Cardi B, SZA & the Other Side of the Ex-Girlfriend Narrative

The battles SZA goes through on “The Weekend” and “Anything” are won by the end of 'Invasion of Privacy.'
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No woman becomes bitter overnight, and certainly, none are born paranoid or jealous.

Everyone’s unique character aside, these are predominately learned behaviors in response to being hurt without getting proper closure or effectively working through insecurity. More commonly, though, in hip-hop, these feelings are presented through the microwaved trope of “crazy ex-girlfriends” or “side chicks.” We see them as the clingy women who act seemingly out of turn, portrayed as too demanding, invasive, and not worth the trouble.

But what about music that presents us with the source of the trouble, music that gives a validating voice to the trouble? Enter Cardi B and SZA.

While not the first and hopefully far from the last, these women are presenting the other side of the ex-girlfriend narrative in hip-hop. Be it through the discussion of the impact of cheating on future relationships all over Cardi B’s excellent debut, Invasion of Privacy, or the confrontation of general mistreatment, heartache, and devaluation that drives much of SZA’s GRAMMY-nominated 2017 debut, Ctrl, we are getting a complete picture of women’s emotions in the current hip-hop mainstream.

More importantly, in getting vulnerable and showcasing the roots of these issues and demonized behaviors, both Cardi and SZA are creating a space for their fans to identify with their music in a way that combats the stigma of women as monolithic. From that comes the de-stigmatization of the “crazy ex” and “hurt woman” trope, presenting an opportunity for fans of both artists to feel empowered and ready to work through their own insecurities without feeling guilty for simply feeling.

With Cardi B’s debut album, the subversion and progression begin with the title. Prior to the album’s release, Cardi B made clear that the life of a scrutinized celebrity wasn’t for her. Pair that with the majority of coverage leading up to her album drop centering around everything but her music, and it was easy to assume that Invasion of Privacy was a title meant to bemoan her newfound fame. But Cardi did us one better.

Affirmed on the penultimate track, “Thru Your Phone,” wherein Cardi B raps, “I don't wanna hear 'bout invasion of privacy,” her debut is more concerned with exploring the cause of her anxieties in relationships than in exposing the negative consequences of Twitter. On “Thru Your Phone,” Cardi does exactly that: rifles through her partner’s texts to uncover his lying to her. Isolated, this scene is far from unique to hip-hop and music in general. But considering its place on the tracklist, following the tepid ballad “Be Careful,” we see that her aim was to paint a much fuller picture. She is not merely giving us an example of an invasion of privacy, she is asking and demonstrating how we get to this point in a relationship.

Cardi B's every action on this album is as advertised. She warned us, warned her man, and in part warned herself on the hook of “Be Careful”: 

“The only man, baby, I adore / I gave you everything, what's mine is yours / I want you to live your life of course / But I hope you get what you dyin' for / Be careful with me, do you know what you doin'?”

These tender and thin notes are sung with a bit of measure because Cardi B is self-aware. She’s not interested in being a controlling monster, as so many men portray their exes to be in their music. As the track progresses and we get a slew of heartbreaking bars about Cardi B looking at herself differently as a result of infidelity, we realize that she just wants some trust, stability, and equity in her relationships—nothing out of the ordinary.

When you go from feeling on top of the world with your partner to being cheated on, to placing the blame on yourself, the actions on “Thru The Phone” are far easier to understand. That middle step she raps about, that doubt and insecurity that is missing from so many male artists’ versions of this scene, that is what makes “Be Careful” so influential and tactfully placed.

Cardi B’s heart has a fragile label on it, and when things shatter, they get understandably messy. In tandem, SZA opens Ctrl with her fragile label already disregarded offscreen. “I'm writing this letter to let you know / I'm really leaving, and no, I'm not keeping your shit” SZA begins before launching into the details of her retaliation. SZA hooks us with her reaction, but she can explain. Her ex-boyfriend did her wrong, and much like Cardi lays out with her album sequencing, SZA structures “Supermodel” along two parallel timelines. On the song's verses, she is lashing out, but on the hook, she is baring her soul and giving us the full story.

SZA gives listeners both the “why” and “how” hip-hop dangerously lacks in one succinct package, and Ctrl itself plays out as if it is in dialog with Invasion of Privacy. The stunning despondence on “Broken Clocks” sounds like a footnote to Cardi’s “Ring.” SZA’s insecurities trap her in a time warp while Cardi B is so caught up in games and appearances, the basics of communication are lost altogether. SZA sets the mood, and Cardi B sets the scene. And everything is honest to the bone.

While Cardi B briefly glances in the mirror on “Be Careful,” SZA dedicates all of “Normal Girl” to the ordeal of being just shy of impossible-to-reach external standards. Cardi never explores what it is she doesn’t have “enough” of for her man, but SZA takes “Normal Girl” as an opportunity to rattle off everything she may be missing, everything keeping from being the “the type of girl you take home to your mama. Of these lacking qualities, she cites being ladylike, also mentioned on “Drew Barrymore,” but the trait is never defined. As if to say, “How does one even define a lady?” and leading listeners to realize the absurdity on their own.

The power of these dark moments comes with some distance. Always, from the outside looking in, it is easy to uncover the inconsistent and ridiculous. That is, listeners who may relate to Cardi B and SZA have enough distance from the artists’ stories to say, “No, this is not your fault.” Out from that realization comes the fans’ own healing.

In keeping with adding nuance and realistic portrayals to the hip-hop landscape, neither one of these women thoughtlessly vacillates between ache and rage. Both Cardi B and SZA are painting in careful shades. All of their work culminates in the women coming together on Cardi’s album closer, “I Do.” Here, both Cardi B and SZA seal away the narrative of the hurt ex-girlfriend and begin a new story of female empowerment.

Where SZA wishes herself luck on her debut closer, “20 Something,” here her trappy and biting vocals prove that her ship has certainly come in. “I left a n***a on read 'cause I felt like it / Dress me down in that Raf, Saint Laurent jacket / Dapper, dapper, I look fine and my checks divine / No wonder, wonder why I do whatever I like,” she beams, no longer counting up her imagined flaws.

The woman SZA represents exists within hip-hop in an infantile capacity: the woman that dare get over her former love a la Drake’s “Hotline Bling.” Where “Hotline Bling” finds that woman incredulous, “I Do” is an appropriate celebration. Cardi’s verses are understandably braggadocious (“My little 15 minutes lasting long as hell, huh?” and “Pussy so good, I say my own name during sex”), but better yet, they’re earned.

Invasion of Privacy gives us the 360 view of women who become distrustful in relationships, but it doesn’t trap women in that space, either. The battles SZA goes through on “The Weekend” and “Anything” are won by the end of Invasion of Privacy. With the two albums funneling into one another, we are left with the truth that women are emotionally multi-faceted. 

On Invasion of Privacy and Ctrl, there is hurt and there is growth, but best of all, there is the message sent to young women that their feelings aren’t random, they’re valid and able to be overcome.

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