Cardi B has never lacked clarity. In 2015, as a recent addition to the New York cast of VH1’s reality show Love & Hip Hop, she uploaded a video to Instagram—a sneakily inspiring clip that teemed with vulnerability and candor and Bronx bite. “My manager been having me take media training class for interviews,” she says to the camera in the clip, “and you know what? I be on some ‘fuck that’ shit because I want to talk on the level that people can relate to me.I don’t give a fuck if y’all like me or not. I’m not gonna be fake.”
The rise of the 24-year-old rapper born Belcalis Almanzar in the two years since has proven to be anything but fabricated. After masterminding social media fame into an indelible, if shortlived, reality TV stint, she moved on to a rap career that’s all the more stunning for its nascence: Last week she became the first woman since Lauryn Hill (and only the second in history) to top the Billboard Hot 100 without a guest feature. The song that earned Cardi the crown was “Bodak Yellow (Bloody Moves),” a modern Cinderella tale of brash resolve (part of the song’s structure is modeled after Kodak Black’s “No Flockin’”). Haughty and magnetic, it’s a song preoccupied with its own success, and its climactic placement atop the charts not only fulfills Cardi’s prophesy, but heralds a permanent shift in the calculus of pop power.
In form and function, “Bodak Yellow” is a quintessential New York City summer anthem, mined of the same ore that produced Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga” and Young M.A’s “Ooouuu” in recent years. But NYC summer anthems don’t typically the Billboard Hot 100. “Bodak Yellow” was “slightly more aspirational and accessible” than its predecessors—“perfect for yelling along in a party, on a highway, or in an Instagram caption,” says Rawiya Kameir, deputy editor of The FADER, who has profiled Cardi B twice since 2016. Even more importantly, she says, the song shares an odd quality with successful pop songs: “It’s just familiar enough to catch your ear, but just off-kilter enough to stick there.”
Today, a song like “Bodak Yellow” has a new avenue by which it can attain chart dominance: streaming playlists. “Streaming platforms have democratized chart positioning,” says Carl Chery, head of artist curation for Apple Music. In 2014, Billboard began incorporating data from music streaming services as well as individual track sales, including platforms like Spotify, Google Play, and Apple Music. Chery recognized the fervor in “Bodak Yellow” early on; the week after its June release, he featured it on the A-List: Hip-Hop playlist, which is among the most popular on the service. Song play spiked 124% in that first week and, according to the company, “Bodak Yellow” has remained on its Its run on Spotify is equally impressive: it has racked up 96 million streams to date, weighting the Billboard odds in its favor.
But the overperformance of “Bodak Yellow” isn’t as simple as a regional hit gone mainstream. Like a youthful Cassius Clay going toe-to-toe with the seemingly invincible heavyweight champ Sonny Liston in 1964, Cardi was up against megastar Taylor Swift’s rancorous “Look What You Made Me Do,” a release that carries with it the punch of a built-in massive audience that nearly always guarantees artists like Swift top billing. Still, that was just to get to the top; “Bodak Yellow” managed to maintain its positioning a second week by fending off not just Swift, but another streaming insurgent, Post Malone’s “Rockstar.” Pop ubiquity often comes with rules—and Cardi has done away with many of them altogether.
If Swift’s public persona is one of manufactured constraint and small-town purity, Cardi B has taken the opposite approach: she’s a constant and commanding presence on Instagram (she’ll often upload videos of family life from her Grandmother’s residence in Washington Heights) and speaks with such unvarnished openness that she once confessed how, when traveling out of town, she carries a razor blade between her butt cheeks for protection.
By merely being herself, Cardi B has unknowingly and unintentionally mastered what writer and researcher Nehal El-Hadi termed “a production of presence” —and her counternarrative is profoundly felt among fans.
By merely being herself, she has unknowingly and unintentionally mastered what writer and researcher Nehal El-Hadi termed “a production of presence”—which is “the creation, management, and distribution of content and stories that center the marginalized individual and reflect the being-in-the-world of marginalized groups in deliberately authentic and representative ways.” Not surprisingly, Cardi B’s counternarrative is profoundly felt among fans: Affectionately known as the #BardiGang, they have helped to translate Cardi’s relatability into chart success. The triumph of “Bodak Yellow,” Chery says, was about more than the song alone: “Her rags to riches story is well documented. We’re all rooting for her—she’s the people’s champ.”
The rise and reign of “Bodak Yellow” also signals another reality: that albums are beginning to matter less and less. Consider songs that share a similar trajectory, Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” and Migos’ “Bad and Boujee”—tracks that accrued an incredible amount of viral currency and nearly eclipsed each group’s respective album (both songs peaked at No. 1 on the Hot 100). They weren’t just songs; like “Bodak Yellow,” they were moments. But also consider the state of the music industry. If playlists have heightened our investment in a song-based economy, and a song like “Bodak Yellow” has given new meaning to chart relevance and granted Cardi a place in history, then maybe albums don’t matter anymore. (Even Drake was insistent about labeling More Life a playlist, not an album). There is power in the playlist—which is to say there is power in the song.
Whether or not albums will lose relevance in the years ahead, Chery is unshakable about one fact: as streaming services expand, songs will become hits even faster. He points to Post Malone, whose 21 Savage-assisted “Rockstar”shattered Apple Music’s record for single-week streams by amassing more than 25 million times and debuted at No. 2 on the Hot 100. (On Spotify, the song has amassed 105 million streams since its release.) Coupled with “Bodak Yellow,” its rise confirms an inevitable shift: artist may continue to release albums, and radio may continue to play singles, but for the foreseeable future, streaming performance will largely dictate who governs the top of the charts.