Cardi B is either on the verge of delivering her bundle of joy or in the breathless moments leading up to it, preparing to bring into the world a pygmy version of herself, free of rank or understanding. Someday, when her child is old enough to understand, Cardi will have to sit her down and explain to her the lucrative world that the now-26-year-old rapper inhabits; how she came from humble beginnings to luxe surroundings, and how she became rap’s treasured entity in the mid-to-late 2010s. Their discussion, at some point, will come back to this recent cause célèbre of whether Cardi truly is the “King Of New York” as she declares on Lil Yachty and Offset’s recent release “Who Want The Smoke?” When it does, Cardi won’t be lying when she reiterates, as she did on “Who Want The Smoke,” that she truly is. She’ll just have to explain it duly.
Cardi’s claim comes dark and early in the track’s three-minute stretch. Tay Keith’s embrace-the-night production, along with an equally foreboding chorus from Lil Yachty and Blocboy JB, creates an uneasy feeling already before Cardi stomps in the door with an intense, lyrically-spinning verse that warms itself up before delivering the scorching hot take: “I get the money, I am the king of New York / And I rock a sew-in weave.” The confidence is astounding, nary a rhyme in sight. But you feel the conviction, and the naughty smile with the tongue stashed out to the side that surely accompanies the following “woo, woo, woo, woo!” She ends the verse with a double chant of “They don’t want none” and it sounds absolutely commanding and fierce. Her first deal of business, after forcefully obtaining the crown, is to scare her subjects. Bravo.
Of course, with the title of “King” comes baggage. The kind that only the merciless dare bear with smiles on their faces. Kings rule. That much is simple. Whether it’s a playground or fiefdom , the monarch presides over the governing body and dictates the narrative over what he watches over. The very nature of the term implies male meaning, with literally every king in history having, well, a penis. Some were shittier than others, but all retained the honorable title throughout the blood-soaked pages of Eastern history.
America, hip-hop’s central station, is ruled by the republic. But that doesn’t prevent rap from finding a ruling figure to claim as its’ best. This “King” ruled either the booth, or the streets, and, often times, both. T.I.’s been pedaling his claim to the South’s throne since 2006. Compton’s premiere lyricist Kendrick Lamar goes by “King Kendrick” when he’s feeling jovial on wax. These are but only two examples. The constantly changing rap game makes it impossible to pinpoint one leader at any time, but to find someone capable of headlining the conversation, for just a fleeting moment, comes by being able to converge the pathways of eminence, puissance, and prestige. Cardi succeeds at all three.
Allow me to obnoxiously say that, in all of my two decades of rap knowledge—I know it stretches back way longer than that—it seems that no one in rap history has completely, and utterly, seized control of the duchy. The Love and Hip Hop: New York alumni took her budding rap career to the next level with “Bodak Yellow” which captured the Bronx’s grittiness with stellar flare. She became a star instantaneously, netting the featured tab of every publication in the blink of an eye and gaining enough celebrity cosigns to make it appear that anyone that mattered stood behind her. Follow-up singles for debut album Invasion of Privacy—the dainty, triplet-heavy “Bartier Cardi” (peaked at 14 on the Billboard Hot 100) and the raw, susceptible “Be Careful” (peaked at 11)—commanded near equal presence as “Bodak Yellow” did before them, further strengthening her iron hold. Her international hit “I Like It” currently commands a lead on the charts, making her the first female rapper to ever have two Billboard Hot 100 number ones. (Last year, she became the first solo female rapper to even top the singles chart.)
Being that hip-hop started in the back alleyways and clubs of New York, claiming royal status over the city implies dominance over rap itself. For decades, we’ve seen countless New York artists claim it at one point in time, usually because of their influence, but also because of perceived lyrical domination. Notorious B.I.G.’s infamous blood-red, deadpan picture, with a precariously perched crown belied him King of the domain back in the late 90s. 50 Cent ran with the title in the early aughts, releasing a mixtape of the same name in 2007. Kendrick Lamar, from the West Coast, but still flexing some serious moxie, claimed the title in his controversial verse on Big Sean’s “Control”: “I’m Makaveli’s offspring, I’m the King of New York / King of the Coast; one hand, I juggle ’em both.” Between these three iconoclasts, countless others have claimed to rule over the city; nearly all of them men.
Cardi’s claim, of course, upset people for different reasons. In the male-driven machine that is rap, a woman claiming to run its capital would hit some where it hurts. Instead of the generic, classic figure that consists of a hulking mass of baggy jeans, an emblazoned goatee, and wearing Timberland boots rapping about the whirlwind of problematic injustices, misogynistic shtick, and the peddling of drugs that we’ve become accustomed to, Cardi wears figure-fitting dresses, outlandishly designed heels, and alters between picturesque sexual conquests and graphic depictions of her former violent reality. For her to command the conversation, that must mean that the collective ethos of the status quo is changing. If hip-hop will evolve, it must.
The release of “Be Careful,” although ultimately successful, was plagued by a series of misfortunate events. First, the cheating. Her husband Offset was allegedly caught red-handed with another woman, sending her into a spiraling anxiety-filled existence, evident by her livid Instagram posts. When she released the track, an already personal cut was given a direction, name, and purpose. Then, hawk-eyed listeners picked up on the similarities between the track and one posted by a collaborator of hers nearly a year before, causing her to clear up the situation on Power 105’s The Breakfast Club. In both real life, and in her early dominance of rap, she’d exposed her weakness. Love had sapped her of her governing strength while the reveal of her lyrical assistance from someone else weakened her worth to some who felt, for some reason, that rap is the only genre in the world that should be free of collaboration.
But, for the purposes of Cardi’s definition of King, her problematic life situations hold no bearings. The backlash that she’s been receiving since “Who Want The Smoke?” released caused her to respond on Instagram in disbelief. “Why y’all so mad about that?” she inquired. “Did I say I was the best rapper from New York? No. Does this shit gotta do with rapping? No. I know street niggas and street bitches that feel like they the king and queen of New York. Why can’t I feel like I’m a king of New York? Every single time I go to my city, people cheer me on, people show me so much love, people show me so much support and it has nothing to do with this rapping.” She later budged a bit and rechristened herself as “Emperor.”
If we’re basing Kingship on accolades and influence, Cardi holds a leg up to many of her contemporaries. She’s been nominated for forty different trophies; of those, she’s won an astounding fifteen. She’s been Best New Artist on more than one occasion; her collaborative skills on “Finesse (Remix)” with Bruno Mars and “Bartier Cardi” with 21 Savage have won her multiple trophies; she’s even won some international accolades with Jennifer Lopez and DJ Khaled for “Dinero” and surely will with “I Like It.” Her transformation from dancer to media maven placed her on Time’s 100 list this year, and in terms of style, Billboard named her as one of the most influential tastemakers today.
While philanthropy runs tandem with success in hip-hop, it’s not what Cardi donates that makes her standout, it’s how. She shied away from causing a huge media firestorm by announcing her $8,000 donation to the family of Lesandro “Junior” Guzman Feliz, murdered on June 20 in a case of mistaken identity, and instead donated the money through the family’s GoFundMe campaign. Historically lurid and obnoxious in the past, she’s been working on a path towards change that feels much more kosher than the starts that magically reform overnight that often rise up. The fact that she seldom deletes anything, posts on Instagram with a bare face, and keeps the public informed of her true self away from cameras, enables the public to watch her grow in real time. Like we’re peeking into her castle and monitoring her transformation from inexperienced ruler into battle-hardened monarch.
All of these disparate elements combine to paint a picture of a woman that New York stands behind, much more so than 6ix9ine, the most recent self-proclaimed King of New York who, aside from 50 Cent’s halfway-jokey cosign, receives much more slander than he does praise. Where he trolls to elicit a response, Cardi does the exact opposite and gets more reactions. Much of the former “Kings” of New York have either retired or moved on from their belief without naming a successor. The two other ladies of rap from the same area, Nicki Minaj and Remy Ma, are focused on being Queens of the culture. In a way, this goes with Cardi’s all-encompassing, non-confrontational manner : they can rule as Queens, she’ll reside as King.
In terms of just how many people stand behind her in the industry —Beyoncé, JAY-Z, Diddy, this list stretches on for miles — there’s no reason not to believe that she’s been unconsciously crowned as both the city, and the genre’s, ruler and/or heir-apparent. Her marriage to Offset further legitimized her rule through marriage, with the birth of her daughter enabling her to take a step away and revel in her accomplishments. The release of “Who Want The Smoke?” punctuated her silence, with a video of her rapping the song, while clad in a gigantic dress that resembled a luxurious cloak, in the midst of an extravagant mansion that looked as close to a modern-day throne room as I’ve ever saw. If she says that she’s the King of New York, she’s the damn King. And what the King says, goes.
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