On Cardi B & the Death of Artist Development

"Money moves must be made, whether artists are ready or not. Be careful."
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Cardi B arrived like an asteroid hitting earth last summer, bragging about money moves and bloody shoes, and the crater she’s left on the earth’s surface since then has been massive. 

Not even a year later, Cardi is a fully-fledged star, and while her social media rise and reality TV days were the “NASA sees the asteroid coming” moment of her career, she officially crash-landed into the pop culture world’s consciousness when “Bodak Yellow” became a smash. It was 2017’s most unlikely hit, the chart-topper that knocked Taylor Swift from her perch and the track that earned the former stripper turned social media celebrity, turned reality TV star, turned rap superstar a GRAMMY nomination. 

Now, all that buzz and the slew of hits that followed it have culminated at the moment some were skeptical would ever arrive: Cardi B is releasing her debut album, Invasion of Privacy, this Friday.

The announcement of her album was sudden, and though she had been teasing her full-length debut for months, there was no inkling that it was imminent, especially with pregnancy rumors gaining steam. More than anything, though, Cardi’s abrupt album release is the clearest sign (as though we needed another) that the age-old industry tradition of artist development is now dead, seemingly tossed out the window in lieu of hastily capitalizing on a momentary buzz.

Cardi isn’t patient zero for the recording industry’s proclivity for instant gratification, she’s just the most glaring recent example. She’s a unique case, an artist who just started rapping, but struck multi-Platinum success so quickly and in the era of short attention spans that her circumstances demanded a hectic and hurried approach in order to produce a return on the investment that went into helping her reach and maintain superstar status over the last nine months.

However, by rushing her development, Cardi was robbed of the incubation stage of her career, a time where she could ferment, cut her teeth and hone her skills. Instead, she’s relied on writers, an unkept secret that caused a stir after the release of her third single, “Be Careful.” Up until “Be Careful,” Cardi was a one-note artist. And then, when she tried to exist in another space on that record, her performance was panned by some.

In years and eras past, even the success of a highly-charting hit single wouldn’t stop a record label from allowing its artist the requisite time to fully develop into a complete and nuanced product. 

Take, for example, YG, who, in 2010, found himself with an unexpected hit featuring a then-unknown Ty Dolla $ign with “Toot It and Boot It.” A peek at the video for the track shows a much younger YG with an image that is drastically different from the Compton MC of today. Rather than rush an unfinished product into a light he couldn't handle and onto stages that he wasn't ready for, Def Jam chose instead to let YG bide his time in the mixtape circuit. Three years later, YG delivered his career-turning single “My Nigga,” which ultimately paved the way for the universally lauded My Krazy Life in 2014.

Of course, Cardi may still deliver versatility and the makings of a multifaceted artist that has developed in her short stay in the limelight, but the latest release from the album, “Drip,” signals more of the same, and she even brought along Migos for the regurgitated ride.

On the flip side of YG, there's DeJ Loaf, who scored a hit in 2014 with the Gold-certified “Try Me,” only to undergo a complete sonic and visual overhaul in the three years that followed. While the Detroit native was able to crank out another Platinum hit with the Big Sean-assisted "Back Up," forming a reputation with her unique, soft vocals that have kept her in radio rotation, she has yet to release her debut album. She’s no superstar, though she has forged a successful career in the industry years after “Try Me” peaked, being employed by the likes of Rick Ross, Kid Ink, The Game, and Lil Durk, among others, when a womanly sensibility is needed to complete a record.

Still, compared to “Bodak Yellow,” or even Cardi's guest assist on “No Limit” with G-Eazy and A$AP Rocky, YG and DeJ’s hits were modest successes. Cardi’s closest comparison is probably Desiigner or Fetty Wap, who both experienced massive success in their breakout years. Desiigner, out of nowhere, scored a chart-topper with “Panda,” and Fetty charted not one but three huge singles during his massive run in 2014-2015. Fetty parlayed his trio of hits into a Platinum-certified, No. 1 album and the Drake seal of approval, while all Desiigner could squeeze out of his smash was a mediocre, mostly ignored mixtape. While both have managed to put themselves in position to earn life-altering income, both Desiigner's inability to outgrow his own song or Kanye’s co-sign, and Fetty's lack of development past the peak of “Trap Queen,” equate to an uncertain future in music.

What separates Cardi from all of the cautionary tales that have preceded her is an unparalleled and sustained chart dominance during her nearly 12-month run; more a combination of Fetty and Desiigner’s success than a true descendant of either. While some of this success is due to Billboard's new charting quirks that heavily emphasize on-demand streaming and YouTube views, it’s also a testament to her ability to continuously strike a chord with her ever-burgeoning fanbase and remain a constant and welcomed presence in the pop culture sphere.

Cardi, while still a raw live performer, has always had a natural presence on stage. As someone who knows how to work a room, she doesn't feel out of place or in over her head. Even when the mainstream media finally latched on, and her presence began to reek of exploitation and fetishism, she remained in control of her narrative, making sure audiences were laughing with her, and not at her.

Maybe Cardi’s run will set precedence. Maybe she's the rare artist who doesn’t need the requisite time to develop into a fully realized product because she arrived close to ready-made. Commercially, thanks to the success of pre-release singles "Bodak Yellow" and "Bartier Cardi," Invasion of Privacy is guaranteed to be an RIAA-certified success. But be forewarned, commercial success cannot and will not make up for a formulaic, manufactured sound.

A long run in the music industry, specifically, for rap artists, takes business savvy, malleability, and, most importantly, talent. Only time will tell if Cardi was given enough time to develop all of those qualities before she decided (or was forced) to allow the world to invade her privacy with her debut album. If she wasn’t, history says her label will merely look to cash in on their next surprise hitmaker even faster. 

Money moves must be made, whether artists are ready or not. Be careful.

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