With Cardi B’s debut doing incredible first-week numbers and scoring rave reviews from critics, her dominance is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. In a similar vein as her contemporary CupcakKe, though, Cardi is also facing a variety of contrarian opinions, the most concerning of which is the qualifier that her sexuality lessens the quality of her music; that she's too sexual to make “good” music, or, the more toxic phrasing, “real hip-hop.”
While none of us, no matter how professional, can escape bias, in the era of hot takes and Twitter virality, it’s easy to feel as if the line between casual fan and heralded critic is porous and easy to phase through. That said, it appears as if fans and reviewers are both struggling to understand how sexuality is not an implicit measure of quality. Worse off, these shabby critiques ignore the damaging history underpinning that line of thought, namely America’s history of extorting and policing Black women’s bodies.
To avoid playing into and perpetuating those insidious ideas, we have to interrogate and break down the bias in our critiques and gut reactions. Cardi B’s sexuality is the veneer we have to peel back to properly write about and discuss her music. Yes, “Cardi put the pussy on Offset,” but “Bartier Cardi” sounds like the soundtrack to a jewel heist. Her writing is infectious while skirting away from being trite, and her delivery packs an attractive, smug quality. Cardi B is on top the of the world on “Bartier Cardi.” As hip-hop fans, don’t we love it when an artist bosses up?
Similarly, CupcakKe’s “Crayons,” off her 2018 album, Euphorize, is a sexually open, queer romp. Lines like “Get the dildo and Michael Jackson—Beat It” and “Gay guy brave takin' anal” are too easy to dismiss as vulgar. Delivering a sexually empowering LGBTQ+ anthem, especially in the context of hip-hop, is as subversive and revolutionary as it gets. On top of that, CupcakKe annihilates this track. She spits with a nasty affect, gnawing through the beat while working towards a greater social good. Is this not the very foundation of hip-hop?
If Cardi B’s flow is offbeat, or if CupcakKe’s song structure is flat, or if the rhymes are wack, those are all worthy points to raise, but they remain independent of each woman’s content. To argue otherwise would be painfully circular and reductive.
The logical end of this “She is too this or that” reasoning is dangerous, not just to hip-hop, but to art and creativity on the whole. As easily as one can say, “Cardi B is too sexual,” another can say, “Well, rap is a bunch of curse words,” and another can add, “Arca is a lot of clicking.” These statements devalue the artwork and assume that unless something is directly in service of your tastes and perspectives, it carries little merit.
Another easy parallel is, of course, experimental trio Death Grips. When someone asserts that Death Grips make poor music, are they actually implying that they don’t enjoy noise as a genre? We don’t know, but the distinction is important because it determines if a statement is a show of personal taste or a weighty critique. We are shaped by our bias, but it’s a detriment to ourselves and to artists when unchecked bias directly shapes our commentary on a piece of music.
If someone is put off by Cardi and CupcakKe discussing their sexcapades, then we have to assume they harbor the same distaste for Drake and J. Cole. If so, then the critique is merely a matter of taste. If Cole and Drizzy get a pass on this front, then the argument of “She’s too sexual” is no argument at all, but rather a red flag. Consider instead why one sexuality makes you more uncomfortable than another. Perhaps you struggle to relate, perhaps you struggle to accept women as sexual, perhaps you’re insecure, or something else entirely. Regardless, the onus rests on the shoulders of listeners and cannot be used to discredit the music.
Of course, the inverse situation is equally problematic. In the “battle” to preserve the sanctity of hip-hop, a more lyrical MC like Rapsody it pitted against Cardi B, with Rapsody being heralded as an example of the “proper” (read as: asexual) woman in hip-hop. The active un-sexing of Rapsody that takes place in this narrative is rooted in the same insidious history mentioned earlier and reveals that the people using Rapsody as a prop have never listened to her music.
Laila’s Wisdom is a tender and honest affair, wherein Rapsody spends the back half of the record exploring her sexual confidence and actively pursuing men. This includes “Sassy,” a record that makes suggesting Rapsody is asexual and therefore valuable not only absurd but also flat-out wrong. Transposing that critique onto Cardi B and CupcakKe, to suggest both women are too sexual to be valued is just as absurd and ignores the broader themes and impact of their music.
It is infinitely nobler to admit something is not for you and then consider why you’re having said reaction, than it is to slap a “This sucks” sticker on every song from a perspective you don’t immediately understand. Everyone is entitled to their tastes, and some things do suck—Have you heard Lil Xan's debut?—but critique demands and deserves a higher level of nuance and self-awareness. Besides, tastes have a funny way of changing when you give yourself the room to explore and challenge them.
Music, much like life, is best enjoyed outside of your comfort zone.