For the past 15 or so years, countless rappers—Fabolous, Lloyd Banks, Joell Ortiz, French Montana, Maino, even Diddy—have released songs about “bringing New York back.” While the very idea of any one single artist or act returning the birthplace of hip-hop to its original glory is meaningless and cliché, it finally happened earlier this year—New York once again had the hottest, brightest, biggest superstar in rap following the release of Cardi B's debut album, Invasion of Privacy.
Cardi is well-aware of her stature. On her recent guest turn on Lil Yachty's new single, "Who Want the Smoke?" the 25-year-old raps:
"The fur on my shoulder mink / Tell me what Hov would think / I get money, I am the king of New York / And I rock a sew-in weave."
Cardi, of course, is entitled to her own opinion, an opinion that is especially hard to deny after the Bronx native recently became the first female rap artist ever to earn two Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 singles. But, as is always the case when somebody not named Biggie Smalls lays claim to the NY rap throne, many took offense. The most vocal detractor was veteran New York mouthpiece Funkmaster Flex, who tweeted: “A below average rapper that doesn’t write could never be King or Queen of NY!”
Did Dr. Dre, who has used writers his entire career, not craft multiple albums that were huge, pivotal moments in rap history? Would you claim Eazy-E is not an unassailable LA icon? Could you even argue for any rapper other than Drake being Toronto’s biggest star? Whether or not Cardi B wrote every syllable on her debut album barely factors into this discussion.
What makes one qualified to be considered the King of New York should hinge on three factors: star power, body of work, and sheer New Yorkness. Cardi B ticks all these boxes.
Let's make the case for Cardi as KONY.
Not only is Cardi B the first female rap artist in history to have two No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, she also holds the record for the most simultaneous entries on the chart (a whopping 13) by any female artist ever. But it’s not just chart success that makes Cardi’s star shine bright. When NBC saw late night host Jimmy Fallon’s ratings begin to slump, they called Cardi to save the day. Before Cardi, a woman had never hosted or co-hosted The Tonight Show; after, Cardi has the media eating out of the palm of her hand like she shits solid gold.
Cardi's personality is so big and so infectious, she also dominates the conversation whenever she guest stars on a record. “The trap Selena” easily has the most memorable verse on Migos’ Gold-certified single “MotorSport,” and her appearance on Bruno Mars' 2x Platinum "Finesse" helped the single rise to No. 3 on the Hot 100. This is not necessarily out of technical superiority, though she certainly doesn’t lack skills when it comes to finding the pocket on any given beat, but rather the as-unique-as-it-is-huge amount of swagger she brings to a track.
That same skill set is what has allowed Cardi to borrow flows made famous by other rappers, completely overshadowing them in the process. Sure, Kodak Black birthed the flow Cardi employs on her summertime smash single "Bodak Yellow"—the title directly references as much—but after landing at No. 1 on the charts and becoming 6x Platinum-certified, Kodak's influence has been relegated to a mere footnote. Cardi B shines so brightly, she’s practically impossible to outshine on any level. Regardless of whether you like her music or not, there’s simply no debating that she is a superstar.
Body of Work
Though we live in the streaming era, the most important metric by which we judge any recording artist remains the album. It may not necessarily be the most profitable route, but in an artistic sense, it remains the ultimate litmus test.
After Cardi caught the eye of the entire world following the juggernaut that was “Bodak Yellow,” she was silently tasked with creating an album stuffed with equally imposing bangers, alternating them with enough introspection as to not be pegged as a one-trick pony, and sequencing it in a manner that would make the project flow as a whole, with—at the very least—one record as big or bigger than her monster hit.
Oh, and she had to deliver the entire thing before rap’s fickle audience would invariably move on to the next hot name with a big single. No pressure.
It’s no small feat that Invasion of Privacy actually delivered on all counts. And it’s an album that couldn’t belong to anybody but her. Cardi B’s vocal inflections, hugely confident flow, quirky ad-libs, and strident delivery are integral to the success of the album. Just try to imagine any single line on the album delivered by somebody else, and it becomes a different beast entirely.
This is no small thing. Next to having a wholly unique flow, infusing a rap performance with a singular sense of personality is arguably the biggest part of being a great rapper. Sure, writing memorable and impactful verses is an important part of a rapper’s skill set, especially if you want to be within sniffing distance of the GOAT discussion, but it’s certainly not the primary one.
Evidence said it best on Dilated Peoples' “Guaranteed”: “Emcees without a voice should write a book.”
Sheer New Yorkness
So we have an undeniable star, with a unique voice, personality, and dope flow, and a debut album that encapsulates all of that. While that's all fine, what clinches Cardi's position as the current King of New York is the fact that not a single syllable from her mouth sounds like it could come from anywhere else from her city. “I'm from the motherfuckin' Bronx,” she snarls on "Bartier Cardi," as if there could ever be any other borough that bread the brashness of that delivery.
Besides, who’s the competition? Kendrick’s claim to the throne on “Control” was highly effective as an over-the-top boast, precisely because nobody was going to grant him that honor as a modern Los Angeles icon. A$AP Rocky is a huge international star—though, he's never been as popular as Cardi is currently—but his sound and flow are more indebted to the South than Harlem. Joey Bada$$ could easily be seen as a present-day descendant of NYC’s rich rap tradition, but he’s nowhere near Cardi B’s level of ubiquity or success—yet. And neither is 6ix9ine, who has crafted a couple big hits but is still practically unknown by most people who are old enough to drink. Just for fun, imagine 6ix9ine hosting The Tonight Show.
The old guard offers little competition as well: JAY-Z is off counting money in the Louvre after his Texan wife outshined him on their joint album, Nas made the world wait six years for a decent but ultimately underwhelming and forgettable Kanye West-produced album, and no one member in Wu-Tang Clan has ever been bigger than the group is as a whole.
Which brings us back to King Cardi.
Even her rags-to-riches story is a modern distillation of the American Dream, and what could be more quintessentially New York than that? “Got a bag and fixed my teeth / Hope you hoes know it ain’t cheap” is the call of a modern Binderella story set between skyscrapers. But above all, it’s that unique combination of unapologetic in-your-face attitude and charisma, coupled with her easily recognizable accent, that leaves no room for doubt whatsoever: Cardi B is a Nuyorican through and through.
Cardi B is the current King of New York. If you want to dispute her claim to the throne, go ahead. But remember the wise words of Omar in The Wire: “You come at the king, you best not miss.”