American life asks us to pick a lane and stay put, but like Walt Whitman before her, Cardi B contains multitudes to spare. “Is she a stripper, a rapper, a singer?’” the 25-year-old asks on her new album, mocking anyone still baffled by how an enterprising young loudmouth from the Bronx could graduate from the strip club to a reality television series, to acquiring a bazillion Instagram followers, to rapping the dizziest song of 2017.
Here’s the important part: While she was playing this incredible game of platform leapfrog, Cardi became one of the greatest talkers of our time. Now, everything she says is music.
Same goes for the rest of us. In his 1998 book “The Sounds of Poetry,” scholar Robert Pinsky argues that we need to read poetry out loud to really get it, and in making that claim, he reminds us that our everyday speech is overflowing with hyper-nuanced musicality. Think about how when you hear someone’s voice rising in pitch, you know you’re being asked a question before they reach the question mark. “Every speaker, intuitively and accurately, courses gracefully through immensely subtle manipulations of sound,” Pinsky writes. “It is almost as if we sing to one another all day.”
So that makes the demarcation lines in Cardi’s stripper-rapper-singer question — which she asks during an aptly oozing song called “Drip” — important. Like every rapper who ever clutched a microphone, Cardi is transmuting speech into music. But the fact that we were initially introduced to her on VH1’s “Love & Hip-Hop: New York” has significantly changed the way we’ve absorbed her words ever since. We knew Cardi as a blabbermouth first and foremost — so hearing her rap gives us a rare opportunity to rediscover all of the melody, rhythm and timbre embedded in our talk.
All across this new album, “Invasion of Privacy,” Cardi proves herself a connoisseur of talk. Trash talk, sweet talk, tough talk, pillow talk, dirty talk, crazy talk, big talk, small talk and more. And then there’s the sound of it — blunt, and husky, and only ever as precise as it needs to be. She tends to let her vowels run as hot as the emotional moment demands, sometimes smearing the edges of her words as if she’s buttering the beat.
More than anything, this allows her to say outrageous things outrageously. Listen to her bounce her consonants and heave her vowels when she asserts that the “only thing fake is the boobs.” Listen to her brag in hissing staccato: “I say my own name during sex.” Listen to her sneer-snarl about upgrading her smile on “Bodak Yellow,” Cardi’s planet-eating single from last summer: “Got a bag and fixed my teeth.”
She seems to be telling one long story here — about self-empowerment, beating the odds, transcendence — but the force of Cardi’s narrative resides in the sound of her voice as much as it does in her words. You can hear it during the album’s grand finale, “I Do,” when she asks, “My little 15 minutes lasted long as hell, huh?” What a victory speech. Close your eyes and you might feel the confetti falling on your shoulders, too.
Obviously, singing along is more than just cheering her on. Rap music has always invited the listener to step inside the song, to make the narrator’s larger-than-life triumphs feel parallel to whatever tiny personal victory we’re chasing in our heads. But listen to that line again and you’ll hear why Cardi is the pop star. The way she releases those “little 15 minutes” into the air, the way she gusts through that “huh.” The lyric belongs entirely to her. We all make mouth music, but we couldn’t have said it better ourselves.