the Hidden Temple, only on two hours of sleep. “It fucked me up,” she says. “Yo, postpartum is something you can’t even explain.”

I ask her if she means postpartum depression. “Postpartum everything. It becomes depression because it’s a drastic change,” she says. When she had Wave in 2021, she was better able to stay afloat. She found reprieve in a trip to Paris soon after he was born, but also at her local IHOP, where she’d often roll solo for Bananas Foster pancakes. 

When she’s with her children, Cardi indulges in simple pleasures — cuddling in bed, taking them to Target. She and Kulture enjoy dates at the gym and restaurants, and time together at her dance rehearsals and studio sessions. “My daughter [can] talk, honey,” she says, admiring Kulture’s curiosity. “It’d be like 10 questions in a minute.” Her daughter loves her piano lessons, and two of Cardi’s dancers — the Twins, she calls them — give Kulture and her cousin private classes, having started by letting the girls pick routines on TikTok, per Cardi’s instructions. 

Wave already loves rap music, Cardi says, noting “he’s a turnt lil boy.” Kulture’s favorite musicians are her parents. She loves “Clout,” which features both of them. But more than anything, Cardi says, they like music made for kids, performed by children like a Russian-American YouTube star named Nastya and rap sensation That Girl Lay Lay, who had a show on Nick. “They’re innocent, really innocent,” she coos. She sees her younger self in them: “When I was five years old, I only wanted to listen to Barney all day and freaking Disney Channel music.”

Despite the trials that came with motherhood, Cardi wouldn’t change a thing, telling me once she became pregnant with Kulture, God had blessed her three times over. First of all, she was already rich. “Then, it’s like, ‘Damn, you sent me a baby at 25, the age that I always want to have a kid.’ Then I took a gender test and it was a girl. I always wanted a girl.” Though she was “always afraid to have boys,” she conquered that fear with Wave. “It’s like it’s meant to be. The stars align. My kids are the best decisions I ever made.”

IN DECEMBER, CARDI filmed herself on Instagram Live while she was at her wit’s end, and it was gutting. “This motherfucker really likes to play games with me when I’m at my most vulnerable time,” she said. Only her head above the neck and her slender, frantic, stiletto-nailed fingers were in the frame as she hollered, her voice cracking and face slipping off camera as she went on. “You really been doing me dirty after so many fucking years!” she yelled. “And it’s so crazy that I got to go to the fucking internet because whenever the fuck I tell you something, you don’t take shit seriously, and I’m so tired of it! I’m so fucking tired of this bitch-ass nigga!” 

She was talking about Offset, her husband of nearly seven years. Not long before that clip, Cardi had made a surprising revelation on another Instagram Live — she’d actually been single “for a minute now.”

But later, she’d reveal to the world (and to me) that things are more complicated. In February, she went on a Valentine’s Day date with him and was caught trying to hide makeup smudged from making out. The next month, she’d clarify that despite the breakup, she was still married. She doesn’t include Offset when she lists the people who live with her, but later tells me, “When Offset comes around, he comes around, so he’s a helping hand, too.” In recent weeks, the couple attended a Knicks game and a Met Gala afterparty together. For Mother’s Day, Offset gifted Cardi three diamond chains and covered her mansion in flowers.

Cardi B and Offset began dating in 2017, when Offset’s rap trio Migos were hip-hop’s hottest and most trend-setting unit. She’d had some rough dating experience with boyfriends — including one who’d overpower her in their physical fights, and another who made her feel she was too broke, too skinny, too loud — somehow too much yet never enough, she says. “Once I cut him off and I stopped caring about what he [thought] about me,” she says, “I started doing videos on Instagram. That’s how I got famous, because it was like, ‘Fuck him.’ ”

In Offset, she finally found a partner who built her up instead of breaking her down. “When I met Offset, he was super rich and I just got my fucking first $200,000 in the bank,” she recalls. “He never made me feel like I was little to him. He actually always used to tell me, ‘You a fucking superstar, watch.’ ” 

Cardi and Offset got married at home in sweats in September 2017 (Cardi’s white, with metallic trim, Offset’s black, with white checkerboarding down the sides), though Offset later proposed to Cardi flashily at one of her shows, complete with an eight-carat ring. Cardi moved in with Offset in Atlanta, his hometown, but hated it, feeling isolated. 

The couple appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in 2018, but there were other challenges — not the least of which was Offset’s infidelity. Cardi told Vogue in 2020 that her husband had cheated but they had worked through it. Later that year, Cardi filed for a divorce, explaining that it was not due to cheating, but misalignment. “I just got tired of fucking arguing,” she said then. “I got tired of not seeing things eye to eye.” But less than two months later, Cardi withdrew her claim, and the next year, they celebrated Wave’s arrival together. 

In 2022, Cardi was sentenced to 15 days of community service for separate attacks on a pair of bartenders at a strip club in Queens four years prior, in what authorities alleged stemmed from a romantic rivalry over Offset. She pleaded guilty to the charges against her before a trial was set to start, saying she was modeling accountability for her children. (She’s faced other legal issues over the years, including a successful lawsuit against a defamatory blogger. She’s currently a defendant in a suit related to an alleged assault on a security guard that’s slated to go to trial in August.)

In L.A., I ask Cardi what she cherishes in her marriage and what’s been difficult. The question seems to suck the air out of the room, but she answers calmly. “The part I love is that we really like each other, like a support system. We’re really both each other’s cheerleader. I don’t really like talking to people. I’m not as social. If I want something from somebody, he’ll be the one that will talk. Because I don’t like asking.”

When she gets to the challenges in her marriage, I’m surprised to hear her zero in on her own shortcomings. “We have our own bad stuff,” she says. “We’re from two different worlds. Sometimes I cannot be … not that I cannot be a wife. It’s just like, my career takes my life. You know what I’m saying? My career comes first, then my kids come second. And then sometimes I don’t realize that I’m putting so many things before my relationship.” 

I tell her that sounds accountable, like she’s saying, There’s room for me to grow in the relationship too.

“I don’t want to grow,” Cardi says. “I remember last year when we was going through our hard time. And it’s like, ‘Put your album out. You’re overstressing. When was the last time we went on a vacation?’ And it’s like, ‘I don’t got time to go on a vacation, because this comes first.’ This comes first and then my kids come second. The little things I have to take care of then comes. I sometimes feel like I do probably put my relationship last.” (Later, she’ll tweak that list of priorities — more on that in a moment.)

I ask Cardi what she’s decided to do about her marriage. “I think it through. We think it through, because we do love each other. It’s not even about love. We’re best friends. And it’s like, ‘OK. Well, there was a time that I didn’t have a best friend, or I didn’t have a support system.’ It’s not even about ‘How do you leave a partner?’ How do you stop talking to your best friend?”

ONCE CARDI DROPS her second album, she’ll finally tour, which will mean missing Kulture and Wave for long stretches. Would she consider a residency, of the sort Adele and Usher have taken up? “No, you’ve got to [go] for everybody from different states,” she says. “That’s how I promoted my mixtape.” 

“You’re also not in the same position you were when you did that,” I offer. 

“Yeah, but somebody might not be able to afford a ticket to go see you in a residency in Vegas,” she reasons. “Somebody could just afford a $200 ticket, but they can’t afford a $200 ticket and then a flight. And you got to touch everybody. That’s why I feel like a lot of these people don’t have fan bases, because they never touch the people. They just became famous, and they never went to a chitlin’ circuit. They never been to Greenville, North Carolina. They never fuckin’ went to a Baton Rouge type of shit.” 

When she first got popular as a dancer, she recalls, she hit little clubs for just $2,000, running around the country in her old manager’s PT Cruiser. As a rapper, she remembers, “I went to Mississippi, a small town, and they was having a slap-fighting contest. I had the best time of my life. I remember one time when I went to Memphis and, oh, my gosh, I couldn’t even see because it was smoked out. They was having a banana-sucking contest. I loved it. Or one time in North Carolina, they literally had me performing in a barn. There was a lot of people in there.”

One of the ways Cardi B measures success is by the rate at which ordinary people consume her music. Take “Like What (Freestyle),” which she released after an online hiatus. It debuted at 38 on the Hot 100, and while some may have higher expectations of her, she says it was satisfying: “I think it was good for a freestyle that they even debuted it. I feel good because every other day I see so many people TikToking, doing videos, rapping it. So [I know] that real people is listening to my shit.” 

Cardi emerged on the scene as a people’s princess from a working-class background, and she’s been vocal on social issues, too, from New York’s city and state government to Social Security and immigration. A political junkie with an encyclopedic recollection of American presidents, she became a sought-after pundit, endorsing and interviewing Bernie Sanders and then Joe Biden as they pursued the presidency. 

Then, last November, she declared she’d never do it again — for any president or hopeful. By March, she had told L.A. radio host Big Boy she wouldn’t even vote in the upcoming presidential election. She tells me she means it. “I don’t fuck with both of y’all niggas,” she says of Biden and Trump. Before, she had seen Trump as a dire threat, but under Biden, she’s felt “layers and layers of disappointment” from what she sees as domestic and foreign mismanagement. The cost of living is too high, wages are too low, and too little is being done about it, she says. “I feel like people got betrayed.”

“It’s just like, damn, y’all not caring about nobody,” she says. “Then, it really gets me upset that there is solutions to it. There is a solution. I know there’s a solution because you’re spending billions of dollars on any fucking thing.”

After President Biden insisted the U.S. could fund both Israel and Ukraine in their respective wars against Gaza and Russia in October, Cardi spoke out against it. She echoes the sentiment with me, but is concerned artists of color can get “blackballed” for talking about the war in Gaza. “[America] don’t pay for endless wars for countries that have been going through shit for a very long time,” she says. “There’s countries [where] kids are getting killed every single day, but because the [U.S.] won’t benefit from that country, they won’t help. I don’t like that America has this superhero cape on. We never did things to be superheroes. We did things for our own convenience.”

As we talk politics, Cardi is mindful of her words. With her life under a microscope, she’s struggled lately with how much to open up — on anything. The impulses that have made her both a public darling and tabloid target are similar: She’s had an uncanny willingness to be staunchly opinionated and bewilderingly honest, to be imperfect on camera, to divulge the typically embarrassing. Now, even on her album, she’s been hedging. “I really want to talk about the life changes that I’ve been dealing with the past six, seven years,” she says of her new music. “But then it’s just like, I feel like people don’t deserve to know because people use my pain against me.”

Shortly after that video eviscerating Offset, Nicki Minaj — with whom Cardi has had a hostile relationship for years — posted a photograph of Michael Jackson gleefully peering out of a car window, which many thought mocked Cardi’s furor. A flurry of blogs and commentators ran stories about the perceived slight, Cardi’s assumed response (“Take your man to a park and leave me alone,” she had written on X), and the women’s warring fan bases. So, as Cardi opened up about a breakdown in her marriage, an online ecosystem turned it to gossip fodder and stan-war artillery. But for as much as she shares online, Cardi would say that she’s actually prone to keep even more to herself. “I’m a lonely sufferer,” she says.

I ask Cardi what her self-care looks like. “Being at home,” she says. “When I was off social media and nobody knew what I was doing, I was at peace a lot. But what am I going to do? Never post or never work again because that’s peace? No. I don’t ever want my daughter or my son to ever give up on something because they can’t take the pressure of what people say about them. I got to set that example. It’s like, ‘Y’all never going to break me.’ Because I got something to prove to myself. I also got to prove something to the haters. I’ve got to prove it to my own kids.”

THREE WEEKS LATER, it’s 2 a.m. in New York, and Cardi B is at Jungle City Studios, trying to perfect two couplets on a new song. She gives it 13 takes before Brunson, the engineer, suggests some tea.

Cardi sips the green tea he lovingly orders her — extra sweet, of course, along with her bodega favorite, buttered rolls — in the hopes it may make her a little less nasal. Cardi turned up to the studio absolutely disheveled: The lining of her long black lace-front wig shows from her forehead, the layered curls stiff and frizzy. She’s wearing cute sweats — black joggers and an orange hoodie with a vibrant painting of what looks like the Virgin Mary, designed by her 22-year-old cousin, Marcelito — but she’s visibly uncomfortable. The day before, she’d been stricken with an illness she theorizes could have come from someone in her house, a bout of migraines, or the Hamburger Helper she made for the first time in a while disagreeing with her. She keeps Excedrin and Pepto Bismol by her side at the studio. “They need to endorse me, honey,” she says of Pepto. “Because that’s something I fucking use.” 

Right now, Cardi is prioritizing songs from the album that have features, or need them placed. She wants them to sound irresistible to the artists, who she says span a gamut of rappers and singers. (She also mentions she had fun working on a song with DJ Khaled, but won’t confirm what for.)

I can only hear the new song seeping out of her headphones. I catch the Afro-Caribbean energy of the beat, then hear Cardi singing speedily and in a rather high register. With every few attempts at the lines she’s trying to get down, she and Brunson work on tweaks — bringing the pitch down, rapping them more, even changing the lyrics slightly. 

“Sounds fucking terrible,” Cardi mutters.

“Don’t be hard on yourself,” Brunson says brightly.

“Shut the fuck up,” Cardi bites back cartoonishly, like an exaggerated mob boss. “I fucking hate it.” She tries again about 33 more times.

In the process, she stops to talk about some random topics: the cabbie broadcast-news network her dad used to listen to, loving New York, relaxing with ASMR. At one point, she sniffs the air and senses that Offset had been in the studio the night before. “It smells like weed and it smells like cologne,” she says. “But I don’t smell pussy. Better not come to my studio with no hoes.”

I’m surprised that Cardi is back on the East Coast after having banished herself to Los Angeles to finish the album. She tells me a lot of her family has moved out of her house, leaving just Marcelito to help with the kids — she has to look for a nanny, something she’s deeply uneasy about. For now, she’s leaning more on her parents, but she’s wary of overextending them. “I had them kids,” she says. “They came out of my pussy, not my mom’s. They mine.” Offset is around and helping out, having just finished his own tour, but Cardi still feels stretched thin. “My kids come first. My kids come before anything,” she says, having reframed her priorities since our last meeting. 

She is particularly frustrated that some of her fans expect her to churn out social media content in the midst of all this. Some even went to her social media manager to complain. “They snatched him in a group chat,” she says. “Like, ‘Hey us BardiGang, we want to express something to you.’ And I guess he was like, ‘OK, let me take your suggestions.’ And they was like, ‘Well, Cardi is not really doing anything.’”

This isn’t true: In recent days, she did lengthy sessions live from Instagram and TikTok. Both were casual, with Cardi at home (snacking on junk food in her mom’s house for the latter), dressed down, makeup-less, and direct, but Cardi suspects the want more glamor from her. “Social media is kind of weird,” she says. “Sometimes if you do two contents without no makeup, the third time they will want to see you with makeup. When something becomes repetitive, you have to switch it up.” (Getting into glam for the web from New York could cost Cardi time she doesn’t have and roughly $20,000, she estimates.)

“Not only [are] just your fans telling you that,” she continues, “you got to deal with what I’m dealing with now — motherhood — that nobody could solve for me. No assistant could solve for me. No husband could solve for me. No label could solve for me. Nobody could solve what’s going on in my home, and what’s going on in my home is we have a shortage of my kids being taken care of. I got to solve it.”

Cardi gets two calls that offer a glimpse of how she’s coping. “Hubington, FaceTime Video,” her iPhone announces at one point. I catch Offset on the screen, looking a bit like a dental patient. “You got that gold tooth?” she asks him. “You got it done! It don’t look country! Looks good.” 

“You like it?” asks Offset. 

“I love it.”

They chat breezily with each other for just a couple of minutes before ending the call. “It seems like you and Offset are doing good?” I pose.

“We’re all right now,” Cardi says. With a giggle, she waves off my inquiry about Offset updates.

The other call, Siri announces, is from an unsaved Los Angeles number. “My therapist,” Cardi says. Cardi’s tried to let her rage or sadness motivate her in the booth, she tells me, but her voice just ends up cracking and she can’t hit the melodies. “So I just got a therapist, and I really like her.”

The counselor is just calling to check on her. Cardi relays that she needed a hand with the kids, but that she’s good. She and the therapist are just getting started; back in L.A. she’d told me she wasn’t in therapy, having found it hard to focus during the sessions. “It was just too much going on,” Cardi says when I ask about her change of heart. “And when there’s too much going on, it fucks up my work.” 

THE TENSION CARDI brought with her to Jungle City melts away as she and Brunson play some favorite beats from the album. She’s recorded lyrics to them, but she’s not ready to share those just yet; the track list and song titles are not final either. “Better Than You” reminds me of UGK and OutKast’s “Int’l Players Anthem (I Choose You),” with a pitched-up vocal sample, rich, violin-like synths, and rolling Southern drums. Cardi notes that its sound — courtesy of the producer Vinylz, whom she’s known since her days as a dancer — is brand-new for her.

“I feel like the beat is not a beat you could get rowdy on,” she says. “It’s a real calm beat. And I had two choices, I could do more of an inspirational type of record — ‘I used to grind all my life’ — but then I decided to be like, ‘No, I’m going to shit on you bitches.’ ” 

When they play another beat, this one for a song called “Pick It Up,” Cardi’s face brightens. She hums with her eyes closed, throwing her head back, starbursting her fingers. It’s one of her pop-radio songs, she says, sugary with high-femme twinkles and chimes and keys that are distorted like a fun-house mirror. Cardi rounds out the preview with a sexy drill production from her regular collaborator SwanQo, who produced “Like What (Freestyle),” “Up,” and more. It’s called “Don’t Do Too Much,” and it’s glittery and animated, with a playful whistle as its through line. Cardi says she gets some jokes off on it. “If it was up to me,” she says, “my whole album would sound like drill.” 

In fact, there are a few left-field approaches she’s ruminated on. “You see how Beyoncé is doing a country-album type shit and it’s just she’s doing what she likes?” she asks me. “If it was up to me, I would do songs like ‘Erotica’ because that’s what I like. I like Madonna’s Erotica, ‘Justify My Love.’ If I was on that level that Beyoncé’s at, I would do songs like that.” But for now, Cardi thinks she still needs to do her due diligence in hip-hop more traditionally first.

Cardi is ruthless with producers; most beats tend to bore her. “It’s like, ‘Just come ready,’ ” she says. “Because I’m a really quick person. I give you a description, what I want to hear, what I like, how I sound, what I’ve been listening to lately. Y’all come, y’all play me y’all shit. If I don’t like it, it’s like, ‘Sorry, next time.’ ” 

One who’s really impressed her is fellow Bronxite Cash Cobain, whose star as both a producer and rapper has been rising in the horny, laid-back, sexy drill movement. Both rappers have a penchant for “[saying] things that shouldn’t be said, for real,” he tells me later. In L.A., in March, Cash played Cardi about 30 tracks, many of which she loved. “I was like, ‘Damn, now I got to make a lot of choices because I don’t want my whole album to sound like this,’ ” Cardi says. 

Cash said he could see Cardi’s work ethic before he ever met her, way back when he was 19, hearing her blasting from the city’s hip-hop stations, Hot 97 and Power 105. “All this rapping shit, staying in the right pocket, the voice, and everything being so perfect — that’s hard work,” he says. “And her product is amazing. It’s not just something that she’s just throwing out.”

In the seven years since “Bodak Yellow,” a new crop of artists from New York — from all over — have come of age with Cardi as a North Star. “I know for a fact I’m a staple,” she says finally, after having fretted about making a statement, cementing her place, and besting herself with her next album. “I know for a fact that I [opened] a fucking door. I know for a fact that I [can] rap. I know for a fact I make fucking hits. Sometimes people be trying to belittle me, and it’s like, ‘No, I’m that bitch and y’all fucking know it.’”

She pulls out her phone and beckons me near. “I want you to see this,” she says. “This is not even about bragging.” She opens a text conversation with a manager, pulling up a graphic detailing a performance offer that looked to be for $1.5 million. “That’s for one show,” says Cardi. In the text chain, the manager mentions that he thinks he can get it to $2 million.

She seems to think back to the TikTok that made her cry. “If I was doing things for money,” she says, “I would put out music every month because nothing pays me more than shows. I’m turning down these concerts because I don’t got no new music.”

She’s confident that if she wanted to, she could milk her star power to no end. “But I care about how my music sound,” she says. “I care about my quality. I care about giving something special every single time.”  

Production Credits

Photography direction by EMMA REEVES. Produced by XAVIER HAMEL. Styled by KOLLIN CARTER at THE WALL GROUP. Hair by TOKYO STYLEZ at CHRIS AARON MANAGEMENT. Makeup by ERIKA LA’ PEARL at GKG MANAGEMENT LLC. Manicure by COCA MICHELLE. Tailoring: ROR RODRIGUEZ. Production Assistance by MIA BELLA CHAVEZ AND ELIJAH CHANDLER. Lighting Director: SEBASTIAN JOHNSON. Photographic Assistance: LANCE WILLIAMS. Digital Technician: RENEE DODGE. Styling assistance: JUAN ORTIZ, POSH MCKOY, LOUIS BATTISTELLI. Location: MILK STUDIOS. Post production: PICTUREHOUSE + THE SMALLDARKROOM

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